Review – Fashion of Archaeology

5 mins read

The clothes worn by archaeologists on site provide a vivid record not only of how the discipline has evolved over time, but of the personal experiences of people working in this field. An exhibition currently running at National Trust Sutton Hoo documents some of these sartorial snapshots. Carly Hilts went along to find out more.

Photos from from the 1930s excavations
Even if you did not know that the original Sutton Hoo excavation was in the late 1930s, you could guess from the clothing of its participants. Two photographs from the dig frame an image of Basil Brown’s sand goggles – reflecting both fashions of the time and how archaeologists have always needed protective equipment. [Image: C Hilts / National Trust / Robin Pattinson]

When you look at photographs of the 1939 Sutton Hoo excavation, it is not only the key protagonists who are immediately recognisable – from Basil Brown with his flat cap and pipe to Peggy Piggott in her boiler suit – but the historical period in which the dig took place. Snapshots of fieldwork from later decades also preserve unmistakeable images of particular moments in time – you cannot fail to recognise a dig from the 1960s, 1970s, or 1980s, just by looking at the participants’ hairstyles and clothing (or, sometimes, lack thereof).

An exhibition currently running at National Trust Sutton Hoo, Fashion of Archaeology, explores some of these changing trends and the insights they give. Located in the Treasury, the temporary exhibition space of the site’s recently transformed Exhibition Hall (see CA 355), the displays (supported and funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund) include a mixture of photographs, clothing, and objects loaned by people from across the archaeological community: it is a material history of the archaeologists themselves, and of the practice of archaeology itself. One corner is dedicated to the 1930s investigations that first made Sutton Hoo a household name, but the majority of the exhibition focuses on living archaeologists – lively and often humorous captions written by the lenders of each item describe its significance to them and reflect on their experiences in the field.

Many of the garments represent relics of cultural phenomena as well as the personalities of their owners; among them we find a photograph of Barbara and Peter Rooley at Sutton Hoo in the summer of 1967 (they met on site and married four years later), both wearing Beatles Yellow Submarine T-shirts. A denim jacket worn on digs in the late 1970s also immediately captures the era in which it was used. Its owner is Angus Wainwright, today Archaeologist for the National Trust East of England Region – but as a student digger he had particular priorities when it came to dress-sense. ‘Clothes-wise it was important that what you wore should be: A. second-hand, B. dirty, and C. eccentric – a sure sign that you had achieved the right effect was to be thrown out of a pub in St Albans for frightening the regulars with your trouser selection,’ his caption reads. There is also a T-shirt from the 1981 Saxon Denim and Leather tour, lent by the National Trust’s Head of Archaeology Ian Barnes. ‘This shirt and other tour shirts were never off my back on site in the ’80s – they were status symbols’, he recalls – adding that he loaned this particular shirt to the exhibition as the ‘Saxon’ branding seemed most suitable for Sutton Hoo.

The displays combine photographs and garments reflecting decades of excavations – including this unmistakeably 1980s T-shirt featuring the heavy-metal band Saxon.
[Image: C Hilts / National Trust / Robin Pattinson]


As well as these more casual clothes, the exhibition also features hard-wearing kit reflecting the different environments that archaeologists work in. Fleur Sherman and Man-Yee Liu are pictured during the excavation of the ‘warrior horseman’ burial at Sutton Hoo in 1991; they are shown wearing respirator masks, rubber gloves, and protective overalls to guard them from irritation and respiratory hazards – but the fragile remains needed protecting too, and consequently no shoes were allowed in the trench. Despite the November chill, the pair are shown working with just thick woollen socks on their feet. Moving from the sandy soil of Suffolk to the chalklands of Wiltshire, Jim Leary has donated a pair of heavy-duty blue craftsman trousers that he wore while directing investigations inside the great Neolithic mound of Silbury Hill (see CA 293); they were used by every member of the project team, whether archaeologist, miner, or engineer.

In any exhibition about archaeological clothing you cannot avoid PPE (Personal Protective Equipment), and in these displays a full suite of neon orange gear, hard hat, and boots, have been loaned by Cotswold Archaeology Suffolk. Further insights from the world of commercial archaeology come via a photograph of MOLA’s excavation at Liverpool Street station in London as part of the Crossrail Programme. Investigating part of a burial ground associated with the notorious ‘Bedlam’ hospital (see CA 302 and 313), Alison Telfer is shown dressed in colourful flame-retardant overalls which, she notes, were ‘no joke in hot weather’. Complimenting these official items we find images of a range of more informal protective kit used by diggers to make themselves more comfortable in their environment, and to ward off ‘archaeologist tan lines’ or sunstroke: sunhats, mirrored shades, neck-cloths, and a photograph of the goggles that Basil Brown wore when riding his bike or excavating sandy and windy sites like West Stow.

Images in the exhibition show projects in the UK and abroad, and depict archaeologists in a wide range of roles – and clothing. A replica of the late Mick Aston’s celebrated rainbow stripey jumper lies below these photographs. [Image: C Hilts / National Trust / Robin Pattinson]


It is not only fieldwork that features in the exhibition: scientific research is showcased in a photograph of members of York University’s DNA lab team (dressed in full-body protective suits and face masks to prevent any of their own DNA contaminating samples). Modern ‘media archaeology’, and the increased public appetite for sharing stories about the past are reflected too: former Time Team presenter Helen Geake has shared the black fleece, branded with the popular TV show’s logo, that she wore during filming, while Sutton Hoo’s site volunteers have created a loving tribute to the rainbow jumper famously worn by the late Mick Aston.

This case combines the orange vest of a National Trust volunteer with the black fleece worn by Helen Geake during appearances on Time Team to represent public archaeology. [Image: C Hilts / National Trust / Robin Pattinson]

Many of the items represent different aspects of professional archaeology, but the stories of amateur participants are not neglected. A high-vis vest of the type worn by National Trust volunteers who carry out geophysical surveys at Sutton Hoo is used to advertise opportunities to take part in future investigations (for more information, see sutton-hoo/features/geophysics-at-sutton-hoo), while the displays also include a T-shirt worn during Operation Nightingale’s work at Aldbourne. This excavation, manned by numerous military veteran volunteers, revealed the remains of a camp used by ‘Easy Company’ (American paratroopers who participated in the D-Day landings; see CA 354), and formed part of the initiative’s successful ongoing programme of using archaeological fieldwork to aid the recovery of former service personnel.

The objects on display represent projects in the UK and abroad, and include the stories of men and women of all ages, from PhD students to Valerie Fenwick, Assistant Director of the 1960s re-excavation of Mound 1 at Sutton Hoo, whose caption describes how she is still working in archaeological research at the age of 82. Above all, the exhibition highlights how diverse archaeology is, both in terms of its practices and the people who take part.

Further information
Fashion of Archaeology runs at Sutton Hoo until 19 April. Entry is included in admission to the site. For more information, see www.nationaltrust.

This review appeared in CA 361. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.


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