Sunday, 26 July 2015

CHAP as I know it

A few years back I was getting more involved in community archaeology in Leicestershire, but then I was catapulted for 20 months to Sweden and lost somewhat from my sight the matters local. While I was away, the local parties in Beaumont Leys got the Castle Hill Archaeology Project (CHAP) going and dug their first test pit in 2014. This summer the project had a long weekend of activities near Castle Hill as part of the Festival of Archaeology that finishes this very weekend.

This being a school holiday season, I went to see the open visits on the Sunday with my son. The project had very considerately sent invitations to the local schools to be included in children’s book bags, so we were welcomed very generously. Not that there had been many visitors – the test pits locating in a plantation outside the actual Castle Hill, away from the occasional walkers’ eyes – but after we arrived there was a nice little group coming from the village of Anstey.

The view from Castle Hill

Castle Hill has had many uses and Beaumont Leys is famous mainly of its Iron Age sites, partly excavated as part of development work. It has earthworks, a squarish wall around an area on the top of the hill, similar to some other Knights Templar sites, and some other humps and bumps, sadly related mainly to the 19th century sewage works. The older structures have a connection to the Knights Hospitallers from the 14th to the 15th century, although much more exciting is its connection to the Knights Templar – however short in the 13th century AD. There are also Roman and Iron Age finds from both the earlier checks and found by CHAP.

Boundary ditch

The main idea this summer was to cut a trench through the ancient boundary ditch between Beaumont Leys/Leicester and Anstey. There were also displays of the site and old maps of the area and the park ranger Stefan, a long-term activist, had a folder full of recent material, such as the Lidar images from the University of Leicester (the Lidar data from the Environmental Agency will become open soon, so all with a suitable viewer will share the view of this site and others in the future). Sadly, the clay soil is hard and the trench was only started with the people digging it having to go away on Sunday.

The slates covering the ditch

Nevertheless, two test pits had been dug and there were bones and grey ware iron Age pottery for my son to marvel. The test pits were dug in places chosen subjectively, with one aiming to see to the Anstey side of the boundary ditch and the other lying in the wider area of the fish ponds drainage. The test pit in the latter area hit some kind of ditch covered with slates a gentleman was preparing to draw when we arrived. My son got his first real feeling of archaeology when cleaning the pit floor – not that his concentration stayed there long. He truly enjoyed the experience, though.

The future for CHAP may be interesting. They have approached tentatively English Heritage/Historic England on the possibility to do something within the Castle itself, a scheduled monument managed by the organisation. With their connections to Peter Liddle and a couple of us professional archaeologists in Anstey, I am sure they will have no problems to develop the project further.

Castle Hill site:
Historic England entry
Pastscape entry

The tomb and the monument

My other chap of the week was Richard III. I finally managed to visit the Cathedral on another day than Sunday, when they tend to keep it closed from tourists for services and such like. The tomb was simple but monumental. The week brought the news that the Visitor’s Centre nearby had missed its visitor target of 100,000. I just hope that the future expansion and revamp of the Jewry Wall Museum, with the old Vaughan College property purchased by the City developed, will lure the tourists. At least the site will improve, when the nice museum is not shadowed by the sad, abandoned college building.

The installation before reburial

Sunday, 19 July 2015

When in Bristol – in praise of regional museums

Entrance to the Museum in Bristol

I had just managed to visit the Newarke House Museum in Leicester with my son, when the news reached me that the city of Leicester considers selling the property to the De Montford University. The venerable Peter Liddle delivered a link to the petition, which I duly signed. As I also signed the petition against the closure of the Snibston Discovery Park by the very same Leicestershire County Council that some years ago ‘let Peter Liddle go’. As the petition made clear, the last thing Coalville needs is more housing in the area that is now the Discovery Park and the conservation area. It is a declining place, a former pit town, with little hope if Snibston goes. Some people will stay and commute to Leicester and East Midlands Airport to work, but no groups will come to marvel the place for any reason. Similarly, the beautiful fashion collection will be placed behind a lock and key.

Shaun the Sheep

Similar news of selling museums and closing doors come from places such as Lincoln and the heritage professionals try desperately to remind the decision makers how much cultural economy actually creates wealth. Nevertheless, with the conservative government wanting to create a small state, it will be difficult to keep heritage going. If there will not be enough money for the NHS, what hope do archives or museum storage have? Somehow the government seem to hope that ‘community projects’ (i.e. people doing professional work for free) will rescue the sector, which after all is dear to many party supporters. In the end the question is, whose responsibility is our past and heritage?

The mound frieze

Which kind of entity will be responsible for saving the memory of the past generations to the future? Will it be private beneficiaries? Will it be the private citizens? Will it be the local companies? Will it be the multinational corporations? As UNESCO and other organisations acknowledge by making agreements with countries and governments, this responsibility lies with the STATES. If the state cannot fulfil its functions, it will be neither Great nor Britain, since the memories will be lost. It is quite sad that one has to remind people about the fundamental responsibilities while they are hoping to engage the public with the discussion of the urgent problem of aggressive seagulls – while museums are closed, planning departments are strained under work, Greece is going down, young doctors will be forced to work unsocial hours and parents are not allowed a say in the status of the local schools (when did ‘forced’ action become the default policy for everything? What happened to ‘local empowerment?). Some people seem to get their priorities just right...

The Nimrud frieze

Anyway, let’s remind us what marvellous things our museum sector has and does. I had to visit Bristol this week for a job interview and after a long time could pay a visit to the local Bristol Museum and Art Gallery. I admit, many of the older collections in this museum originate from the colonial times, but who could not marvel the impeccable Egyptian collection or try to trace the puzzle of the origins of the Nimrud friezes. When a small room in a museum allows local children the same kind of attachment to the origins of our Western Civilization as the British Museum, isn’t it wonderful? The items, such as a Benin head, may have been taken and sold without the consent of the real owners, the peoples of different colonised countries, but their sheer existence allows important discussions to take place in the class room locally and raise awareness of contemporary issues.

Benin heads in Bristol

I wandered through the displays of local dinosaur finds and thought that my son would love to be there as well. I encountered the Victorian and Edwardian paintings and was thinking how this collection, even if smaller than in Birmingham, has some pretty beautiful examples of Pre-Raphaelites and even a nice piece from my all time kitsch favourite Alma-Tadema. There are Pissarros from France and paintings from Gainsbourough and others from the 18th century, not to mention Elizabethan portraits. Even Martin Luther is there on the wall. Where did the 19th century sense of providing citizens with educational experiences disappear? The high-class members of societies and corporations may have been slightly patronising, but they put together beautiful collections to show city-dwellers.

A painting by Alma-Tadema

This was repeated all over Britain during the Victorian times. Flinders Petrie’s expeditions to Egypt were financed by these regional museums and that is why you have these beautiful Egyptian collections in cities like Leicester. Then you have the Pre-Raphaelites in Birmingham and German expressionists in Leicester again. Derby has its Wright collection and Etruria its potters. Are we heading towards a new dark age when this all is lost? Collections need dependable funding for decades, not project funding. This type of monies comes only from a state and official bodies, not fickle private donors.

Sunday, 12 July 2015

Brownfield sites, Old Oswestry and planning challenges

The problem for archaeology in England is that with the exemption of the Scheduled Monuments the value of archaeology is not really enshrined in law as it is in many other European countries (and actually Scotland, too). The status of archaeology is dependent on planning guidance - and this can be changed with the whim of any government. Relatively recently in 2012 the guidance did change from the Planning Practice Guidance note 16 (PPG16) to the National Planning Policy Framework - together with the government stating that the planning proposals must be accepted if they promote growth and development. This has made opposing not so clever developments - like the ones planned onto the floodplain plus adding to the dire traffic conditions during the rush hour in our village - very difficult. The local councils can just demand restrictions and different work, such as archaeological surveys, trial digs and excavations to be carried out, if required. Not to mention all other kinds of matters related to contamination levels, drainage, local amenities, such as money for school expansion etc. etc.

The Planning Guidance now presents archaeologists with a true challenge in the case of Old Oswestry. In the new Shropshire Council’s Site Allocations and Management of Development (SAMDev) Plan does contain a series of new developments nibbing into the surrounding countryside around this most beautiful of the Iron Age hillforts. In addition, the words 'and their setting' has been quietly dropped from the conditions and statements into the significance of different heritage assets. As we landscape archaeologists know, it is not just the site itself, but its context that is important. The Council for British Archaeology has luckily been stepping in to the campaign to try to keep Old Oswestry and its setting intact, so that the future generations can marvel it without houses a few hundred meters apart. Luckily, the hillfort has many friends such as Rescue.

Another clear threat to archaeology - at least industrial archaeology - is the suggestion of the automatic planning approval for all brownfield site proposals. This was cunningly communicated on a Friday, so any opposing stakeholders could only log in their concern later during the day - or during the night. At least they are not eroding greenfield sites automatically, but with the brownfield sites there is the additional issue of contamination. I just hope that the overstretched planning departments will spot the dangerous levels of industrial chemicals, so one does not end up having whole communities placed on top of rubbish and endangering the future generations. Alongside potentially rubbishing the past.

Sunday, 5 July 2015

Festival of Archaeology in Britain – why not in all countries

If anybody has followed by Facebook sharings, they will know that I quite regularly share items on Syria – for obvious reasons. Little did I know how important archaeology was going to be when I scribed those words back in 2012. However, since my current research is mainly on the northern side of the Mediterranean, I cannot articulate anything any better than has been done just a few days ago in the Conflict Antiquities blog. Read it and spare a thought to those trying to salvage something in very difficult circumstances and propaganda videos a plenty.

Nevertheless, I noted yesterday that the Head of the Council of the British Archaeology tweeted that he will be in Leicester at the University to the regional launch in Leicestershire of the Festival of Archaeology, to go national on July 11. Facing the house looking like a dump and the weekly shop and having to go around with my son, I decided to let the matter be and just try to attend the final open day in the Bradgate Park next weekend, coinciding with the national launch. After being away for much of the early year, I have to give some time to more mundane matters while not knowing what the future holds – even if those floors look actually worse after mopping them!

Rare occasion: Castle Hill open - for the Festival, too?

Nevertheless, the beginning of the Festival got Phil to ask about any Festival in Finland. I had to say that there is no such thing, even if public archaeology is becoming more visible with the events such as the public excavations at Jokiniemi near Helsinki with the Heureka Science Centre, restarted after a long break last year, and at the Kierikki centre in the north. The contemporary research such as the excavations at the last hanging site in Oulu, the activities of the Museums at Tampere or the study of the near past as with the Lapland's Dark Heritage project, revisiting the Lapland war tap to the localised interest. However, archaeology has never been in the common consciousness as in Britain and Time Team was shown on a minor channel. A dedicated archaeology TV series was not a huge success, as far as I have heard.

It is also worth remembering that the number of professional with proper jobs is low, so one cannot expect them to have time to do everything during their working and spare time. I have heard that the enthusiastic hobbyists, such as the metal detectiorists, would like an instant reply – something they have got used to in their online lives and feel slightly disappointed when the thirst of knowledge cannot be fulfilled during the weekend. The numbers of events vary greatly in different counties in Britain, too. Living in Leicestershire and seeing Peter Liddle carrying the can constantly, even if not been employed as a county community archaeologist for ages, and The University department having been invigorated by Richard III gives us a slightly warped view to the situation in Britain.

A Festival of Archaeology in Finland? Perhaps it would help with the sweeping budget cuts that can be predicted to cultural activities...