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Experimenting with social video

June 5, 2017

I really enjoy spending some time at the weekend exploring different aspects of current affairs around the world through the short videos posted by AJ+. Obviously, these kind of social videos have great potential for education, and I think I’d like to try incorporating them into my Sustainability module at Bath Spa next year. To get used to working on them though, I made an attempt this weekend using a site I studied as part of my PhD research, Ceardach Ruadh on Baile Sear in the Western Isles of Scotland.

I hope you like it!

By-the-wind sailors, beached by the wind

April 29, 2017

Back in March, we walked along the beach at Woolacombe, Devon, the morning after a stormy night. The night before had been spent in Ilfracombe, watching tall spray crashing against the sea wall, our senses woken with the energy that only a storm beating can impart.

Woolacombe was still and sunny the next day though, with fog hanging over the hills above, lending an island quality to the town. On the beach, by the rocks, I photographed colonies of mussels, dense mauve blooms erupting from the folds of the grey rocks. The strand line of the beach held a rarer sight though, scores of by-the-wind sailors, Velella velella, driven ashore by the previous night’s storm, and oozing a deep blue into the sand.

Velella are free-floating hydrozoans, related to jellyfish and sea anemones, and are in fact a colony rather than an individual animal. In life they float on the surface of the sea, where a small rigid fin or sail catches the wind (hence the English name, by-the-wind sailor). Mass strandings are relatively common after strong winds on south western coasts in the UK, and also along the west coast of North America. The ‘sail’ is made of chitin, the same stuff as insect skeletons, and the beached colonies very quickly dry out and lose their colour.

Velella velella stranded on Woolacombe beach, March 2017

From 100 Minories blog – cesspit remains

May 17, 2016

My first contribution to the 100 Minories blog is now live, in which I discuss seeds, bones, shells and parasite eggs from cesspits at the site.

Winkles, Loneliness and Treats in Nineteenth Century London

February 6, 2016


A common periwinkle (Littorina littorea) shell

I’ve been analyzing a series of samples from a large post-medieval soakaway/ cesspit feature associated with a house on the margin of the City of London. It’s chock full of china, clay tobacco pipes (one rather fancy stem ended in a bird claw cupping the bowl), animal bones, and my favourite find, a copper alloy (brass?) spinning top, now radiant green but I gave it a twirl (or several) and can tell you it is no less effective for its decay.

One sample contained a large number of fig seeds, with cherry stones and seeds of blackberries and grapes – evidently what we can euphemistically term nightsoil. I made up some slides from a small subsample of the pit fill for higher power microscopy and sure enough found eggs of parasitic whipworms and fish tapeworms, the latter a hazard of eating undercooked freshwater fish.

The most visibly numerous biological remains are periwinkle (Littorina littorea) shells, however. These became a common foodstuff in the 19th century, especially after the growth of the railways – the line to Canterbury and Whistable in Kent was even known as the Crab and Winkle Line. In the astounding London Labour and the London Poor (1851, but originally issued as a serial in the Morning Chronicle in the 1840s), Henry Mayhew details the work of winkle sellers, interviewing a number of them, who tell him that winkles are generally a “relish”, that they are particularly popular among servant girls and tradesman’s families, and that “it’s reckoned a nice present from a young man to his sweetheart, is winks”. Mayhew also notes that large quantities are sold in public houses and suburban tea gardens.

One seller made the rather touching observation was that because removing winkles from their shells is such a time-consuming affair:

“Old people, I think, that lives by themselves, and has perhaps an annuity or the like of that, and nothing to do pertickler, loves winks, for they likes a pleasant way of making time long over a meal. They’re the people as reads a newspaper, when it’s a week old, all through.”

Reading Mayhew’s detailed account invests the shells with an additional quality. Yes, they are discarded kitchen scraps, but at one point they were a treat, received with from the seller with anticipation and consumed with pleasure, more so than an everyday meal. We can extrapolate this point, and other considerations about shellfish, backwards in time: there is a history of fashion, of cultural connections, of changing technologies, of “relishes”, and of necessity; but also of local and even individual preferences, to be told from the deep history of shellfish consumption.

In empty buildings

December 28, 2015

Guns were trained on me: I gasped as I quickly surveyed the seemingly innumerable brace of barrels. Instinctively, instantly, I turned and fled, head down, sprinting with all of my (limited) strength. Shouts, not shots, rang out as I barged through the double doors ahead of me, they were following, not firing. I looked up. A corridor stretched out ahead of me, light cast down from a broken skylight. I ran ahead, flying through fire doors, almost slipping on the dark pool of blood spread out from a lifeless body half-in, half-out, a small room on the left hand side. There was a telephone cast on the ground beside her. I didn’t know where I was, but it felt familiar, the house of an anonymous institution, now abandoned, predictable in its layout. I could hide here.

corridor.JPGWhere the eye leads, the body follows…

I seem to be haunted by nightmares at the moment, all of them disappointingly simplistic in plot and detail when I recall them, but truly terrifying in my sleep. This morning I woke from another, confused as to why I was being hunted, but filled with a different kind of uneasiness, one which has confronted me many times in my waking life as an archaeologist. There is an unnerving uncanniness to walking into a recently abandoned building. Over the years I have put trenches through the basements and car parks of all kinds of office blocks, homes and institutions, and I always find it slightly unsettling. Everything in them accords with my lived experience, and I picture the building brightly lit, populated with people typing, chattering and making coffee. Reality doesn’t cater to my imaginings, however, and some part of my denied mind senses that something must be wrong.

parcelforce.JPGAlluringly unnerving.

Despite my uneasiness, I enjoy exploring these buildings. There was an old children’s hospital (it had a padded cell! I didn’t know they were still used!) and any number of vast multi-storey office blocks with basement tunnels stretching beneath them, where silver pipes lead to dark and complex plant rooms. Sometimes the offices are freshly empty, the windows boarded up, upturned mugs still sitting hopefully in dishwasher racks. More often, the building has been bereft of its corporate occupants for some time. Windows are broken and wiring has been ripped out. The artefacts of a more ephemeral human use are visible: needles and spoons, polystyrene food boxes and underwear. Their moment is fleeting – no trace that these buildings were ever anybody’s home will survive for future archaeologists, but human lives have been lived there – a shadow story to the recognisable building history.

thefunweusedtohave.jpgI think Schiffer calls this ‘primary deposition’

The least comfortable I felt was on a site in rural Somerset. We had been given use of an empty bungalow for indoor space to take lunch and complete paperwork while we excavated in the garden. The last occupant had passed away but little had been done to draw a close to the material aspects of his life. The house was almost intact, save that the heating, electricity and water were off, save that a window was broken and a sparrow flitted noisily between the rooms. There was an object that looked like it might be a beer can wrapped as a Christmas gift on the kitchen counter. It was hard not to be touched by sadness.

As archaeologists, we find ourselves in places that have been abandoned by their people everywhere we work. Occasionally we find glimpses of individuals – unknowable to us but recognisable in their intentions –  a potter’s thumb mark, the debitage of skillfully crafted arrowhead, a seemingly makeshift repair in a waterlogged wooden structure – which resonate with our experiences and connect us despite the centuries. Rarely, however, do we have either as well-preserved a record, or as familiar a built environment, as in these unintended archaeological site explorations. But perhaps one day I’ll develop the imagination to dream of being chased into a roundhouse and feel that it is familiar.