My brand-new Level 5 (2nd-year undergraduate) course The Contemporary Past is exploring the material cultures, built environments and landscapes of the very recent past – the mid/late 20th century and early 21st century. We are asking: what does archaeology bring to the study of the contemporary world? We’re drawing on literature on this burgeoning field of archaeological research called ‘contemporary archaeology’.

For the first year in which it has run, students will be receiving lectures on a range of themes from the material culture of mass consumption to war memorialisation. We have 7 field trips planned to get students out into the landscapes of NW England and NE Wales to explore our contemporary landscape from an archaeological perspective.

The first field trip was about defining how everything we see and experience in the present is within the remit of the ‘contemporary past’ and potential foci of archaeological research, from cathedrals to charity shops, from playgrounds to traces of homeless living, from street furniture to rubbish bins. To do this, we explored urban spaces in Chester, including the brand-new Bus Interchange.

Housing and Dwelling

The second field trip explored ‘Housing and Dwelling’ – how we can explore the material cultures and architectures of modern suburban living with an archaeological ‘eye’. To do this, I decided to take the students out to Blacon and parts of Connah’s Quay. These are both fascinating case studies of 20th-century settlement change, situated on opposing sides of the modern English-Welsh border.

In Blacon, once one of Europe’s largest planned suburban developments, our stop was brief. We discussed large-scale new town and suburban building programmes, their planning, development, re-development. We discusssed their public buildings – including police station, churches, shops and pubs, as well as high-rise flats, terraced and semi-detached housing. We also discussed public art, speed bumps and bus stops…

Before that, we had explored Shotton and Connah’s Quay, stopping near Wepre Park to discuss how the settlement developed rapidly in the late 19th century and, within a short distance, students can witness a range of features of modern urban and suburban living. Connah’s Quay developed in association with a range of industries and on a key intersection of road, rail and water transport. As a case study, we used it to chart multiple themes in terms of contemporary settlements.

For Connah’s Quay, we drove and walked, looking at streets, gardens and houses. Sensitive to, and respectful of, the private property we were observing, we were still able to address a range of themes regarding how we utilise, maintain and transform our suburban environments.

Street fixtures and furniture

We were interested in the traces of design, management and use, identities and aspirations, revealed in street fixtures and furniture.

  • street signs – we discussed how we can chart aspirations and identities in the choice of road naming, including this case Yorkshire and ‘southern’ names in a Welsh industrial settlement. We also discussed the character of the signs themselves, some of which might go back to the 1950s and ’60s, whilst others are more recent replacements.
  • street lighting – we addressed the design, location, maintenance and damage to street lighting;
  • pavements – we observed their character, breadth and material composition – evidence of management and wear, and appropriation by bins and cars;,
  • we briefly explored the nature of road surfaces, gutters, drains and inspection hatches;
  • postboxes – we stopped to make obvious points about their design, location and royal dedications/insignia (we found a ‘GR’ one);
  • telephone wires – I mentioned their character, presence and now absence on new estates.

Waste management

In relation to disposal practices, waste is a key area of ‘contemporary archaeology’.

  • We discussed the era of the wheely bin: their design, positioning and personalisation with stickers for ready identification and retrieval;
  • Recycling – we discussed the diversification of disposal practices and where and how people placed their recycling bins, boxes and bags outside properties and hanging in some cases from fences;
  • We discussed public bins – the management of rubbish and dog waste in a small public park.

House Roofs and Exteriors

Sensitive to the fact that I didn’t want my students gawping at any individual properties, we simply walked along multiple streets and observed general patterns in how people have developed and adapted their houses in relation to:

  • Building materials and cladding;
  • Windows – double-glazing or lack of;
  • Ornamentations – including roofs and walls (butterflies!);
  • Conversions of roof-space and garages in their many different combinations;
  • Extensions – on sides and front – how houses show biographies of use and development, including the ‘conservatory’ phenomenon added as middle-class aspirations to many former council houses;
  • Aerials and satellite dishes were discussed as phenomena of the modern era – different designs and locations;
  • Maintenance issues – the contrasting levels of investment in buildings for basic retention of function as well as attempts at elaborate display. We discussed issues of competition between neighbours as well as varying standards in updating properties.
  • We also addressed warning signs aimed to prevent ball games and illicit parking

Gardens

Gardens reveal so much about modern life, including identities and leisure, and past and current uses by successive owners – we retain features used by former occupants as well as those we actually use ourselves;

  • Paving and gravel for car parking: we addressed the takeover of front gardens for car use.
  • Different ways in which trees, shrubs and borders are deployed to display and conceal, block and reveal from the public gaze;
  • We also discussed the size, materials and placing of sheds: often at the back of the house, but sometimes to the side and even at the front in one case in the most incongruous of position.

Surveillance

We also considered how, in the age of surveillance,

  • on houses and flats, we observed private cameras
  • in front of shops, we noticed surveillance at points that might be a problem for anti-social behaviour. Indeed, lines of sight are key in controlling crime and other behaviours in our society, and cameras are integral to public spaces everywhere in town and country.

Summary

The field trip’s function was not to judge or criticise any individual property or settlement, but to reveal the complex issues in the use and reuse of material culture in our living spaces. Archaeologists are well placed to bring new perspectives to these seemingly mundane and complex material environments and students have been set key academic reading supporting the field trip.

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