This blog is supporting and promoting my academic research, and also some dimensions of my academic teaching too, including my field trips.
Last year, I ran my level 5 (second-year undergraduate) module The Contemporary Past for the first time. This course explores archaeological approaches to the late 20th and early 21st-century, focusing on material cultures, the built environment, and landscapes. The latter half focuses on my specialism: the theme of death, memory and material culture.
The students and I went on a massive number (8 in total) field trips in addition to a range of class-based sessions. I decided it would be useful for me to report on each field trip as I went along via the blog. Not only did almost all trips have an archaeodeath component, and therefore these trips might interest readers, but also I thought my students might find the blog a useful resource as an archive of our visits and the issues we discussed.
I noted in the blogs some of the key themes we addressed (although inevitably by blog doesn’t incorporate all points I made on the trips). For academic year 2017/18, here are my reports on the Contemporary Past field trips.
- Chester’s cityscape and the Gorse Stacks Bus Interchange – Field Trip 1
- Housing and Dwelling – Field Trip 2
- Gresford Colliery – Field Trip 3
- Pontcysyllte Aqueduct – Field Trip 4
- War Memorials – Field Trip 5
- Chester Cathedral and Town Hall – Field Trip 6
- Crematorium and a Woodland Cemetery – Field Trips 7 and 8
This academic year (2018/19), I’m repeating some of the trips, and others I’m repeating in regards to themes but shifting the locations. Others I’m adapting by exploring additional themes and sites, while some I’m both adapting and combining elements from multiple trips from last year. Hence, while I intend to blog about the 2018/19 field trips, I might report on only some aspects of the field trips to avoid repetition from last year, and in particular, to focus on the mortuary and memorial facets of the contemporary past we encountered.
Engaging with the Contemporary City
The first field trip was a walking tour around a fraction of the historic city of Chester. The aim was to introduce the students to the stark shift of focus required on an environment they are already very familiar with, to consider contemporary archaeology.
Our themes and discussions, and some of the locations, overlapped with last year’s field trips 1 and 6, but instead of exploring the Chester bus interchange, we headed into the heart of the city via the Bluecoat School and the city’s Northgate quarter, then via the cathedral to the city walls to overlook The Groves.
This year, I directed the students towards their own learning. I stopped at fixed points and demanded that they gather their own information and discuss themes based on their original observations. This led to new insights I wouldn’t have otherwise considered, as well as helping them address key themes. We talked about:
- the historic buildings and their reuses, including houses converted into dentists, shops converted to other shops, shops now abandoned and empty, and prominently renovation of the Odeon cinema as the Storyhouse;
- enduring historical structures that retain their function – mainly pubs!
- the new buildings added to the cityscape – hotels, shops, offices, flats and student accommodation;
- street furniture and their faux-Victorian black features, including bollards and “gas-lamps” so stupidly out of proportion and yet still attempting to allude to a vision of the Victorian city.
- a further aspect of street furniture is less about recreation and more about overtly historic dimensions. Namely, red telephone boxes – newly built up to c. 1968 – are less a contrived allusion to the past, but a curated and adapted dimension of a pre-mobile phone era, although some are still functioning telephone boxes in Chester;
- we also discussed city trees as material culture: the choice of species, management, positioning and associated paving;
Again, we took time out to discuss the changing material culture of rubbish disposal, including the “BigBelly Solar” solar-powered self-crushing bins that populate the city centre. I got funny looks from a passer-by when I joked ‘forget Skynet and Arnie, it will be these things that will take over the world when they go sentient’.
We also took in more ‘heritage’ dimensions:
- the display of Roman, medieval and modern remains – such as Roman turrets displayed close to the medieval city walls, and the amphitheatre. We explicitly avoided looking at these in detail in order to shift our focus to the more embedded heritage dimensions. Still, recognising them threw the more embedded elements into sharp relief, by making the students realise how selective what we traditionally deem as ‘archaeological’ really is;
- the heritage features of Chester were instead considered in terms of the heritage signs, signposts and panels. Even the heritage dimensions of the city’s cycle trails were evident: with Roman-style helmets utilised as the icon;
- we considered the public art and sculpture around the Town Hall that attempts to create an eclectic set of visions of the city’s past and present in relation to surrounding secular and ecclesiastical architecture (Town Hall and cathedral);
- In addition to various architectures alluding to the classical past, we discussed how the specific display of spolia attempted to celebrate the Roman origins of Chester, but also commemorate the very strategy of promoting the city’s heritage in itself. In particular, the spolia – Roman and Georgian – displayed outside the Town Hall is key here, celebrating the heritage status of the city. Likewise, the Roman Gardens evoke the Roman past and celebrate the city’s contemporary heritage destination identity.
Finally, we came on to overtly commemorative material cultures:
- the war memorial beside the cathedral was explored, including its neo-Gothic form and ornament, its use of Gothic text, its saintly representations, and spatial/textual links to the book of remembrance in the Town Hall;
- The Cheshire Regimental Memorial Garden – including its reuse of historic graves, memorial benches, and the memorial elements to its layout, and central altar-like memorial.
Views from the city walls
Finally, we approached a theme I hadn’t looked at before on the field trip, but I have addressed, and only in part, for Conwy’s town walls. This concerns how historic walls afford a distinctive perspective onto the contemporary world, in at least four senses:
- the walls afford a view onto usually hidden backyards where businesses dump their rubbish it superbly organised plastic skips and wheelie bins;
- the walls allow us to see the many inaccessible spaces where rubbish accumulates between buildings, between walls, and between pipes;
- the walls allow close-up engagement with various barriers to human and animal activity: people climbing and pigeons perching in particular;
- we incidentally revealed how the city walls provide a unique perspective onto archaeological investigations: yes we met some archaeologists at work, exploring just within the east walls of the city!
- finally, thanks to one of my students keen eyes and local knowledge, we noticed a fine pair of discarded material cultures at the back of a night club: two dancing cages!
Overall, a successful field trip. Students have a detailed academic reading list to support and extend these field observations, as well as further field trips to extend and deepen their appreciate of the many things we can observe by exploring the contemporary city from an archaeological perspective, focusing on both the mundane and the discarded, and at memorials and monuments.