As well as identifying the distinctive traces of lockdown landscapes on this blog – a dimension of ‘contemproary archaeology’ – I’ve also reflected on locked-down landscapes before the lockdown. I wish to return to this second theme since, during my government sanctioned daily exercises, I’ve been taking note of the many signs in my local landscape that attempt to direct literate walkers regarding rules and regulations of behaviour and access.
In short, these are all part of the archaeology of rules and regulation – the topic of a recent book. I’ve reviewed the book and thought it contained some fascinating and interesting academic studies. Yet, I did note how little attention was paid to public signage: locations, materials, choices of images and text, and how they attempt to assert rules and regulations.
There is a long history of these, from Roman milestones and medieval crosses to post-medieval property boundaries and modern road signs. Our contemproary landscape is packed is heaving with them, on gates, fences, pavements and streets.
Some are ‘angry’ – using their text to assert and even sometimes to threaten. Others try to politely guide us about acceptable dog-walking and use of leads, not to feed horses, and where not to walk using rights of way across private land. Some are simply versions of staying ‘beware’ or ‘keep out’.
Most are professionally printed by landowners and local authorities, yet there are always the best (in terms of idiosyncracies, spellings and layout) which are hand-written. Typographical errors are commonplace. Red and black on white are the colours of authority. They are secured in many fasions too – with nails, screws, string and plastic hoops, while more official ones are placed on their own posts.
Everyone has them in their locality: here are some of my local ones, punctuating the experience of walkers. Social distancing signs are simply the latest version of a long tradition. A greater awareness and critical evaluation of this plethora of signs from earl history to the present is something archaeologists are well-placed to investigate, from toll houses to railway crossings. I wonder if there are prehistoric equivalents and whether rock-carvings might sometimes be ‘pissing on territory’ too?