Thursday, 17 November 2016

Dead Saxons on your doorstep: the archaeology of the personal...

There is the moment. The few seconds that drag out to last a thousand years, and in which time piles up against the gates of reality. Held there. It is 'the' moment. The moment you are standing in a muddy field, up to your knees in brown slime, with the incessant drip, drip, drip of the rain sneaking down the back of your neck, and with a biting January wind emasculating you far more effectively that a butcher's cleaver - that you realise that it has all gone wrong. That everything has gone, not to put too fine a point on it, completely and utterly tits up. That the straightforward has suddenly become immensely complex, and that the future now looks anything other than clear. Whatever that future is, it will invariably involve mud; mud in magnificently, crevise-findingly, impressive proportions. And paperwork. Lots of paperwork. This is field archaeology in Norfolk in January...



In front of you the JCB driver can be seen through the glass of his cab, slowly easing back the throttles, as he leans back in his seat, reaches for his baccy tin, and grins out at you in the rain. He knows we aren't going any deeper. From his birds-eye view, and with decades of experience on sites just like this, he knows he's going to be doing a lot of sitting around for the next few weeks. Sitting around in a warm cab, idly making rollies, content in the knowledge that he'll still be getting paid his two-fifty a day - and all the sport that archaeological mud wrestling has to offer.

You glance to your left, at Jim, the site supervisor, who is reaching the exact same conclusions in his head as you are. You can see the deadpan expression begin to diffuse his young face. This wasn't meant to happen. This wasn't meant to be here. We are both, quite literally, up to our knees in the shitty mud, have just watched the mother of all archaeological headaches unroll before us, and both know that the JCB driver (now reaching for his flask and newspaper) is actually getting paid far more for this than we are. In the warm, with the radio on... Indiana Jones it certainly isn't.

But there is the magic too. The other moment. To watch as, inch by inch, the dark, loam and silt rich topsoil is stripped away. Each dark inch revealing nothing out of the ordinary. And then, as the digger inches one tiny level further down, the curtain of black earth is drawn back. The last topsoil slides away to reveal the perfectly planned archaeology. It doesn't happen often. A few times in a lifetime. But when it does there is a feeling of watching a small miracle take place before you. One moment there is nothing. The next, a ground-plan that no drawing or drone image will ever fully do justice to. And the feeling that you are the very first to see this. The one that the dark earth has revealed her secrets to. The miracle of archaeology in wet ground.


The scene shifts. A few days pass and the site become home to a high-viz convention of hard-hats and archaeological endeavour. The news is out, and eager troops of senior archaeologists converge on this pile of mud and history, all eager to establish their own credentials; their own place in the pecking order that will evolve. Each trying to hide the excitement, remain utterly professional, and objective. Mostly they fail. Above our heads drones do flypasts that wouldn't be out of place along the Mall, whilst tablets, computers and high tech cameras jostle beneath them. All trying to capture the moment of discovery. The moment that a 'nationally significant' site has appeared, out of the blue, beneath our very noses. Things that nobody has ever seen before. Fully intact plank-lined burials dating back over 1200 years, the outline of timber structures preserved in the wet sand and mud, and over eighty burials. Anglo-Saxons from the old kingdom of East Anglia, buried with reverence, at the very time the Venerable Bede was recording the seismic shifts in old England. Each one a clearly Christian burial, with no gold and silver placed in the graves to see them through the afterlife - leaving this world as poor and naked as the day they arrived in it. No treasures of coins and jewellery, but instead the treasure of knowledge; an insight into the possible beginnings of Christianity in England. A snapshot of a community at one of the most fundamental turning points in this nations past. The children and grandchildren of economic migrants who embraced a new god and built a nation.



All there before us. The mud oozes, the whine of the drones increases, and the JCB driver, content at the spectacle, rolls another fag...

What happens now is the science bit. The bit that really separates modern archaeology from the treasure hunters of yesteryear. Each burial is painstakingly excavated, photographed and planned. Multiple environmental samples are taken from each grave, which will later tell us details we hope of the flora that once grew here. Each timber is sampled for tree-ring dating, which will tell us the exact year the tree was felled and, if we are really lucky, perhaps even the season. And once the bodies are in the lab then the real miracles of modern science begin. DNA will be looked at, telling us perhaps whether some of these are family groups, and isotope analysis can tell us even where they grew up. Where they 'locals', born and raised in this river valley, or were they perhaps first generation immigrants from across the North Sea? And yet, as each individual is meticulously uncovered and removed from the site by dedicated professionals from Museum of London Archaeology, I cannot but help feel some disquiet.



You see, the thing is, this is 'my' village.  This chance discovery has come to light a bare few hundred meters from where I live, in the very heart of my own community. It isn't just some fascinating and distant piece of archaeological science, but rather something close and very real. These people from a lost past knew this valley that I stand in today. They walked by this same slow river, worked these same fields, and looked up at the ridge-line to view the very same ancient barrows silhouetted against the sky. In fact, this Norfolk village with a Saxon name simply wouldn't be here if it hadn't been for them. They chose this place, and settled here by the river crossing, between the dark woods and the road that leads to the sea. They knew this place, and like my own family, called it home. And that changes things.

The science has to go ahead of course. There's simply too much that we can potentially learn from these people. Details from a time still referred to as the 'dark ages', that is now showing itself to be anything other than dark. But it was most certainly a time of change, a time of transition - when a new wave of immigrants adopted a new religion. A religion whose very early years in this country we really know very little about. Perhaps these quiet people from the dark silt and sands hold the key to understanding that process of transition? Perhaps they witnessed it first-hand, or were instrumental in it taking root? Without further study we will lose that information forever. However, what then? What happens once the scientists have completed their tests, and we have learnt all that we can learn? What happens then to these people of my shadow village by the river?





In some cases such remains simply end up stored away from view for many years to come. Catalogued and concealed in museum archive boxes. Held in trust for future scientists and future techniques which may tell us even more than the science of today. However, with the people of this village, the village on the river crossing, between the dark woods and the roads to the sea, there is only one option. Only one option that the modern village wants; and that is to bring them back here for reburial. To bring them home to the river valley, and the landscape that they'd undoubtedly still recognise as their own, and commit their remains once more to the earth.



Dedicated to Jim Fairclough - a truly dedicated archaeologist - generally muddy, but dedicated.

Saturday, 29 October 2016

Why Witch Marks aren't just for Halloween...

So all the signals are telling me that Halloween must be fast approaching. How can I tell, you might well ask? Is it the sudden proliferation of bright orange and totally inedible pumpkins wherever you look? Perhaps it's the sudden filling of every available supermarket shelf with cheap bags of high-sugar-content snacks and sweets - only available in day-glow colours and in sizes that scream 'MEGA', 'BARGAIN' and 'Fun-Sized'. Could it perhaps be the grins on the faces of the manufacturers of cheap glow-in-the-dark costumes, designed to last for one evening only, and invariably shed more glitter around the house than you thought humanly possible? All subtle hints that Halloween might be approaching it must be said. However, for me, the sign that Halloween is upon us once more is the sudden deluge of media enquiries and requests for images. interviews and articles on... yep, you guessed it, 'Witch Marks'.*

In the last few years it would appear that the linking of witch marks and Halloween has become almost as commonplace as Christmas and Coke adverts, Boxing Day and the DFS sales. They have become the fallback of any journalist who wants a bit of a heritage twist to a story, and can't find a good killer clown exclusive. They'll be the usual 'Witch Marks Discovered in (insert building here)' story. The heritage organisation asking the public to 'Record their own Witch Marks'. The tabloid double page exclusive on how 'Immigrants stole my Witch Marks', or how 'Hexfoils mean Hexfoils' (nope, I've no idea what that means either - but it looked really good when I wrote it...)

However, the thing is, that Witch Marks, otherwise known as 'Ritual Protection Marks', have absolutely nothing to do with witches per se, and certainly nothing at all to do with Halloween.

Ritual Protection Marks are symbols that were applied to buildings and objects, and were deemed to be 'apotropaic' in nature (it's from the Greek - go look it up). In essence, they add a layer of spiritual protection to a physical object, and are designed to 'ward off' evil. In some respects it can be easiest to think of them as acting as the opposite of a curse. Whereas a curse is designed to bring down misfortune, a Ritual Protection Mark was designed to do just the opposite - and keep an object, space or individuals safe from harm. Exactly what the harm these marks protected you from is open to question. In many cases it appears to be a non-specific evil, such as the ever-present 'Evil Eye', in others there are clear links to the activities of Demons, whilst certain symbols in certain specific locations 'may' have been to deter the activity of witches.

The ancient origins of many of these symbols are very unclear, and there is most certainly evidence that their meaning and function changed or evolved over time. Take for example the 'Hexfoil', one of the most common type of compass drawn designs that we come across amongst medieval church graffiti. Some claim, albeit without much in the way of evidence it must be said, that the symbol was originally a symbol associated with the sun. What we can say for certain is that, during the Roman period, the symbol was in popular usage - and it is the single most common symbol found amongst the ancient graffiti at sites such as Pompeii and Herculaneum. Exactly what it's meaning was to the Romans is unclear, but from its usage on items such as altar stones it most certainly appears to have had a spiritual significance. What is also not disputed is that, by the late Anglo-Saxon and early Norman period, the very same symbol had become very clearly linked with the Christian rite of baptism, with the hexfoil motif being the most common single symbol found on early fonts in English churches.

It also appears that this early association with baptism, and perhaps the spiritual safeguarding of the font and the infants baptised within, continued well into the later Middle Ages. In terms of church graffiti there are a number of sites where mass concentrations of compass drawn designs are to be found solely in the area around the font, and in cases like Bedingham, Wighton and Tittleshall (all Norfolk) where the designs have been etched into the font itself. In the post-medieval period these designs continue in use, and commonly appear in a domestic setting. Whilst it's often said that they are generally located around entranceways to a structure, such as doors and fireplaces, lending protection to areas that might be considered 'vulnerable' to evil, there is virtually no surface or object to which they were not applied. Furniture, in the form of chests, coffers and beds, were liberally decorated with these designs - echoing what we see on parish chests with the medieval church - and where early plaster survives in a structure then they can be found there too.

And they continue in use long, long after the more general fear of witchcraft had all but died out (except in Suffolk obviously... but they've always been a bit odd) - and once again their meaning and function appears to evolve. Whilst they are still regarded as symbols of protection, any direct links with formal religion and baptism appear to vanish, leaving them just to be regarded as symbols to 'avert evil' or even simply bring good luck. It can even be argued that their continued use owes more to habit and tradition than to a belief in any spiritual protection they might offer.

What is very obvious is that all these ritual protection marks have a long history of belief and use associated with them - stretching back over two thousand years in some cases. They didn't always mean the same thing, they weren't always used in the same way, but they continued in use as 'spiritually significant' motifs. Some of them, such as the 'VV' symbol, crossed over into more orthodox usage within the lexicon of church symbolism, whilst others, such as the early christian symbol of the pentangle, fell away to become only associated with the 'dark side' - much to the love of young Goths and manufacturers of cheap silver jewellery everywhere. However, the fact that they were such a universal belief throughout the Middle Ages and beyond means that we cannot treat them lightly. They were the physical symbols of people's belief and fears. They marked the boundary between the everyday reality of the physical world, and the potential harms and evils of the realm of spirits. In some cases they were the first line, perhaps even the only line, of defence against the unexpected, the malign and the malignant.

So just remember folks, like puppies and Christmas, Witch Marks aren't just for Halloween...



*and if you think I get grumpy about Halloween - just wait until Christmas...




Friday, 28 October 2016

Where is all the smut? The tricky questions about medieval graffiti...

So I'm standing before the audience, lecture over, trying to answer the questions posed by the audience. Some are brilliant questions - things that hadn't even occurred to me. Others are more expected. The questions that get asked almost every time. So common indeed that I don't even cover the subject in the lecture. I know it will come up later on. However, there is one question that I am never quite prepared for, particularly when it comes from a respectable looking, tweed clad, little old lady in her eighties. It is a question that keeps getting asked, again and again. Where, in the collection of medieval graffiti that we keep recording, is the smut? Where are the 'naughty' images - the phallus inscriptions, the smutty jokes, the sleazy graffiti? "Where", cackles the old lady, long past caring what others think of her, "are all the cocks"?

Well, it is actually a legitimate question. It's also a question that has been asked before in many different ways and in many different forms. Where, in short, is the subversive graffiti? Very recently I was contacted by the author of an American publication on graffiti through the ages - focussing upon graffiti as an act of political dissent or rebellion. Very nicely they asked if I had any good examples of medieval political or subversive graffiti, that they could add to their work? I had to decline - politely - and explain that we simply don't come across any. There are no "King John smells of wee" inscriptions, and most certainly no graffiti expressing such sentiments as "Down with the feudal system!", and "Peasants arise!". It just isn't there.

Well the American author obviously thought I was just being coy. He found it hard to believe that there simply wasn't anything like that amongst the medieval church graffiti. Perhaps he thought I was just being a wee bit staid, a wee bit English, and ignoring the graffiti that was deemed unseemly. Not the case I can assure you.

There are those who will argue that the political graffiti isn't present because the levels of literacy during the Middle Ages was so low. That the lack of political graffiti is simply the result of only the upper orders of society - the 'establishment' for want of a better term - could read and write. Now I'm not going to get in to that debate in too much detail, but suffice it to say that literacy levels in late medieval England are now considered to have been far, far higher than many of our Victorian historians would have us believe. Depending upon which 'authority' you happen to side with, current estimates for basic literacy sit at between 40% and 60%. However, that still leaves a bias towards the upper and clerical classes, making any analysis ambiguous to say the least. Indeed, if you want to study graffiti types that fall outside what may have been considered 'acceptable', it is far easier, and far more entertaining, to look instead at the area of good old fashioned, down to earth, smut! A form of inscription that, to put it bluntly, more often than not relies completely upon imagery. Words are not required...

The thing is, when you view graffiti as a whole, throughout history, smut is one of the key elements. It is one of the key features of continuity from the past to the present. Although as a recent article in the magazine Current Archaeology made clear, the symbol of the phallus was regarded by the Romans as both a mark of fertility and good luck, anyone studying Roman graffiti inscriptions will soon come to realise that it also went far beyond this 'formal' attribution. A quick glimpse at the graffiti inscriptions recorded at sites such as Pompeii and Herculaneum (available in plain brown covers) will soon convince you that sexual graffiti was far more than a projection of fertility cults. There are numerous depictions of various sexual acts, alongside the usual "get it here" type inscriptions, and many linked with innuendo or downright smutty inscriptions. Similarly, just the same sort of depictions are found in seventeenth and eighteenth century graffiti - and a quick wander down to the local bus shelter or busy city underpass will soon convince you that it most certainly continues to this day. Although compared to some of the Roman inscriptions today it may even be considered a little 'tame'...
Roman graffiti from Pompeii

So, taken as a whole, sexual graffiti of one form or another can be found in graffiti inscriptions pretty much throughout history. Surely then it must also be turning up amongst the medieval inscriptions we are coming across? That other images and graffiti types continue without a fundamental break down the centuries is unquestionable. The compass drawn designs, or 'hexfoils', that we come across in such massive numbers are also the most common single motif you will find amongst the Roman graffiti at Pompeii - so why then does not the smut also continue? Well, the answer most probably has to do with location and function. Probably...

In terms of the church graffiti that we are recording the vast majority of identifiable inscriptions appear devotional in nature. From the ritual protection marks found in most churches, to the more formal devotional imagery of blessings, saints and Latin phrases, the inscriptions we are coming across are, as I have said many, many times before, simply prayers made solid in stone. They are expressions of faith; expressions of belief. Whilst there are most certainly secular inscriptions alongside them, the devotional graffiti forms the bulk of the material we record. They are located in and on a building of spiritual significance, and as such their location may indeed be a reinforcement of the potency of the prayer itself. They are site specific - and are therefore unlikely to represent the whole corpus of medieval graffiti. They are a representation of church graffiti only - and church graffiti appears to be, almost without exception, smut free!
Medieval 'festival' badge


So what about the rest of medieval graffiti? Does that contain the 'interesting' stuff? Is all the smut to be found in the medieval houses and barns, much like it is two centuries later? Were medieval cottages full of flying cocks and ribald imagery? Well, the rest of informal medieval decorative arts certainly had their fair share of such images. One need only look at a selection of the small leaden 'festival' badges in various European museum collections to realise that the medieval world had perhaps more than its fair share of such (sometimes surreal) imagery. However, in terms of the graffiti we may never really know. There are so few medieval vernacular buildings that survive without having undergone numerous restorations and renovations, that most vernacular graffiti has simply been lost. Wiped from the walls by generations of people actually living in these buildings. If such imagery was there, it was lost centuries ago. The smut, if it was ever present, has long since gone the way of the people who carved it... to dust.

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

The top 10 things I really hate about church top 10s...


There has been an article doing the rounds on the internet recently. An article written by a guy who spends a lot of time looking at medieval churches. A guy who is a bit of a bright spark; a leading light as it were. The article, set out in the usual 'top 10' style, lists the things that he has problems with when studying a medieval church. His 'top 10 wrongs' about the parish church. A 'top 10' that has, to be blunt, annoyed the hell out of me.

There is no denying that his article is amusing in places, and that he undoubtedly never expected the blog piece to be circulated quite so widely. However, I'm still not sure that even that can excuse his public attitude. He does use the blog to put across a couple of interesting points about his own research, which I suspect was the whole point of the blog in the first place. However, what he then goes on to do is, at best, ungracious - at worst it is simply bloody rude.

Now the author really isn't talking about anything that any of us who spend a good deal of time visiting churches hasn't come across before. He's simply come across the odd enthusiastic church guide or church-warden. Sometimes the stories they tell, repeated down the generations, aren't always entirely, 100%, historically accurate. Sometimes they are simply repeating what is in the church guide. We've all heard them. The stories of tunnels leading to the manor house, the 'weeping' chancels, and the leper squints. However, no matter how wrong you may consider them to be, they are sharing with you their love, passion and interest in the building. It may not come up to your own high standards in terms of referencing and accuracy but, here's the thing - it doesn't have to. They are there as volunteers, keeping the church open, and trying to ensure that the visitors who do venture through their doors get the most out of their visit. The author also apparently has a bit of a problem with modern items cluttering up the church, or to put it in his own words...

"The Church (big C) is the people, and the church (little c) is the building, I’m interested in both; but please don’t demean the latter as an object of aesthetic and historic interest by sticking this needlessly iconoclastic statement in Comic Sans MS font on a big ugly noticeboard right in front of some fascinating dado arcading."

The blog post goes on, and the author manages to make a few snide remarks aimed at church guides, local volunteers and the modern church.  There is undoubtedly a lot of reality in his comments. We've all seen it. However, it doesn't mean we all have voice our opinions to the Church and the people who look after the buildings which he studies - essentially making it possible for him to wander in to a church at will, take a few pics, and then post a selfie to his instragram account.

Now there are those who will say that by publicly attacking his blogpost that I am just as bad as he is. I agree in some respects. However, the fact that his post has been shared so widely means, quite simply, that it is now being read by the self same people that it has a public dig at. A victim, as it were, of its own success. The amusing post, no doubt meant to slyly and snidely titillate the jaded senses of humour of his friends, is now being read by the churchwardens, the sides-men, the vicars, the volunteer church guides, and the key-holders. It is being read by members of the mothers union, the flower arrangers, and by those who worked tirelessly on the raising of funds to keep the building open and in repair. And it is hurting them. It is demeaning them. It is insulting them. It's 'holier than thou' attitude, which condescends and demeans, comes across as the arrogant sniping of someone who, whilst claiming they themselves are a Christian (not something you will ever hear me claim), has rather missed the point about Christian values. Mostly the author missed the point about respect...

He also rather misses the point about the medieval church. The one thing that studying medieval graffiti has taught me over the last few years is the level of interaction, both physical and spiritual, that took place in these buildings. They were not simply places to be wandered into and prayed in. They weren't simply home to static images of the saints. They were dynamic and busy places, places full of people and things. They served as the parish armoury, as at Mendlesham in Suffolk, as the parish office, and as the parish meeting place. They were alive with activities - and groups like the mother's union and toddler's playgroups are simply continuing a long tradition. Their stories were static, but ever evolving.

And so the next time you wander in to one of our amazing medieval churches, and get slightly annoyed because the children's play area, or the prayer tree, are making it slightly inconvenient for you to see exactly what you want to see - just bear in mind that it is the playgroup, the young mums, the flower arrangers, church guides, worshippers and rectors who have made it possible for you to visit that building in the first place. It may be a medieval work of art, but it is also a structure built by the labour of man - and one that only remains whole and welcoming by the continued labour and devotion of many. In short - learn some manners...

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Waking the dead: peering up the bum-hole of the past...

Last week I went to a museum. No great surprise there really. I go to a lot of museums, and perhaps surprisingly not always for the cafe and gift shop - although I'll admit to buying a book. Again. In many respects it was a museum much like any other county style museum. A mix of everything from geology and rock strata, to displays of medieval arms and armour, and Roman sculpture. It was well presented, with fascinating displays, a good level of available information and, it must be said, brilliantly attentive staff. Truly lovely people. To be honest, despite it being a county museum, in a major tourist city, it really wasn't very busy - which rather surprised me. Outside in the museum gardens hundreds of people were sunning themselves, eating ice-cream, and eying up the sporty types in lycra jogging around the perimeter. However, inside was brightly lit, but cool, and largely empty. I suppose that's why the two little kids moving just ahead of me caught my attention.

The kids were having a whale of a time, and if their parents were around I didn't see them. They were loving some of the displays, enjoying the gallery by gallery trails that had been developed for just their sort of inquisitive minds, pressing as many brightly lit buttons as was humanly possible, and getting a real kick out of the whole thing. Obviously there were bits that left them cold. Areas where they quickly moved on, past yet another Roman sculpture with a broken nose, where I paused and lost sight of them. However, eventually we'd meet up again, as they were delayed by something that caught their interest, or detained by a particularly entertaining quiz where, they had discovered, if you pressed ALL the buttons at once you could get the whole screen to freeze for at least a minute whilst it worked out what the hell was going on. And so we progressed together, shadowed discretely by a member of staff, clearly intent on keeping the kids in line of sight, and making sure I wasn't pilfering any additional noses from Roman sculptures. After all, they'd clearly lost enough already...


And so it was that I came across the two kids in the Roman archaeology gallery, squatting down beside a long glass case. As I got closer I could see that they were taking a great deal of interest, indeed taking turns, to put their heads down at the end of the case, so that they could stare up the entire length of it. In the case was a set of human remains - a skeleton - and the kids were taking it in turns to stare along the length of the bones. I wandered quietly over, wondering what it was they found quite so fascinating, only to hear one of them say - "if she was alive, you'd be looking right up her dress..."

Well, kids are kids, and I'm not one to judge. Indeed, it brought to mind a school trip I myself made to the British Museum somewhere back in the mists of time. Mostly I remember the train journey by modern diesel locomotive - a novelty for anyone brought up in Norfolk where 'historic' railways are the norm - and the early British gallery. Beyond the wonders of the Sutton Hoo treasure, and the shinning silver of the Mildenhall treasure, the most memorable display was of the bog body. I can't tell you exactly which bog body it was, not without looking it up, but it was fascinating. However, fascinating to a twelve year old may not be quite the same sort of fascination that an adult saw in it. From memory, most of my class, about thirty of us, spent a very great deal of time crouching by the glass case, drawn by the apparently irresistible urge to stare up the bog bodies bum-hole.


And here I was, many, many decades later, watching a couple of kids doing pretty much the same thing as I and my classmates had done, at a different museum, many years later. It must be a truly irresistible urge that, like nothing other than Dr Who, really does transcend time and space.

It was at this point that the member of the museum staff intervened. The kids were moved on - politely - and I did feel as though this was something that both sides were familiar with. A resigned sigh from the kids, and a rush towards the next quiz, information board, or dressing up stop. However, as I loitered, in an apparently obviously suspicious fashion, the staff member turned his attention on me. I got the full run down on the body that was before me. Not just the quick gloss of the interpretation labels, but the full and frank details. In short, the talk that he'd obviously tried to give the kids on more than one occasion, only to be met with the squeak of hastily retreating trainers on marble floors.

She was excavated nearby - or so I was informed. The remains of an apparently healthy (apart from the whole being 'dead' thing) young female who had passed away in her twenties. She dated to the Roman period, had a lovely collection of grave goods garnered from throughout the empire, and was probably north African in origin. She had, I was informed, most probably been born under dry African suns, before ending her short life in the glorious damp of Roman Yorkshire. A short, but undoubtedly eventful, life nearly two thousand years ago.

I was quick to thank the staff member for the time he'd taken to explain the display. He'd been very friendly, very informative, and clearly knew his exhibits in a great deal of depth. The knowledge he presented went well beyond the information contained on the display panels, and showed that he'd well and truly done his homework. Even better was the fact that he presented it in a manner that was both accessible and informative. However, I then made the GREAT MISTAKE. I happened to mention that I, as an archaeologist of sorts, actually had a few issues with the display of human remains in museums. I wasn't explicit - rather just highlighting the disquiet I felt when staring down at the dry conserved bones of this young woman. However, the change in attitude of the museum staff member was both instantaneous and undeniable. The warmth of the day dropped from the room. It became as cold within that gallery as it had been within the grave of the long dead African girl. "Oh", he said quietly, "you are one of the reburial brigade..."

Sadly, that really does define the limits of this particular argument at the moment. The side that argues that there is value in displaying human remains to the public, indeed making them the focus of supposedly educational and informative displays, seems to believe that if you don’t happen to agree with their view, to share it, then you must be one of the ‘reburial brigade’. That if you object to such displays, then you must be in favour of removing ALL human remains from public display and having them buried again – and, as they will undoubtedly tell anyone who cares to listen – lost forever to science.

The problem is – I’m not. I’m not in favour of the wholesale reburial of human remains currently kept in museum collections. Whilst I may believe that it is inappropriate to display many of them to the public, most particularly in the manner in which we currently do, I simply don’t believe that we should cast away the opportunities that such remains may present to science today – and more particularly to science in the future. Let’s be clear about this. Science today can and has learnt a massive amount about the past, past environments, and the people who populated that past, from human remains recovered by archaeologist and currently stored in museums. We have learnt about their lifestyles. We have learnt about their diets, the way and places in which they grew up, and how they eventually left this world. We have learnt what diseases they suffered from, who they were related to, and - if not the dreams that filled their minds - then at least the proteins and chemicals that made up the chemical balance of those minds.

That is really the main point here I suppose. Just because you object to the idea of displaying human remains to the public does not necessarily mean that you belong to the reburial brigade. Just the opposite in fact. You can actually find the display of human remains in a museum, with every kid able to stare up their bum-hole, actually distasteful without necessarily suggesting that we should immediately rebury every example of human remains currently held in every museum and archaeological store. It is possible. Trust me on this.

I suppose it is all down to the argument, and the terms in which it has been presented over the last decade or so. The middle ground has rather disappeared. You are either ‘for or against’. There is no box marked ‘hang on – lets think about this for a moment’. You either agree with the display of human remains in museums – or you are ‘one of them…’

The thing is, I think we need to change the points of reference here. We need to change the way in which this particular case is argued. We need to not just move the goalposts, but actually turn the whole field around. So here goes…



I am not in favour of the wholesale reburial of human remains currently in museums. I know that much can be learnt from them. No arguments from me there whatsoever. However, what justification can be possibly presented for those same human remains being on display, in a glass case, with every second kid staring up its bum-hole, like the star attraction in a Victorian freak show? And I do not use the ‘freak show’ comparison lightly. In an age of 3D printing and decent reconstructions, what can the visitor or viewer possibly learn from staring at the actual physical remains - the bones -  of a long dead individual that they couldn’t get from a replica or reconstruction? Indeed, surely they’d learn more, and perhaps gain a deeper empathy and understanding, from viewing a facial reconstruction of an individual rather than just their dusty bones? Of being able to stare at the face that was born under African suns, rather than the bleached bones in the glass case.

So there really lies the challenge. And it's a challenge not aimed at the likes of me - the people who find such displays distasteful and morally questionable - but at those who believe they are justified and justifiable. For that is what you have to do. You need to justify to the world exactly why you believe anything educational, anything fundamentally useful, can be gained from putting the earthly remains of a dead person on display in a museum. You need to explain why it is necessary to showcase the bones of a dead child to the public, and explain exactly why the public will learn more from those bones than they would from a competent reconstruction or replica. It certainly isn't the old, often repeated, story of 'authenticity'. After all, many of our most famous museum exhibits in the UK are also occasionally replaced by replicas, and nobody is any the wiser, nobody takes away anything less from the experience - so why not the human remains? If you can't fully justify it, if there really isn't a valid educational reason (and I've yet to come across one), then we really must simply accept the 'freak show' tag. We are displaying dead human beings - dead people - to attract others to come and gawp at them. They may not be 'half fish - half man', they may not be quite the 'bearded lady', but the motivations of both those who come to stare, and those who put them on display, are largely the same.



Whoever those people were, from whatever age, and of whatever religion or system of belief, we can be pretty sure of one thing. It is a simple and single tangible point in the morass of history. They and their loved ones believed, no matter what (if any) afterlife they were destined for, that their earthly remains would rest in peace. They believed that their mortal remains were being interred or disposed of in a manner that would ensure they were left largely undisturbed. They may have stripped the flesh from those bones, they may have hollowed out mighty logs to place them in, they may have carefully bound them in unbleached lined - but they believed that it was, quite simply, forever. This was important to them. It meant something to them. They respected their dead. Respected them enough to go, in some cases, to great lengths to ensure they remained undisturbed. We should perhaps learn to respect them, their beliefs, and their clear wishes also. After all, in a couple of thousand years, do you really want a bunch of sniggering schoolboys staring up YOUR desiccated bum-hole?

Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Shattered and broken: the ungodly in the house of God...

The news these days seems just so full of horror. So full of terror, death and destruction. The temptation is to simply give up reading it at all. To close your eyes and your mind to the deliberate acts of wilful hatred, in the hope that they will simply go away. It is tempting too for us to look upon these acts from afar, condemn them amongst our friends and upon social media, and to simply refer to them as though they are the acts of the uncivilised, of the unenlightened. To take nothing away from the immense individual suffering and human tragedy of it all, for those of us who care about history and cultural heritage the news is bleak indeed. Historic sites are now, well and truly, in the front line. Sacred objects are smashed, museums looted, and entire historic cultures are being wiped from the archaeological map. A modern horror inflicted upon the ancient world. As ancient temples to long forgotten gods feel the bite of sledge hammers and cheaply bought western explosives, as four thousand year old statues are smashed and scattered, it is all too easy for the good people of Budleigh Salterton or Saffron Walden to pause over their second latte, and condemn these acts as the work of bigots, zealots and the uneducated. However, it is worth remembering that it was, in historical terms, only a very short time ago that the good burghers of Melton Constable and Bishop's Stortford were carrying out just such iconoclasm in their own local parish churches.

Most people who know anything of English history understand that there was a time when we attacked our own places of worship, stripped the images from the walls and woodwork, and smashed the splendours of the medieval church. However, when confronted with such destruction the most common reaction is to place the blame fairly and squarely upon the cropped heads of Oliver Cromwell's puritan soldiery. The parliamentary stronghold of East Anglia, swarming in our imaginations with bible-bashing puritans and roundhead ironclads, most certainly suffered such attacks during the period of the English Civil Wars of the mid-seventeenth century. However, in terms of the destruction of the artworks and glories of the medieval church the real damage had been done over half a century before Oliver and his shock troops had even been born. Whilst there are cases of such seventeenth century destruction, with the notebooks of the notorious iconoclast William Dowsing still surviving in witness to these acts, the churches that they entered had already been largely stripped of their medieval beauty. To place the blame upon the roundheads is, in some respects, to follow the easy route. It is simple to look at the itinerant puritan fanatics and the visiting rough soldiery and conclude that it was violence born of indoctrination and ignorance. It is far harder to accept that such wanton destruction, such an attack on beauty and devotion, was actually carried out by the parishioners themselves. That such iconoclasm was undertaken by, in some cases, the children and grandchildren of the people who made bequests and offerings to create such objects of beauty in the first place.



In 1530 the parish church was essentially medieval in character. A place of vibrant wall paintings, bright stained glass, luminous alabasters and gaudily painted statues. A place of imagery, angels and the saints. By 1550, only two decades later, almost all of this was gone. The statues had been taken down, much of the glass was gone, the rich embroidered vestments had been sold off, and the wall paintings lay hidden beneath coat upon coat of fresh lime-wash. Whilst the changes were monumental they were also incremental. While it may be true to say that the process was begun, as many people will undoubtedly assume, in the closing years of the reign of Henry VIII, the process was a relatively slow one. Many of the major changes, changes that we still see around us today, actually took place long after Henry's death, in the short but turbulent reign of his son Edward VI.

Under the influence of 'reforming' advisors, and brought up to be a devout protestant, Edward oversaw the deliberate and piecemeal destruction of the medieval catholic church. It was a targeted and sustained attack on the fabric, furnishings and social structure of the medieval parish. Whilst some have argued that these were changes welcomed by many at a parish level, as evidenced by the lack of resistance to the changes themselves, it must be noted that the reformation was a gradual process. It was a gradual chipping away at the foundations of medieval faith and belief, until the whole structure had been built anew. It was a series of small acts, each in itself largely innocuous, that taken together resulted in fundamental change.

Bressingham, Norfolk

It was the statute against the veneration of images that left such a trail of obvious destruction that can still be traced through almost every East Anglian church. The act was uncompromising, with orders being given to ‘utterly extinct and destroy’ images ‘so that there remain no memory of the same’. It was this act that led to the covering over of wall paintings, the dismantling or defacement of rood screens, angel roofs and stained glass windows. At Bressingham in south Norfolk the masterpieces of carving that decorated every bench end were attacked with chisels, with each human face hacked from the timber. At North Elmham the world class painted panels that formed the rood screen were removed from their frames, turned upside down and used as floor boards. At Colkirk the beautiful late medieval glass panels were smashed from the tracery, only for fragments to be recovered from the churchyard centuries later. At Houghton St Giles the parish chose to leave the magnificent rood screen in place, but instead roughly gouged out the complete faces of every individual saint, whilst at mighty Attleborough church the multi-tiered doom painting above the chancel arch disappeared for centuries beneath layers of whitewash. It was, quite simply, an attack on medieval art of a scale never seen before or since; destruction on a truly horrific scale.
North Elmham, Norfolk

What is perhaps the most surprising thing is just how much beauty has survived in East Anglia's churches. Given the periods of destruction and unrestrained iconoclasm, the fact that almost every church, almost without exception, contains at least one noteworthy survival is something of a puzzle - but something also to be endlessly thankful for. It is clear that in some cases, as at North Elmham, the survival of such rare beauty was simply a matter of chance. In other cases though it must have been a matter of deliberate choice. A parish that saw those objects of, now unorthodox, beauty and chose to defy or ignore directions for their destruction. A congregation for whom the links created by such objects to their own parish past, and their own ancestors, was far too strong to simply be put aside on the orders of a distant authority.

It would, however, be wrong to assume that such objects were destroyed without thought and without care. At the tiny parish church of Wellingham in central Norfolk can still be seen one of the very last medieval rood screens made in East Anglia prior to the reformation. The upper section has been long gone for centuries, but the lower section still survives - and it is a rare survival indeed. Images of St George and the dragon, St Sebastian, and Christ accompanied by the instruments of the Passion, are almost as fresh today as on the day they were first painted. The screen was a gift to the church in memory of Robert Dorant and his wives, with the dedicatory inscription dated 1532 - a bare few years before the first stirrings of the reformation that would lay waste hundreds of screens just such as this one. However, in Wellingham, the parish appears to have taken a different approach. The parishioners chose to follow the injunction against imagery, but in the most half hearted way possible. Many of them would have undoubtedly still remembered Robert Dorant and his wives, and so the action they took was barely action at all. Although some of the faces are gone from the screen, St George's horse being one puzzling example, many of the other bear only the very lightest of scratches. A few neatly incised crosshatched lines made with the very sharpest of knives. The screen had been defaced - but you would have had to get pretty close to it, as you do today, to even notice the markings. They had done their duty by the law, the church, and the king - but more importantly done their duty to the memory of old Robert.
Wellingham, Norfolk


Such restraint wasn't just to be found at Wellingham. The stunning screen at Thornham on the Norfolk coast, donated to the church in the late fifteenth century by the wealthy local merchant William Millar, suffered similarly half-hearted scratchings - leaving us, thankfully, with another medieval jewel in the crown of East Anglian churches. Such restraint, particularly under pressure from both church and state, must have been by parish-wide agreement. A tacit understanding to do only the very minimum that was required. Whilst the fundamentalists may have held sway within the administration what occurred at a parish level was, quite frankly, the business of the parish. Sadly such cases were not the norm.

Thornham, Norfolk


At Binham priory, a few miles south of the north Norfolk coast, is perhaps one of the most poignant reminders of the destruction caused by the fundamentalism of the English reformation. Encased now behind perspex is the forlorn remains of what must have once been one of the most beautiful rood screens in the region. The upper section, undoubtedly once filled with delicately carved timbers and fine tracery, has long since gone; recycled, destroyed, or simply crumbled to dust by centuries of woodworm and rot. However, part of the lower section, the dado, survives. During the reformation, as most of the priory was dismantled around it, leaving only the nave to act as the parish church, this section was redecorated. In line with the official policy of the day, the images of the saints were lime-washed over. With a new emphasis being placed upon the word of God, rather than elaborate imagery, the screen was covered instead the excerpts of religious text. This seemingly wanton destruction was also one of the most beneficial acts of the whole reformation, for instead of being defaced and destroyed, the images of bright faced saints were preserved fully intact beneath the later paintwork. Now, nearly five centuries later, the lime-wash of the reformation has begun to peel from the surface of the screen. The panels of text are literally falling away from the woodwork, and the faces of the golden robed saints, are once more being revealed in all their original glory and splendour. So here, at least at this one special site, the effects of a small part of the English reformation were only temporary, and the saints are once more returning the Binham...

Binham Priory, Norfolk


Saturday, 23 July 2016

Phantoms in the sky, and fear on the walls...


If you want to take a decent photograph of the west front of a medieval abbey, priory or cathedral then the only time to do it is on a long summers evening. When the sun dips low, shines directly onto the stone face of the building, chasing away all the oblique shadows of the day. To capture all the details of the architecture, to pick out all the tiny nuances of the medieval masons, it has to be a long summer evening. Which is why, a few evenings ago, I was to be found at Binham priory in north Norfolk.

The west front of Binham priory, for all its faults, is absolutely sublime - and by far and away one of my favourite medieval buildings anywhere in England. The design is massively important in the history of English medieval architecture, for reasons that I simply won't bore you with here, and it really was, for its time, utterly revolutionary. However, as you will see, today it is far from perfect. The great west window, designed as the centrepiece of the whole priory, eventually failed - leading to it being bricked up in several stages in the late C18th and early C19th. Having said that, what is left today is still a masterpiece. The detailing of the arcading, the crocketed capitals and the dog-tooth decoration, are some of THE very best examples of the Early English style to be found in the country - and it was these I was there to photograph.

As the sun behind me sank lower and lower in the sky I took picture after picture, watching as the light changed as it played across the stone. Finally, as the light turned to an orange glow, I called it a day, packed up my camera equipment, and turned around to face the setting sun. Or 'suns' rather. For there in front of me, instead of one great orange sphere, there were two. Two suns in the sky. Quite unmistakably. For a few seconds I simply gazed in absolute wonder, faced with this strange, alien, reality. Two suns hanging low in the west...

The two suns in the sky is a rare atmospheric occurrence, or so modern science tells us, known as 'parhelion'. It is caused by the refraction of the sunlight in ice crystals or water droplets high in the atmosphere, and most usually occurs when the sun is low in the sky - at either dawn or dusk. In many cases the full effect is seen as three suns - with a 'copy' either side of the actual sun itself. The phenomenon is sometimes known as 'phantom suns', 'mock suns' or 'sun dogs'; the last term perhaps relating to Norse mythology, where it was thought that they were the dogs of Odin riding through the sky with their master. And these 'phantom suns' most certainly turn up throughout folklore, superstition and mythology all over the world, and throughout history. Though rarely seen their appearance was most certainly noteworthy, and like many celestial events, their appearance is linked to great and momentous events.

Perhaps one of the most famous instances of this phenomena appearing in English history dates back to 1461, and the Battle of Mortimer's Cross during the Wars of the Roses. As the battle began the troops of Edward of York were reportedly terrified by the apparition of three suns hanging in the sky, taking it as an omen of ill fortune. However, Edward convinced his men that, rather than predicting their doom, the three suns were a symbol from God. The three suns represented the holy trinity, and were a sign that they were blessed by the Lord, and about to win a great victory. Heartened by his words the Yorkist troops hastened into battle and, just as Edward had predicted, routed the Lancastrian forces. Edward himself, it was said, was so deeply moved by the three suns in the sky that he later adopted the sunburst symbol as part of the Yorkist livery.

The English have, it has long been reported, always been a nation that put great store in such signs and omens. Writing in the seventeenth century Bishop Sprat noted that belief in such omens and portents was something that the English, in his opinion, were more than usually vulnerable to. The English were, he believed, a superstitious and credulous nation. And the omens were many and various. Putting aside the celestial phenomena of parhelion, eclipses and comets, there were strange sightings of battles in the sky, great swarms of unusual birds , earthquakes - and even, according to  the report of two country women in 1651, flights of angels of 'a blueish colour and about the bigness of a capon'. The medieval and early modern world, it would appear, was a world of omens and portents - and none of them were good.

That is the thing about omens and portents. No matter whether they are blue-chicken-sized-angels or multiple suns in the sky, the chances are that they are going to be interpreted as the harbingers of doom. None of these omens ever appear to have been interpreted as foretelling 'a reasonably nice day next Wednesday', or even 'generally pleasant things will befall the beholder'. Oh no, that just won't do. Instead all of these omens are clear signs of extreme displeasure by (insert deity of choice), who is sending this sign as a way of informing the world that it is very shortly in for a damned good smiting... and no mistake.

And this is the thing about the medieval ideas of faith and belief. Whilst there are the little things that can be beneficial - the charms, talisman and just plain 'lucky' objects - all backing up the unquestionably beneficial prayers of holy mother Church - the large portents and omens are concerned with ill fortune and disaster. Whilst the successful harvest and good health can be ascribed to general good fortune and the rewards of a devout life, the all too common disasters and setbacks, the unexpected floods and the sudden onset of disease were there as a punishment. A punishment for a life lived not as it should be. As Keith Thomas highlights, many people prayed regularly out of fear for what would happen to them, or their loved ones, if they didn't. Therefore, with fire, robbery, tempest, death or fearful accidents an all too common occurrence the medieval church, and the faith of the parish community, was one underpinned by fear.


And it is this fear that we find on the walls of our churches, laid bare in the graffiti etched deep into the stones. We don't find the angels, but we do come across the demons. We find the marks of protection. The physical symbols that hoped to reinforce the prayers of the church, in an all too often vain attempt to keep away the forces of ill fortune. We find the marks of desperate hope. A hope that briefly burned in the breasts of an entire community; all of whom are long since turned to dust. A community for whom two suns hanging in the sky before the west from of a priory were something to be dreaded and feared rather than gazed upon in wonder...