Friday, 20 March 2015

Guest Blog 3: Standing on the edge... by Imogen Ashwin

A very great welcome to the third of our guest blog posts in the NMGS Mini Blog Festival. All the pieces are written upon a single theme - 'What history/Heritage means to me' - by a mixture of heritage volunteers, artists, writers and heritage professional. The intention is to develop and highlight themes that link all these groups, explore ways in which we are different and think about the themes and influences that we share.
This weeks blog is by an amazing woman who has been exploring ideas and concepts that link art, heritage, archaeology and folklore in ways that, if I am honest, I'm rather jealous of. With a dual background in fine art and archaeology Imogen Ashwin has explored her own relationship with the past - and led others by the hand, not to follow in her footsteps - but to walk alongside her in their own exploration...

Standing on the edge... by Imogen Ashwin

We stand on the edge of a tree-lined track in mid Norfolk, eyes fixed on the horizon, conjuring our ancestors from the landscape. Here, today and 4000 years ago, a stream begins in the marshy meadow. Water from the tiny River Eyn rises between Salle and Heydon and still flows into the Wensum, and on to the Yare and the sea.

Four thousand years ago the sources of rivers are thought to have been honoured as magical places. Gazing through hazel saplings we hear of sacred ceremonies, to do with death and the afterlife. Incense might have drifted on the breeze.

Incense is twisting through the air, fanned by a swan feather from a smoking jar.

These are the opening words of a feature article in the Eastern Daily Press (14/07/14) by journalist Rowan Mantell. At midsummer last year, she and her husband Howard joined Trevor and myself, aka World Tree, for Headwaters, a phenomenon we bill as an ‘Archaeology/Live Art Performance Walk’. Not an elegant description, but it’s hard to put a succinct name to the blend of ‘straight’ archaeology and what Rowan summarises, in this instance, as history, botany, birdwatching, landscape archaeology, fire, fiction, folk traditions and an impromptu picnic.

We were delighted with the article and delighted that Rowan really ‘got’ what we try to do. But glancing again at the article’s headline - Trevor and Imogen step into the past- it occurs to me that however fulfilling, indeed essential, it feels to immerse ourselves in the past, it is really the act of facilitating that experience for other people that lies at the heart of our work.

On the other hand, the brief for this blog festival asks us to consider ‘what history/heritage means to me’. To answer that, I need to step back quite a long way, although not as far as the Bronze Age. That comes later on in the story.

Like many others, my abiding memory of school history lessons is of learning the dates of innumerable Laws, Acts and Treaties and weaving them into essays. I enjoyed History O Level as a subject which played to my strengths - of memorising and of essay writing - but it didn’t touch me personally. It probably wasn’t until I had small children myself and picked out a faded red-covered book from the as- yet-unburned-down Norwich Central Library called Memorials of Old Norfolk that things changed dramatically. One chapter in particular fired my imagination – a catalogue of the Norman doorways in Norfolk churches. New words played around my tongue: soffit, cushion capital, billet, chamfered abacus, hood-mould. Living to the south east of Norwich at the time, I had landed on my feet as my home stood at the gateway to the richest seam of Norman doorways in the county! Strapping my 18-month-old into her car seat, I would go off on adventures while my older two children were at school, hoping that Poppy would be asleep when I reached Thurlton, or Heckingham, or Hales, so that I could run my fingers over the unevenly chiselled, vividly human creations, and even take rubbings of them, which somehow made them spring even more evocatively to life. I admit it; soon weekday forays were not enough and on Saturdays all three children were cruelly made to endure the Norman doorway excursions. Emily quickly developed an ‘allergy’ to them and would affect dramatic sniffles and sneezes as yet another medieval church hove into view.

Fast forward a few years, and with all the children at school I studied Fine Art at Norwich University of the Arts (then Norwich School of Art and Design). My foundation year was an Access course at Norwich City College, the second half of which consisted entirely of a personal project. I decided to focus on the Sutton Hoo ship burial, and found myself immersed in and entranced by the ‘shadow’ of the ship in the sand: the imprint, the rivets, the trace of that burial place and all that it represented. I soon realised that the ephemeral excited me – but what exactly does ephemeral mean? In the words of Thom Yorke in an interview of the time, describing the feeling at the end of a Radiohead gig … you feel that you’ve really done something - you feel that when you leave the room there’s something in the air that wasn’t there when you started.

Feverishly I started digging my own ship-shadows in the garden; lining them with sand and rows of nails which rusted and left marks as they weathered and slipped. Other ships were earthen mounds, or flanked with standing logs, and all were photographed from a tall step ladder (much to the consternation of the next-door-neighbour), recording the process as they became traces themselves. Out in the landscape I videoed traces; I photographed traces. Back at college I made installations to pin them down for a while, always with Thom Yorke’s words ringing in my ears.

During the three years of my degree, things only got worse. Seahenge ‘happened’ and I made work about it obsessively, perhaps by way of therapy as – ironically - I felt helpless in the face of archeology. At one point I had the intention of depicting the Bronze Age monument in some way every day for 100 days.

There was one tutor on my course who really couldn’t accept that my passion was personal. Gazing at my technically inept elipses and semi-circles she said ‘but that’s just … nothing’. When I showed her my own black and white photographs of the timber circle her only comment was ‘So, was that before the Romans? Weren’t we backward then!’ When I babbled on about Bronze Age barrows she looked at me uncomprehendingly until it dawned on me that not everyone knew that a barrow was a burial mound, and actually not everyone knew what a burial mound was anyway. But the strangest thing was, that not everyone felt that these things were immediately relevant to the life of the present - and to our own hopes and fears. Explorations involving contemporary issues of gender, sexuality, cultural differences, urban decay YES; explorations involving those same issues through the filter of the deep past DECIDEDLY DODGY and at the very least objective rather than subjective.

I spent many hours at a rural crossroads performing all kinds of actions: from taking photographs in each direction every hour for a whole day and recording ambient sound for 15 minutes every day for a month, to leaving a primed etching plate in the middle of the crossroads at the ‘witching hour’ for seven consecutive nights and printing up the resulting plate to see whether it bore traces of supernatural intervention! Another strand of work involved transferring partial images from medieval wall paintings of virgin saints with uncanny black faces and hands to pieces of flint from a Norfolk field. I threw the altered flints back into the field, recording the action on video, and found it thrilling to imagine the flints being picked up and puzzled over in later times as uncanny objects in themselves – if they ever come to light.

When the degree marks were out and we were called to the course leader’s office one by one for feedback, I was told that I’d gained my First by a clear margin, but that one of the tutors on the panel had had doubts about awarding it to me, on the grounds that the work ‘wasn’t personal enough’.

Hmmm …

I stayed at art school for another year to study for an MA in Fine Art, and I relished having the extra time to build on ideas that were still bubbling up. Early in the course, I acquired a new obsession as I discovered that the north door of churches was traditionally known as ‘the Devil’s door’. As medieval worshippers entered the south door and signed themselves with holy water from the stoup, the Devil, if he was lurking, had his own door in order to leave the stage pronto. Whether he left ‘something in the air that wasn’t there when he started’ is unrecorded. I started to visit the north doorways of as many medieval churches as I could, using infrared film to photograph each one. After all, the Devil, fiery as he is, would be sure to be captured using such a method if he happened to be using his door at the time. I loved this work. It was so exciting to arrive at an unfamiliar church with no idea of what I would find as I slipped silently round behind the tower. Sadly the devil was too wily for me, but I did discover some very atmospheric north doorways. I was going to recommend a few, but I don’t think I will – after all, it would take away from the experience if you were expecting it.

In the corner of an arable field near where I lived, next to a lay-by, lay a rather unprepossessing drainage pond. Passing it frequently, I noticed how the trees growing around it formed a circle. Indeed, many of them appeared to be growing out of the water. At night, refracted sparkle from streetlights on the A11 transformed the surface into something enchanted. Notwithstanding the fact that the timber circle at Holme next the Sea lay some distance inland at the time of its construction, something about the sight reminded me of the feeling I had had when first glimpsing Seahenge in situ on Holme beach, before the hazard tape and bulldozers moved in. We’ll have to have a chat sometime if you’re interested in hearing more about the ways in which I attempted to forge a sympathetic link between the two sites. Suffice to say that homemade interpretation boards were involved. So were 55 photographs of the pond, marked with the legend ‘You Are Here’ and sealed in 55 plastic water bottles before being arranged in a circle on Holme beach for the tide to re-distribute how it would. There was even a giggly voyage in a blow-up dinghy with a good friend and a video camera. It strikes me now that the difference between this work and my previous projects was that I’d adopted a mundane site and started to add my own layers of history and myth. Of course, in a way we all do this all the time – we can’t help it.

Take a Bronze Age barrow cemetery; say, the one on Salthouse Heath (I said we’d be coming back to the Bronze Age). It has its deep history of barrow-burial and ritual starting around 4000 years ago, of course, but untold layers of history, folklore and human emotion have accrued since then. One graphic example is suggested by the name of one of the largest burial mounds, Gallow Hill. Lying on the parish boundary between Salthouse and Cley, the probability is that during the Anglo-Saxon period it was used for the macabre purpose implied by its name. The ditch at Gallow Hill has never been excavated, but the ditch of a similarly situated barrow at South Acre – again on a parish boundary – has yielded the sad remains of what appear to be executed criminals. Who knows what other human experiences and encounters have taken place at Gallow Hill? Perhaps an archaeologist once met an artist there; an artist who was keen to learn more about the barrow cemetery from a prehistorian who could bring the life of the past into the life of the present more vividly than any book or website ever could. Perhaps a pair of barn owls flew over that barrow and were taken as a sign.

My work is concerned with the ambiguous interplay between human activity and the landscape. I am interested in the physical and psychological residues that may be present in particular locations – prehistoric monuments, crossroads, the north side of churches, watery places – and in particular by the way that the irrational or supernatural continues to be interwoven with 21st century life through superstition and folklore. Fascinated by myth, magic and (pre)history, I spend time in places that resonate with a certain genius loci; sites where things have happened and perhaps still happen.

That was the artist’s statement I concocted as a student, and looking at it now it’s all still true. Since becoming half of World Tree creative partnership my art practice has continued, while becoming more of a bone fide archaeologist as Trevor has, in turn, developed his own artistic side. An Arts Council grant enabled me to devise Festial, a self-directed residency in the medieval church of St Andrew’s, Wood Dalling. For a full year I researched and dreamed and felt my way through twelve medieval festivals, which I marked on their Julian Calendar dates (see A year or so later, Pace ( saw me traversing Magdalen Street in Norwich, mindful of the sounds and scents that once emanated from the seven medieval churches that used to stand along its length. Admittedly, it takes imagination to sense the ghost of St Margaret Unbrent lying under the 99p Store! In one of my favourite projects, I made 100 ‘kits for magic’ wrapped in sheet music and gradually and secretly left them in nooks and crannies throughout the street. Finders were encouraged to make use of their kit to evoke the past life of the street, and to get in touch with me to let me know how it had worked out.

At the same time, our ‘straight’ archaeological guided walks continued. Participants often start out hungry for facts, but soon realise that interpreting any landscape is a challenge for us all if facts are what we insist on. After all, there are no ‘right answers’ to many of its mysteries and there are things that none of us can fathom. Walking and talking together, we can share the questions and consider how they might one day be answered. Beyond facts, beyond questions even, we always seek to evoke the life of the past; to ripple the membranes that separate us from the unseen world of spirit. I like to think that in its own way every walk plays a part in this sifting and shifting and augmenting of the layers in the landscape.  And perhaps archaeology itself is becoming more fluid; there’s less of a gap between the diggers and the dreamers.

The question is, how does the artist’s freedom of interpretation dovetail with the ultimate responsibility of the archaeologist to provide rational evidence? It’s one thing to get a thrill from devising my own routes to the Otherworld and back, hoping that viewers will catch glimpses of the mystery or use my experiences as a springboard to unlock their own stories. It’s another to take fellow travellers with you as you jump into one of the myriad pools in the Wood Between The Worlds while retaining archaeological integrity. But in the unfolding of the Performance Walks with their alchemical blending of disciplines, one answer, at least, seems to have been given.

As I watch the faces of our small group wending its way along lanes and tracks, stopping to encounter a gang of thieving Salle siblings, a herb-gathering wise woman, Bronze Age mourners and a medieval carter – not to mention the descendants of barn owls who once roosted in the now-invisible settlement of Stintuna – I know it. As we handle sticks of ash, oak, hazel and holly, marvelling at their different properties, I know it. As we dowse with homemade rods for the edges of a ring ditch and as our midsummer bonfire crackles into life, I know it. When we journey together into the life of the past - when we reach out and touch, see, hear, smell and taste it – we return transformed, all of us.

And that’s what heritage means to me.

Imogen Ashwin graduated from Norwich University of the Arts with a BA Hons (first class) and MA in Fine Art. Her work then - as now - always exploring human interaction with resonant places in the landscape, ten years ago she had the extraordinary good fortune to meet archaeologist Trevor Ashwin in a Bronze Age barrow cemetery. The rest, as they say, is history. As well as continuing to pursue her research and art practice, the couple work together in heritage publishing, research and interpretation as World Tree creative partnership 

Friday, 13 March 2015

Guest Blog 2: That Little Ship... by @jessikart

Welcome to the second of our Guest Blogs on the subject of "What history/heritage means to me". This week's beautiful contribution is from Norfolk based @jessikart. Jess has been very, very firm about what I am, and am not, allowed to write when describing her and her writing. For instance, I am, under no circumstances, allowed to mention the fact that her own blog has been viewed over 60,000 times. I'm certainly not allowed to tell you that she has guest blogged for Mumsnet, or that her blog appears regularly on the front page of their website. I'm also strictly forbidden from mentioning the fact that her blog pieces have been picked up by regional newspapers, or mention her now infamous blog post concerning Ed Balls...
So what am I allowed to say? Not a lot. I can say that Jess is a recent volunteer with the Norfolk Medieval Graffiti Survey, where she not only helps undertake surveys but also advises and helps on matters concerning publications, and that her own version of a biography read - "Jess is a history obsessed moo, a twatty blogger, and a right pain in the arse for some. She can be quite sweary. Has Scottish hair..."

That Little Ship... by @jessikart

Look at that. It’s not much, is it? But that ship, that tiny little etching changed my life. This is, from my point of view, in equal parts both terrifying and hilarious.

Almost exactly 25 years ago, I was on holiday in the north Norfolk village of Salthouse. I was bored, lonely, the weather was grotty, there was no possibility of taking a walk that day, so 10 year old me decided to explore St Nicholas church instead, standing high on a hill at the end of our lane. I mooched about inside aimlessly, half looking around at the memorials and windows, but finding nothing to dispel my ennui. I clambered into the choir stalls, trailing a pudgy hand behind me along the wood. And I felt something.

And that was it. A ship. More ships. A whole fleet of ships. And initials too, and dates, and all sorts of odd things. But why ships? I stood, and I stared, and my head swam slightly as the world rushed in at me, and I realised that I wasn’t the only one who had been here. I know that sounds stupid, but history had never occurred to me like that. History had never been about people.
History was dates, facts, books. Kings, queens, military campaigns. Not people like me. Not people who did anything other than die a long time ago. But the realisation that they too had their own futile hopes, silent dreams, and secret wishes.  And time… They had their own lifetime, just like me and everyone I knew. That thunderclap awakening still haunts me now, with the power to bring me to tears.*

     *Yes, fuck off; I did type that through tears and snot

 Because it did change my life. In the same way that staring up at the stars in the night sky is both a comfort and a chilling reminder of how utterly insignificant we are. It's a reminder that I wasn't here for a long time, I'm here now, but then I won't be. I’d love to say that since that moment, I have always considered history in this context. But that would be a big hairy arsed lie. Because that’s not how history is taught to young and enquiring minds. It’s almost as though some people don’t want to share history. They don’t want people to care about it in that sense. They want it to be dates, facts, books.

     History… is a nightmare from which I am trying to awaken

Not too hard, if I’m honest. A Level British Political History, last lesson on a Friday afternoon, hiding at the back of an overheated and stuffy Edwardian classroom. Listening to Mr John drone on, seemingly endlessly, about Corn Laws. With my cheek resting on the heel of my hand, my pen strokes becoming ever slower, elbow sliding further along the desk, chin dipping lower, blinks lasting longer…

     ‘And of course, who was one of the greatest advocates for repeal… Jess?

     Eyes slam open, head snaps back up, dribble wiped hastily from chin.

     ‘Erm… Cob…den…?

     ‘Correct. Now, the House of Commons had suggested the price per quarter, which as you know was 480lb, should be 80 shillings…’

The lowlevel background speech dragged on for a further 40 minutes until we had a ten minute break in the middle of the lesson. I’d huddle outside the Sixth Form common room, drinking a chemical coffee from the vending machine, smoking a fag. And sometimes I’d have a companion, and we’d chat and get wankily enthusiastic about 19th Century art, music, architecture. About how the current events of then shaped and influenced life for everyone, and how this was reflected. We’d talk about patronage and protest, why Shelley  wrote ‘I met Murder on the way, he had a face like Castlereagh’, about the Tolpuddle martyrs, about what certain laws meant to people, real people, how it shaped their lives. And then the bell would ring, Mr John would sigh and say ‘You haven’t handed in that essay on Catholic Emancipation, don’t think I’d forgotten’ as he and I walked back into class, and I would resume my great fight against falling asleep in a lesson taught by a man who shared my passion for history.

You could sense the palpable frustration in him. That he wanted, desperately, to show his students that history wasn’t as he was teaching it. That this is the dry bit of the subject, but there is so much more. That the facts are inextricably intertwined with lives, with people, with meaning and feeling. Confined to a syllabus, however, he couldn’t convey that.  And when the school decided to crack down on the shocking practise of teachers joining sixth formers for a fag break, our chats stopped, and history became closed off to me. I half forgot Salthouse, and the whiplash memory was dulled. History became the very thing I didn’t want it to be. Dates, facts, books.  

And then just over a year ago… it was a dark and stormy night (no, really). I was titting about on twitter, probably making inappropriate remarks, and a blogpost got retweeted into my feed. And I read it. And just like the oncoming storm, Salthouse raced back in at me. Or rather, the ships sailed back into view, filling the horizon, their decks filled with the shadowy ghosts of all the people who had been there before me. Long before that bored and lonely girl happened upon them, they had been there too, just like me.  

It didn’t matter to me that I’ll never know their names, their ages, what lives of quiet desperation they lived. Who they loved and were loved by. That’s their story that no one else will ever know. What mattered to me is that something mattered to them. That they were compelled, at some point in time to leave their trace behind, to make their mark on history. Something was important to them, and for that reason, it’s important to me.

It’s not just the deliberate marks either. A worn down staircase in Gressenhall workhouse. A reminder of thousands of feet, an accumulation of steps wearing down the stone with no malice, no intent, just effect.

 A rippled, bent tin door of a Spanish church, the heat of the sun warping the original design, the metal thinned and smoothed by the many hands that have touched it, surrounded by ancient walls flecked with shelling and scorchmarks from the Civil War.

 The ruins at Baconsthorpe. How many other people have stood, where my two children stood, and taken in that same landscape, lost in thought, or perhaps talking, or arguing, or weeping? Maybe not even looking at it, as familiarity dulls the senses.

 This, all of it, every little detail, is what reminds me that just as I am both the hero and villain of my life story, so is and was every person who has ever drawn breath. Their lives mattered to them, they were just as important as we are, and equally just as insignificant. We’re born, we live, we die. But we leave fragments behind. Little clues as to who and what we were. That is what history means to me. People. And people continue to be a source of fascination to me – some might even say the source of fascination in my life. Endlessly wonderful, frustrating, beautiful, base human beings. I observe them; I think about them, I write about them. And from writing, some of the best things in my life* have happened, things without which, I don’t know where I would be or the type of life I would have.

     *Usual ‘birth of children’ disclaimer applies

So it really wasn’t much, was it, that little ship? Just a little ship, carved into the wood. But it changed my life then. And it changes my life now, every day. A ship that has taken me on a strange and unpredictable voyage, sometimes calm, sometimes stormtossed. That’s what history has done for me. That’s what history means to me. People. Always people.

Friday, 6 March 2015

Guest Blog1 : Threads of Heritage...

Welcome to the very first of our guest blogs that form the NMGS Mini Blog Fest! Each of our guest posts over the coming weeks will look at the theme - 'What does history/heritage mean to you?' I am therefore delighted to be able to introduce you to the work of Karen and Lori, two American authors whose recently published work, The Medieval Vagina: An Historical and Hysterical Look at All Things Vaginal During the Middle Ages is certainly getting a fair amount of attention on social media and elsewhere.

Threads of Heritage

By Karen Harris and Lori Caskey-Sigety

Heritage is a complex word that conjures up more than history, culture, or traditions. Yet, heritage is comprised of these very things. Heritage is a composite, if you will; an alloy or a cocktail. But heritage is much more than a simple mixture of ingredients. Heritage is a tightly woven, intricate, interconnected intermingle of seemingly random threads that, taken together, tell a story. Heritage is a tapestry.

A tapestry, of course, is a cloth, a heavy woven piece of textile art. Each tapestry is woven on a loom using hundreds or thousands of individual threads in an artistic arrangement depicting a beautiful scene. A tapestry also tells a story. On its own, one individual thread is not impressive. The thread is only impressive when it is interwoven with others of its kind.  Only then, can its true beauty and importance can be viewed.

Slaves in the South of the United States during the first half of the 1800s used homespun tapestries, as well as rugs and quilts, as a means to share coded maps and instructions for escaped runaways who journeyed north via the Underground Railroad to, it was hoped, eventual freedom. The cloth was ideal; it was portable and could double as a blanket or covering. And if the slave was caught, his captors most likely wouldn't be able to decipher the symbols - even if they knew the significance of them.

Like a tapestry itself, history is filled with events that, when viewed in isolation, seem insignificant and trivial, but when viewed as part of the tapestry, we can fully see how integral each of these events are to understanding the bigger picture. 

Cassopolis, Michigan, is a dying Midwestern town with nothing much to show for itself today. Most businesses have long ago left this corner of southwest Michigan in favour of larger nearby cities, like South Bend, Indiana, and Kalamazoo, Michigan - and even Chicago and Detroit. Just as the businesses have gone, so too have the residents. Cassopolis is viewed today as an unimportant, dull thread.

Yet, Cassopolis is located along the final stops of the Underground Railroad’s route into Canada. Many escape slaves, attracted to the fertile farmland and hospitality of the Quaker residents, settled in and around Cassopolis and began building their lives as free men and women.

In 1847, a group of Kentucky slave owners crept into Cassopolis under cover of darkness to recapture the former slaves, who they viewed as their missing property. They were met with resistance not only from the former slaves, but from the peaceable Quakers as well. The Quakers calmed the slave owners, and convinced them to plead their case before the local judge. The legal process took longer than expected, a purposeful delay that gave the former slaves ample time to flee across the border and into the safety of Canada.

The enraged slave owners returned to Kentucky empty handed, determined that this would never happen to them again. They took their grievances to the courts and lawmakers. This event was the catalyst that led to the eventual passage of the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850 which, in turn, was one of the catalysts for the start of the American Civil War.

We can view the entire tapestry, the entire Civil War in this case, and study what we see. This is the study of history. We can view the tapestry as a product of its time and examine the societal beliefs and attitudes that may have impacted the weaver. This is the study of culture. We can admire the painstaking dedication of the artisan who is so skilled at his craft. This is the study of traditions. Or we can start by looking at the whole tapestry - then follow each thread, one by one, to see where they start - and how they intertwine with each other. This is heritage.

Karen and Lori's new book, The Medieval Vagina: An Historical and Hysterical Look at All Things Vaginal During the Middle Ages can be viewed here - 

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

What heritage/History means to me. Pt.1 - Blood and Bone.

Welcome to the beginning of the Norfolk Medieval Graffiti Survey mini blog festival 2015! Over the next two months we are welcoming guest bloggers to write on the them of 'What history/heritage means to you?'

We already have some superb blog pieces and writers lined up for you, with contributions from historians, archaeologists, renowned bloggers and volunteers. All of whom will be writing upon the same subject, but each from their own unique perspective and based upon their own unique backgrounds and experiences. However, the one thing that all of them have in common is their love of history and heritage. It is hoped that by bringing together such a diverse group of people that this series of blogs can both highlight the differences between the various areas of today's heritage world, but also allow us all to explore the areas that we have in common; and perhaps even generate a few ideas on how all areas can work closer together in the future to ensure that our world heritage is both valued and cared for.

We kick off the mini blog festival at the end of this week with the first of our contributions from abroad; two American female historians that I must admit had escaped my attention until recently. However, as both have recently co-authored and published a book entitled 'The Medieval Vagina' I am sure that like me, you will be watching their work very closely in the future! Their new book has certainly generated a lot of attention on social media and the internet in general, despite apparently having a quite 'tame' front cover, so when they volunteered to write a blog post for our little collection - how could I say no? Having now also read that blog post I also know that you won't be disappointed. Superb writing. However, before we get to the real quality, I have been reminded that I said that I also would write the first post. A short introductory piece about exactly what 'Heritage/History means to me'. So, in the beginning...

Matthew Champion: Project Director, Norfolk Medieval Graffiti Survey

Now this may surprise some of you, or not, but I haven't always been "that weird graffiti guy with the bad attitude". Oh no, for many years I worked in heritage and archaeological publishing, where I was known as "that weird publisher guy with the bad attitude", and before that I was involved in historic buildings, working alongside your regular type of English builder who just knew me as "weird". I could go on, but will spare you the tedious litany of what my parents used to describe as "why can't you get a real job". However, of all the jobs I have had, and roles I have largely invented for myself (according to one former county archaeologist), have all had one thing in common - they have been low paid...  Actually, scrap that. They've had two things in common. Alongside the appallingly low rates of remuneration all of these roles have, to some degree, been involved in history and heritage. For me all of these roles, all of these jobs, were simply ways to discover more about the past, to make connections with those who have gone before us; those who have shaped the world in which we live today. Looking for someone to blame I guess...

Exactly why I had/have this need to connect to the past is, as it is in all of us, a matter of some debate. I've studied enough history and archaeology to be able to say quite categorically that it most certainly isn't a belief in the idea that 'things were so much better back then'. They almost certainly weren't. Indeed, being born into just about any age other than the modern one would have most likely resulted in a life that was nasty, brutish and short. Perhaps it is the result of a childhood trauma? A wish to escape the reality of the modern world? Who knows. What I do know is that this connection to the past is important to me. It helps define who I am, and informs the decisions I make; and whilst knowing that there are a hundred generations peering over your shoulder can be a little intimidating, it can also at times be reassuring. To be able to look at a building or landscape and unravel the story of the past laid out before me is something that informs how I interact with that landscape or building today. However, to me and above all things, heritage and history are far more than the stories of the visible world around us today. More importantly my view of the past, and what it means to me today, is informed by people.

Right, we have to do a bit of time travel now. We have to jump back in time, many, many years, to when I was about eighteen or nineteen years old (feel free to add in Dr Who style sound effects at this point). Can you see it yet? Black and white images rolling backwards, pages blowing off an old fashioned calendar, grainy images of people rapidly walking backwards down the street... and suddenly we are there. Back in the days before wifi, decent coffee and any foreign beer other than cheap aussie lager. Back in the days when I had hair - and lots of it. Well, way back in those dark long forgotten days, I used to work in an armoury. That's right - an armoury. Not one of your modern places full of guns and things that go bang with unnerving regularity - but a medieval armoury. A place full of sheet metal, swords, daggers, rapiers, halberds and red hot forges. Now this wasn't just any old medieval armoury (knowing that you are bound to have come across at least a few dozen such places) but one of the best in the country, that undertook conservation work for many of the major museums in Europe and beyond. Indeed, it really wasn't unusual to come across a group of loitering security guards tasked with protecting some incredibly valuable piece of arms and armour that had been sent to us for restoration - and by the looks on their faces wondering just who the hell they'd entrusted it to. However, much as I liked the shiny sharp stuff, my job was to do the leatherwork; to create copies of things like sword scabbards and knife sheathes in exactly the same way in which they had been made centuries earlier. A bit of a specialist area as you might imagine with, as usual, very few career prospects.

So there I was one day, sitting in the former stables where we kept all the leatherwork, listening to the banging of hammers and very, very loud Vivaldi from the workshop next door - and with a work of art before me. A broken work of art. It was a late medieval sword scabbard, formed from two thin pieces of wood that had been covered in leather and then bound together with tiny almost invisible stitches down the back. On the end, to prevent wear, was a highly decorated metal 'chape' that covered the last few inches of the scabbard - and which I had to try and remove so that the stitching could be repaired. Eventually the chape came away with a slight jolt, revealing the end of the leather covered scabbard - and the stitches along the leatherwork that it had concealed. And then it struck me. Looking at that tiny line of stitches, I realised that I was the first living soul to have seen those stitches since the medieval leatherworker who had made it over five centuries before me. That the last fingers to run along the slight raised ridge of stitched leather had been his, and that he had long since crumbled to dust leaving nothing on this planet except the tiny piece of craftsmanship that sat before me. The sounds of metalwork from next door seemed to dim, and it was as if I could feel him there, looking over my shoulder, admiring a job well done. Five centuries slipped away and two people, separated by an eternity and only the thickness of a moment, shared a connection that was both ethereal - and as deep rooted as blood and bone.

So for me history and heritage has always been about people. It has always been about making connections with the past, and how those connections can influence us today. It is about what history and heritage really 'mean' to the people who interact with it. My role is a simple one. I'm just a facilitator. Someone who helps others discover their own connections with the past. Hopefully they'll mean as much to them as they have done to me...