April 2015: James Dixon, urban archaeologist

Portable Ubiquities Scheme reanimated

When I started thinking about this project a few months ago, my plan was to do a series on one-to-one tours through London, one a day for a month. While I’d still like to realize that idea in some form in the future, I have decided to focus on something else for PA2015.

Reading Sarah May’s great blog Heritage for Transformation I really enjoyed a story about a piece of gravestone found in a neighbour’s garden and how it came to be there after the bombing of a nearby graveyard. This story appealed to me greatly because I have always believed that urban regeneration – by which I simply mean urban areas changing over time – happens as much in the small scale as in the larger scales of planned re-development that we more commonly associate with the term. So, the building of a new shopping centre is urban regeneration, but so is you choosing where in the city to live or by what route you walk home from work. The building of a mass transit system is connected to that ‘top down’ urban regeneration, but so is a piece of grave from a bombed graveyard being reused as paving.

The role of things in this is subtle. New things can be made or built and things can be moved around to become part of new ‘statements’ on daily life. Things also move on their own or in unintended ways like the fragment of gravestone. I give you two examples:


Back in 2008, David Cemlyn in Bristol chained himself to a lamppost to protest against its removal and relocation to enhance a conservation area on the other side of town. Article here. A fascinating act in itself, but when I ‘followed the money’ to the conservation area that would be receiving this piece of active street furniture, I found out that it was not removed to order at all, but that a local amenity group (I interviewed their lamppost afficionado Maggie Shapland) had saved money to buy it from Bristol City Council to replace one that had been damaged.

So, just crossed wires? I think we have to take it more seriously. A lamppost WAS moved and that movement of material caused a protest (reported internationally). At the other end, a local amenity group raised money to physically change the place in which they live. In the middle is a council goods yard (location???) full of street furniture removed from its original contexts and waiting to become part of other ones.


As part of my Ph.D. research, I did a photographic survey of Bristol’s Broadmead shopping centre shortly before it was repaved as part of the Cabot Circus development. In the centre, and dating to 1998, was a paved area with benches and flowerpots each bearing a large ‘B’ for Broadmead.

These were duly removed and replaced with new paving and a large sculpture called Tree Rings by Wolfgang Buttress. Imagine my surprise when I encountered them again, quite by accident while on a train through Bristol, reused in the Stapleton Road Community Garden.

Here a similar story of removal from one context and insertion into another, this time with a little more knowledge of the ‘chain’ from all involved. A late 20th century attempt to relaunch Broadmead and counter the threat of an out-of-town retail park now repurposed as a series of permaculture spirals (Disclosure: I also have two of the paving bricks as seen in the top photo which sit on my desk and occasionally travel to conferences with me).

Understanding how material like in these examples moves around has the potential to make a difference to people’s daily lives. Away from the large-scale regeneration tropes of decline, gentrification, cultural aspiration, population movement and so on, they present a more subtle urban regeneration that works at the level of the individual and allows people the autonomy to ‘do’ urban regeneration themselves.

What I want to do

I propose to use my month to re-examine the possibility for a Portable Ubiquities Scheme (PUS) that both catalogues and interprets the movement of day-to-day (we’ll discuss that later) objects around and between towns and cities. Non-archaeologists may want to take a look at the Portable Antiquities Scheme to see where I have borrowed a few things from!

I have discussed this idea at archaeology conferences before, but not in the last 5 years, and I think it’s worth picking up again. My plan is to find ways to contact individuals connected to the movement of material in towns in different ways and explore that movement with them, in whichever ways are deemed appropriate by us at the time. Then, I hope to be able to start to define trends, similarities and material phenomena that I can begin to connect to ideas of how archaeology as a ‘way of seeing’ can be used by people to create their own habitable cities that I have been developing elsewhere.

I am interested in hearing stories of material movement from people, but also keen to hear any ideas about how I could develop some kind of public event to run during my month in addition to the work I’ll be doing with individuals.


2 thoughts on “April 2015: James Dixon, urban archaeologist

  1. Thanks Lizzie. The Edensor et al book looks great, I’m working on a way to get hold of it. The idea is an off-shoot of my PhD research which actually included some influences from human geography, notably Sarah Whatmore’s work on ecologies. She did her early work in that area on allotments in Bristol, later expanded in collaboration with Steve Hinchcliffe. I used a history and archaeology of the last 60 years of development and public art in Bristol to expand the notion of ‘legibility’, this being the ways that people with the power to do so attempt to create places to do certain things. The word extends from, and is associated with, other words and phrases like polite, top-down, institutional etc. To contrast this, I used archaeology, human geography, critical analysis of public art creation and interviewing to develop ‘habitability’ which is what happens underneath and around these attempts at legibility i.e. real people’s daily lives (bottom-up, vernacular, non-institutional).

    Not sure about whether to focus on a specific area or not, I have working examples on the go from all over and it would be interesting to be able to compare different places. It is only a small project though. We’ll see!

  2. Hi James, thank you for the link to Portable Antiquities Scheme – really useful from a non-arch perspective. I like the idea of everyday items being of interest rather than just those which are deemed archaeologically interesting in the classic sense. Obviously whenever one mentions the moment of objects those rubber ducks that are still floating around in the sea from 1992 spring to mind, especially as it was members of the public that tracked them. I wonder if you’ve read ‘Spaces of Vernacular Creativity: Rethinking the Cultural Economy’ eds Edensor, Leslie, Millington, Rantisi (2009)? There’s a particularly good chapter on the movement of garden gnomes. It’s a book from the human geography field, however I’ve found it applicable to applied theatre and I’m sure there would be interesting crossovers with public archaeology. Will you be focusing on a specific urban area? I wonder if that will make the public engagement aspect more accessible and will give you a variety of material phenomena in a given environment. Hope the Edensor book is helpful and I look forward to hearing more about it. E.B

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