Archaeology will tell you how cities work

This week, I’m moving away from eBay to look more into how objects move around cities and what that tells you about how those cities work and how people negotiate them. My work in this area bring together two different ideas of public archaeology; using archaeology to understand the lives of people in the present day and working with people to understand contemporary material. These two overlap and are best done together! I mentioned a bit of this project late last year in another post. I explained it well enough that time so I’ve reproduced bits of the text below (sorry).

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:

Lampposts

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.

Flowerpots

As part of my PhD 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.

So, here, public archaeology has a purpose in both uncovering these material networks and disseminating knowledge of them and their role in the contemporary city so that people can make use of them in their own lives. Tomorrow, I’ll talk about my day with the Bristol Wood Recycling Project.

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