For much of the day I spent with the BWRP, I had an ongoing conversation with the man in charge, Kaleb. Starting off with me explaining quite what the archaeological interest is in an organisation like that one, we moved quickly on to the wider contexts of the place, some that it creates and some that constrain it.
The BWRP as an organisation is very aware of the important role it plays between wood and people. They help developers, construction firms and so on achieve certain levels of sustainability by having contract with them to take their waste wood. Then, they add to the value of that green waste disposal by putting as much of the wood as possible back into circulation, either through making items for sale of for allowing people to buy or take wood to re-purpose themselves. In the contemporary city, this makes it really important. When the over-arching narratives of any place are based around urban development, economics and tourism, organisations like Bristol Wood Recycling Project represent the counter-narrative, people getting by rather than doing what they are more commonly expected to do.
But there is also the precarious nature of the kind of organisation. The BWRP survives in its location on the good will of
the city council a private landlord (Bristol City Council were the landlords before they sold the site about 7 years ago), who allow they to pay a very low rent. Inherent in these kinds of relationships though is the certainty of the future sale or development of the site. BWRP occupies premises on otherwise unused land, next to a prime development site and overlooked by Bristol Temple Meads train station so, sadly, it’s probably a matter of when rather than if the land is required for development. It is in these situations that we see a direct clash between the less well-known, sustainable ways of living and the more obvious, yet occasionally somewhat questionable big corporate developments.
The archaeology around these issues is complex. We can follow the material, but it takes us quickly to the politics and the politics of that material is often quite difficult. Bringing public archaeology and engagement into the investigation of something as seemingly simple as the movement of wood (or bricks or lampposts) around a city doesn’t just teach us more about how people live their lives than more distant kinds of archaeological investigation, it starts conversations that can bring people to different perspectives on their own (practical-) political situations.
Bristol Wood Recycling Project is an example of how Bristol works and it potentially being moved on in the future is an example of how it doesn’t. You’ll have to take my word for it that the clash between central efforts at development and these more sustainable counter-narratives is one of key characteristics of the last 100 years of development in Bristol. Whether it’s the ‘slum’ clearances in the 1920s and the movement of city centre dwellers into new suburbs, or the rejection of pleas to rebuild after the Blitz in favour of building Broadmead shopping centre, or the only half-finished attempt at implementing Modernist infrastructure in the 1960s and 70s, or the St Pauls Riot with its roots in the disruption by development of an established community, or the birth of the People’s Republic of Stokes Croft in 2007 the face of the £500 000 000 Cabot Circus, or the riots of 2011, you don’t have to do much digging to see what ties together all of these major points in Bristol’s history.
The archaeology of this phenomenon really has to be a joint venture between archaeologists and the people living it. This look at the Bristol Wood Recycling Project has been very brief, but I hope people can see in it the potential for development of a distinct kind of public archaeology taking the contemporary relationships between people and material as the catalyst of an archaeological engagement with politics and activism.
It’s the BWRP’s 11th birthday tomorrow. Congratulations!, many happy returns.
**This post was revised on 3 May 2015 to correct an error in naming the city council as the BWRP’s landlord. They are in fact the former landlord and sold the site some years ago.