Public archaeology / Eco archaeology

The statement that started this project off, here, said that this year of public archaeology is not aimed at analysing any engagement that takes place, but at simply creating some kind of engagement with non-archaeologists on archaeological themes. That’s my excuse for not going into great depth with any recap of this month as it draws to a close! Instead, I want to just give a few final thoughts on the wider issues raised by the archaeology, leaving the engagement to stand for itself out in the ‘real world’.

eBay needs more attention

I started the month looking at eBay. What I learnt from a look at some stats gathered from the site over a month-long period, and a vague comparison with the PAS, is that although eBay remains problematic for reasons connected to the provenance of certain items, there is a lot to be learnt from the site if we can get past that barrier of non-engagement that both ‘sides’ are sustaining. Yes, eBay and its users don’t like to talk to us, but we also, in general, make it clear that we want to talk to them so we can tell them off. I think that if we change the way we approach eBay, maybe put more time into learning about it objectively – collecting statistical data is remarkably easy – we can come up with new questions about the site, its objects and its users that may be a bit more conducive to engagement.

Mundane things are really interesting

It turns out that when you look at things that should be fairly dull – and not traditionally archaeological – like wood, lampposts or modern bricks, we can follow that stuff around and learn loads of really interesting stuff. Even looking at eBay, a brief statistical analysis of finds on there shows that there is relatively little to be learnt from the higher value objects than from more common items like clay pipes, if the sheer amount is anything to go by.

Public archaeology can change the world

Talking to the BWRP, it’s clear that co-operatives like that one sit in the middle of really important networks connecting things, people and politics, the past and the future bouncing off each other in the present. Archaeology has an important perspective to bring to understanding how these networks of habitability operate and to working between the multiple scales at which they can be seen. This kind of public archaeology perhaps has the potential to uncover more links between people and things, even more effective modes of habitation and give that information to people to use in their daily lives below and around all of the ways we’re supposed to live that come down to use from above.

This is a kind of public archaeology that places archaeology on a level with anyone else taking part and one that can lead directly from archaeology to sustainable urban living via developing relationships with people. It is public archaeology as a kind of eco-archaeology, taking an active part in the daily life of cities as much as trying to understand how they work.

I’m hoping to carry this work on in some way. Watch this space.

Construction site networks

A bit of context for the work on material networks I’m exploring with public archaeology… Last year I spent a weekend looking at the North West Cambridge development as part of a project called Prospection run by Karen Guthrie and Nina Pope as part of its art programme. The project brought together a group of people from different background to investigate two site huts, those of Cambridge Archaeological Unit and, on the other side of the site, Skanska. Here are my notes from that weekend:


Skanska Site:

Asbestos sheeting removed from site by Windsor Waste Management, Childreth, Essex

General waste removed by Biffa

All earth moved stays on site. Trees being reused in playground, smaller stuff chipped, medium wood given free as firewood.

Roads using recycled Type 1 aggregate from disused railways – processed by Frimstone, Milton Keynes

Tarmac comes from local batching plants

Concrete pile on site will be processed on site, the metal contained in it processed off site

Bricks already removed by Mick George, timbers removed from the farm site, jointed oak beams used by apprentices

Geotech sampling managed by Scott Wilson Eng., processed by Brownfield Solutions Ltd.

Specialist piling workers on site from around the country

CAU site:

My work here was a little less detailed as it will really depend on the published results of the archaeological work on site, but that work will show that things were made on the site and taken elsewhere and that things from elsewhere were brought into the site. There will be real, material connections between this site and others that were obvious to its historic inhabitants and others that are only revealed by the archaeological treatment of their remains. This links the site to the Skanska side clearly, where there is an established green narrative – earth stays on site, reuse of materials, local sourcing – that is backed up in part, proven to be wrong by some examples, and ignorant of some items that nobody seems to know either the provenance or destination of.


The first thing that this brief investigation shows (rather obviously) is that there are a lot of things going out of and coming into the site, creating not just material connections with other places (and times?), but entering and leaving other analytic contexts too e.g. soil leaves the site to become an archaeological sample or a tree becomes a component of a playground.

Secondly, that investigation of these material networks can reveal ‘new information’ about the site. This is clear in the archaeological analysis of where material came into the site from in the past but also reveals meaningful connections between otherwise disparate contexts at the level of the individual in the present day. In some cases these connections are revealed only by the act of investigation and contradict or complicate existing site narratives.

Thirdly, these connections and material networks have the potential to exist meaningfully at multiple scales, but what is meaningful and important will be revealed over time. So, the micro-level movement of soil and plant cells around the country on people’s boots (the workforce disperses nationally on Friday afternoon) establishes a real, physical connection between places. It may prove to be unimportant. Biffa taking away general waste may happen entirely unquestioned, but the site’s connection to particular national and international waste disposal strategies may prove to be its longest lasting legacy.

Finally, although this is in a way contemporary archaeology, it should not be thought of as different to traditional archaeological methods and interests, merely an extension of them, seeing a different potential in overlooked or even the same material. It is, and will hopefully remain, an archaeology of the site through time, not an archaeology of archaeologists or of Skanska. Ongoing work on the site should remain critical and questioning, with an aim of developing a meaningful understanding of the site in context (whatever that is revealed to be) and not merely document for documentation’s sake. For CAU, an objective methodology records everything found, but choices are made on what to progress to scientific analysis, which connections to follow up, what story to tell. A total analysis of the site is impossible.


Why the Bristol Wood Recycling Project is so important

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.

Pictures of Bristol Wood Recycling Project

I’ve told you a bit about the Bristol Wood Recycling Project and some of the people who use it. I’ll say a lot more about the implications of developing this kind of public archaeology tomorrow, but before then, here are some pictures from my day with the BWRP.

Seating area in the shadow of the derelict former Royal Mail sorting office

Seating area in the shadow of the derelict former Royal Mail sorting office

Cupboard doors for sale

Cupboard doors for sale

You can re-purpose pretty much anything

You can re-purpose pretty much anything





Road and pavement works outside the yard and the front a disused pub

Road and pavement works outside the yard and the front a disused pub

Disused pub. The work to the pavement in front of the yard entrance removed some granite setts...

Disused pub. The work to the pavement in front of the yard entrance removed some granite setts…

...that are now for sale in the yard.

…that are now for sale in the yard.

Reclaimed doors, complete with blu-tac.

Reclaimed doors, complete with blu-tac.

Sold materials waiting for collection.

Sold materials waiting for collection.



The office.

The office.

Work area for separating clean and dirty wood.

Work area for separating clean and dirty wood.

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:


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 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.