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.

Comment: A response to @jessikart

I left a response to that interesting piece on ‘The Public’ by @Jessikart. I’ve reproduced it below. Join the conversation!

“Hello Jess,

“I really enjoyed your post. The issue you raise is central to all attempts of groups of people to connect with people who aren’t them. I’ll start off widely then come to archaeology in my response!

“I was once at an academic workshop on ‘public engagement’ with science where one of the participants snuck back into the room during a coffee break and wrote ‘Sod The Public!’ on the board. She meant, as you do, that the discussion was unhelpfully focusing on an anonymous mass rather than groups of individual people. The sentiment is absolutely right and I think anyone who goes down that route is unlikely to create anything of much importance and, as you point out, can end up insulting people. My PhD was based around investigating the connections between people and ‘public art’, so I’m well aware of how much people hate being told what to do and what to like. The fact that the vast majority of big money ‘public art’ pieces are ignored post-installation while the more relevant, informal stuff that people tend to identify with is driven underground (and called ‘illegal’) speaks volumes.

“With the PublicArchaeology2015 project, of which I think you’re aware, we are, despite the name, addressing just the point you raise. The project is based around the assertion that public archaeology must at least allow the possibility for non-archaeologists to do archaeology, without archaeological supervision (to avoid angering colleagues, I’ll point out that archaeology takes many forms and I’m not talking about digging holes in things willy nilly). The project will see six archaeologists and six non-archaeologists creating their own archaeology projects centred on engaging people other than themselves with archaeological themes. Each will do it differently and we will see twelve very different takes on what ‘public’ ‘archaeology’ and ‘engagement’ mean over the year. One thing we won’t be doing is bringing it all together with any unified conclusions. Each bit of engagement will be left to stand for itself, having either worked or not. In that sense, the public of each mini-project will be the individual humans who take part in it and in some cases the project will have no (formally defined) archaeologists directly involved at all. I think it is moving things in an interesting and useful direction and I hope you have time to give your opinion over the course of the year.

“Just to address the wider perspective again, you ask “Do we have Public Historians? Public Gardeners? Public Geographers? Public Chemists?” I think we do and I think parts of each of those disciplines discuss ‘the public’ in exactly the unhelpful way you identify, they just don’t do it in the open and what we see, despite the absence of the p-word in their output, is their assumption of what we want or need to see. Public Archaeology, for all its flaws is, I think, generally reflexive and open to debate.

“Hope that makes sense! I look forward to continuing the discussion and am glad to have made contact.

“James Dixon (@James__Dixon)”

Comment: Who are ‘the public’?

I’ve just read this really interesting blog post by @jessikart on feeling annoyed about all this talk of ‘the public’ and asking whether it creates a division between ‘them’ and ‘us’. The original post can be found here:

@jessikart has very kindly given me permission to repost her piece for discussion here too. Here is her text. Feel free to discuss it here or on Jess’s own blog. I’ve left a response on Jess’s blog and I’ll repost it here in a couple of days. Go and read it there though.

“I’ll be honest. This started in a pub. I’d escaped the house over the Christmas holidays, and was trying to write in my local, aided by a pint and some biltong, when a couple sat at a table opposite me. I wasn’t trying to listen in, but they were talking loudly, the pub was quiet, and I was not in the grip of writing fever…

     “I don’t know who they were, other than they mentioned Public Archaeology quite a few times. What I do know is that they appeared to be engaging in some seriously painful handwringing about The Public and some project they were working on. ‘Do you think The Public will like that? Do you think The Public will understand this? Do you think we should contact that professional person to deal with The Public? Do you think Person A would be equipped at communicating with The Public?’ The Public this, The Public that…

     “And, if I’m honest, it really started to get on my wick. Who, exactly, are The Public? Because the distinct impression I got was that in this case, The Public appeared to be one, multilegged, singleheaded creature, distinct from the couple sitting near me.  By constantly referring to The Public, they were distancing themselves from anyone who lacked their specific knowledge – in effect, othering The Public, in order to elevate themselves. Not once were ‘people’ mentioned, just The Public.

     “As a few of you know, I have been described as a history obsessed moo in the past. I don’t know much, but I want to learn, to discover, to explore, to feel the past and be drawn into the details of people who went before me. To walk up worn down steps, to trace my fingers over ancient stones, to read about history around me, and then to be able to go out and see it for myself with greater clarity and understanding. It’s always been about people for me, right back to that bored ten year old girl in Salthouse, suddenly having her eyes opened. People. Not The Public.

     “And this is where I take issue with some Public Archaeology, which seems to seek not to embrace people outside that specific profession, but to hold them at arm’s length. To refer to them as The Public, not as people, not as individuals, but as one homogenised mass blob of humanity who need to be spoonfed, told what they can and can’t touch, and need ‘special’ projects, designed for The Public, not for people. The Public, who are ‘allowed access’ to archaeology and the past, rather than welcomed in, inspired, encouraged, and valued. The Public, who simply by being referred to as The Public, are somehow lesser.

     “Do we have Public Historians? Public Gardeners? Public Geographers? Public Chemists? Or do we have those professions, and people who work within them seeking to bring their message to a wider audience, without the need to add the word ‘public’? Something about the term ‘Public Archaeology’ irks me. It suggests an ‘us and them’ mentality, the archaeologists and ‘The Public’, an inner circle and ‘The Public’ being permitted to  look in, rather than valued guests and possible future contributors, which is surely where a lot of archaeology is going to end up… mutter, mutter, undervaluing of our shared past, cuts, lack of funding, heritage in crisis, bloody politicians… 

     “Archaeologists should be the facilitators of encouraging people to get involved, to find out more, to fall in love with the world around them and see it anew, with a greater, deeper appreciation of something as simple a landscape feature, a building, or even some scratches on a wall. They shouldn’t be the gatekeepers, deciding when and where ‘The Public’ are allowed in, for how long, and under what conditions.

      “I appreciate that everything has to have a starting point, that just because you build it, doesn’t mean that they will come. That archaeologists have to have ways and means of attracting people into their projects in the first place, a hook, something that will work as a method of enticing people outside heritage/history/academia in the first place. That some consideration has to be given as to how to get people to want to become involved. But a better way of doing that would be to engage with people as people, not as The Public, not as something distinct and different. To use facebook, twitter, blogs, whatever – hell, perhaps even real life interactions – to talk to people who are currently outside the inner circle of Public Archaeology, which can sometimes seem to an outsider as a very closed clique that only talks to other members.

     “The Public aren’t a segmented single being. We’re people. Just like the people that archaeologists study.”