Recycling and re-use

In the remainder of this month I want to turn to a particular kind of recycling. What I’m interested in is the ways in which relatively mundane material moves around, what examining that movement tells you about people and how people can use that research themselves. It’s a kind of public archaeology that tries to find ways for people to appropriate archaeological methods or perspectives to aid their own interventions, whether in shaping cities by deciding where to live, opposing planning proposals or even voting in local and national elections.

What I’m planning over the next fortnight is to start, on Monday, by introducing these ideas and their public archaeology potential in a bit more detail, before moving on to talk about my recent work with the staff and customers of the Bristol Wood Recycling Project. After that, I’ll conclude the whole month with some thoughts on material networks and public archaeology and how the two coming together can change the world (maybe).

In the meantime, I wonder whether anyone out there has come across any existing links between archaeology and recycling/re-use or has worked with community groups like the Bristol Wood Recycling Project. Comment below and let me know!

Here are a few pics until Monday…

photo 1


photo 2

photo 3

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.