thinking about archaeology


Why I cried at the new V&A show


Press day at the V&A in London, for its new exhibition, “You Say You Want a Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966–1970”. Will we see Martin Roth, celebrating five years as director and now soon to leave? (“Martin intends to devote more time”, said Monday’s press release, “to various international cultural consultancies and plans to spend more time with his wife Harriet and their children, in Berlin and Vancouver”; but the gossip is all about disillusionment with Brexit, and the referendum “war rhetoric”).

If he was there, I missed him. But I did hear two quite slick, carefully prepared speeches from key sponsors Levi’s and Sennheiser. Is this all about selling jeans and “audio technology”? Is this what Woodstock was for (Martin Scorsese’s film screening big above their heads as they speak)? Where are Art not Oil when you need them?

Revolution exhibition photography 06-09-2016

That’s Keith Moon’s 1966 drum kit. Photo Victoria and Albert Museum

Actually, thankfully, not here. At the end of his talk, CEO Daniel Sennheiser says something that is not in the company press handout. (It has things like this: “With music being the uniting element of the world’s youth at the time, Woodstock was much more than just a music festival – it embodied an alternative way of life. This special concert atmosphere is recreated with a 14.1 AMBEO installation that uses upmixed audio material from the period.”) Sennheiser tells us (in my words) that the 60s were not just about style and music, but about ideals and hope, of visions for change. As we watch “two baby boomers slug it out across the Atlantic” (I think that’s what he said), perhaps we can learn from them, and think about changing things now.

Roth hits a similar note in the catalogue foreword. In 1970, he starts, he was a teenager living in West Germany. Students were questioning their parents’ role in the Nazi era. He wanted to change the world. He still does. “Now I run a national museum and have the opportunity to revisit the utopian vision and revolutions that took place” in the later 60s.

“But which developments from that time”, he concludes, “have perhaps not gone far enough? And what can we learn from those heady days when anything seemed possible?”

Revolution exhibition photography 06-09-2016

Photo Victoria and Albert Museum

That’s not why I cried (I clapped). That happened earlier, as I listened to the music and sound tracks and looked at all the stuff – books, posters, videos and things, so much stuff, not least a continuous thread of album sleeves from John Peel’s record collection. This was the wallpaper of my school days, much of it still around me in my home, and more in my head. It’s what I loved and was inspired by: the songs, the designs, the protests and politics, the visons and the promise of a young generation “taking control”. And look at us now. That is what made me cry.


The actual chair! Christine Keeler in Lewis Morley’s photo, and the Arne Jacobsen chair that Morley sat her in


A Kodak Carousel slide projector

But back out in the London streets, the sun shines on people eating and laughing around tables on a wide, now pedestrianised but not long ago dangerous fume-thick road. I descend into a functioning and very busy underground train station. I step into a bright, clean train full of people with phones and tablets. A couple of men embrace. Buskers play. Out in Paddington Station, bright and spacious and full of food and shops, the accents and languages are endlessly variable (and that’s just the English). So much is so much better now than it was in the 60s and 70s.


Worth a million spreadsheets: Poster for the Health Education Council, issued by the Family Planning Association, Cramer Saatchi Advertising Agency (1969): Photo Victoria and Albert Museum

And so it could be again. A very striking thing in the V&A show is the use of graphics, poetry and performance at that time. We cared then about peace and love and community, about a brighter future for a better world. But we did it not with figures and logic, with government reports and peer-reviewed articles. We did it with passion and emotion!  We didn’t write press features complaining that people are too stupid to see that global warming is happening, and is terrifying. We sang songs! We didn’t explain in intricate detail how politicians who want the UK to leave the EU are insane. We marched and took our clothes off! We put posters on our walls! “WAR IS GOOD BUSINESS”, reads one, over a photo of Michelangelo’s Pieta: “INVEST YOUR SON.” “ABORTION IS A PERSONAL DECISION”, another: “NOT A LEGAL DEBATE”. With powerful design and colour.

That’s what’s really missing now. We do care. But we need to learn from Trump, and Johnson, and Farage, and all the folk with the good tunes. Look at the 60s. Facts matter, a lot. But you don’t change things only with facts. Bring back the passion. And even with the very sad departure of Martin Roth, the museums and galleries of our capital city are run by able, not so old, ambitious people with global visions from around the world. That feels, perhaps, quite 60s.

Percival Turnbull RIP

Val Turnbull 1972.jpg

Archaeologist Percival Turnbull has died from a sudden stroke, a great shock to his friends and colleagues. He had been a partner in The Brigantia Archaeological Practice in Barnard Castle since 1995, and was, as Tony King says, a stalwart of archaeology in northern England. Val, Tony and I were fellow undergrads at the Institute of Archaeology, UCL. I took the photo above in the Guildhall Museum (Percival stands with a 19th century wheelwright’s bellows) in 1972, when we were sent out across London in pairs with a Gandolfi camera during our photography training. In good antiquarian style Percival’s face is blurred in a very long exposure.

Maev Kennedy has it spot on in her post: “RIP Percival Turnbull, a gentleman, a scholar, a cynic, a big brain and a razor sharp wit”. He was his own man, a very bright mind navigating modernity and antiquity with an open, questioning mind. Maev quoted him in 2009 in the Guardian, in a nice piece reviewing the state of British archaeology in depressed times (Percival’s default mode, one might sometimes have thought). “Percival Turnbull”, she wrote, “is philosophical and borderline optimistic. ‘I do think that we’ve lost as well as gained: lost much of the community of purpose that united us as archaeologists; the extraordinary special local knowledge and other expertise which had been built up in many places; the sheer fun of it all. On the other hand, I don’t expect ever again to spend an evening washing string so that it could be re-used’.”

His wit was always there. In 2012 I credited him with the best joke about the Richard III dig, expressed in a letter to the Guardian at a time when people were questioning who the skeleton really was. “The identification of bones found in Leicester as those of Richard III (Report, 13 September)”, he wrote simply, “may be supported by the telling absence of any trace of a horse.”

There is a good story from 2008. Outside his local pub because of the smoking ban, he was puffing on his pipe when the landlord opened a door beside him. He promptly spotted a fragment of medieval cross slab grave cover in the wall. As ever, his mind alert.

The age of A’a

OcLMS.19 left hip figure

Good to see Martin Bailey write about A’a in the Art Newspaper yesterday. We reported this story in British Archaeology in June, when British Museum curator Julie Adams wrote about the new research she led into the wonderful, unsettling carving from Rurutu taken to London by British missionaries in 1821. This and Hoa Hakananai’a (delivered to London in 1869) are arguably the two most spectacular items in the British Museum’s early Pacific collections, which are stronger than the current displays reveal.

Bailey headlines the carbon dating of A’a (actually some time between AD1505–1645, rather than “around 1505”), which like a date obtained some years ago for an Easter Island wooden carving is significantly older than art historians had it. As Adams wrote:

“Even at the younger end of the range, this is still dramatically earlier than had been imagined; it is a major finding that requires a complete reevaluation of our understandings of Pacific art. It makes it clear that A’a was created using stone tools, rather than metal, and that the people who created it were extraordinarily skilled carpenters. It also challenges our perceptions about how long objects may have survived in a tropical environment. The skill and effort required to create A’a, and the extremely significant role he was designed to fulfil – to hold the bones of a deified ancestor – in conjunction with the early date indicated by radiocarbon dating, prove that the figure must have been very carefully treated and preserved.”

Other discoveries of the project include the identification of the wood as sandalwood, not the local pua as had been assumed – causing some controversy on Rurutu, as sandalwood is not native to the island.

The first find, within minutes of Adams seeing the carving in store, was a feather from a Kuhl’s lorikeet. They later found some human hair, scraps of barkcloth and two further feathers. “In Polynesia,” wrote Adams in BA, “these are all items with rich cosmological associations and imbued with the presence of the divine. Red feathers, in particular, functioned as a kind of cosmological currency with which chiefs could assert their status and legitimacy: a chief who could manipulate the appropriate networks to acquire feathers at key moments in the ritual calendar, held political sway on the island. It makes perfect sense for a red feather – a valuable currency – to be discovered within a god image such as A’a.”

Even in storage, museum collections have endless and unexpected stories to tell.

Photo at top British Museum.


150th New British Archaeology out

Maiden Castle

Tessa Machling, on the Prehistoric Society’s Facebook page, kindly recommended the new British Archaeology on the strength of its Must Farm reporting, so I’ll start this post about the new magazine there.

This edition has our last “live” coverage of the extraordinary excavation of the bronze age village, which has now ended. Regular readers will have noticed that I eschewed an early feature on this site in favour of running news stories; this is the fourth. I’ve never done this before, and I cannot recall any excavation that has had such a strong narrative, moving so fast to uncover enough new material to merit double-spread reports every two months.

To conclude this phase of Must Farm, I’ve also interviewed site director Mark Knight for My archaeology. I expect we’ll hear more from him: Knight’s an unusually gifted field archaeologist, with a keen eye on the ground as well as an astute interest in the wider picture. I’ll continue to follow site progress, and in due course we’ll run a major feature. Without doubt some of the best stories will emerge during post excavation. British Archaeology will be here to report them!

BA 150.jpgOn the front cover is a bronze age grave from Scotland, heralding a feature about the Beaker people. A once popular theory imagined continental immigrants sweeping across Britain 4,000 years ago, bringing new ideas and technologies – even their heads looked different. Could it be true? A major scientific project may have the answer.

We visit Bearsden, a Roman fort in the Glasgow outskirts: at one of the most northern posts in the Roman empire, soldiers had to adjust to local supplies – they had imported olives and figs, but no sponges in the toilet (though look out for the drawing used in some other publications that was sent out by Historic Scotland’s press office, showing squaddies sitting cheek to cheek with sponges at the ready… I do wonder about some of these visualisations. How will archaeologists in two millennia, if there’s anyone still here, depict us in a museum? Picking our noses? Waxing?).

More Roman, and prehistoric, finds have been excavated ahead of a major road project in the north of England, along Dere Street.

At the British Museum, 2016 is the 200th anniversary of the arrival of the Elgin collection: we consider the eventful shared history of sculptures and museum.

BA150 Elgin.jpgThe medieval Black Death killed millions, but measuring its precise impact has proved a challenge; thousands of garden-diggers think they have found an untouched source of information.

And of course there is much more.

BA150 MAS.jpg

BA150 cardiff adventures.jpgIt’s nearly two months before the next one, but prepare for some more striking prehistoric archaeology! Meanwhile you can find out how to obtain the magazine here – or look for it in the shops. Digital subscribers have immediate access to back editions (all those Must Farm stories…). I was on Maiden Castle in Dorset a few days ago, hence the photo at the top – not in the magazine (yet).

Paul Nash: A Private World


Abbott and Holder are selling some terrific Paul Nash photographic prints. They were shot by Nash in the 1930s and 40s, and include well-known images of dead trees, a lovely ploughed field and archaeological sites. They are asking £9,250 for 25 prints, from an edition published in 1978 by Fischer Fine Art, as A Private World: Photographs by Paul Nash. If that doesn’t come off, they will sell them separately. Here are a few:

First are two images of the White Horse at Uffington, c.1937 (top and below):


This is a “Monster Field”, at Carswall’s Farm, Gloucestershire, 1938:


The “Avebury Sentinel”, 1933:


My last selection was apparently described by Fischer, or this description was perhaps given it by Tate, as “Rock recessed in grass (Portland?)”). But it’s actually another Avebury shot. Nash visited Avebury in the late 30s when Alexander Keiller was in full flight, ripping up trees and hedges, knocking down houses and raising megaliths, and setting them in concrete. Nash didn’t like it. But he took this photo. It appears to show the edge of a sarsen megalith in the medieval pit into which it was thrown: the dark colours suggest burning, which could mean it was buried and burnt in the 18th century, but that usually resulted in the stones being broken up. There should be photos of this stone in the museum in Avebury, taken by Keiller, which will reveal its story; it is now presumably erect.


In some ways the Private World selection tells us as much about John Piper (who made it) as Nash – here there are no aeroplanes (active and wrecked), people or cars that are so distinctive of the large collection of Nash’s negatives at Tate Britain. This includes two more of those “Portland” stones, at Keiller’s Avebury excavations:



There are couple of quasi-abstract images at Wheeler’s excavations at Maiden Castle in 1935, and these two fabulous shots at the “war cemetery”:



And (serious archaeological alert), a young “Lance Sieveking in bathing trunks”.

All photos, of course, are by Paul Nash, and the rest of the set of 25 can be seen on Abbott and Holders’ website.

Pigeon post

patient pigeon.jpg

Two years ago a pair of pigeons made a nest and brought up two squabs in the rose outside my study window. I didn’t see them last year, but this year, about a month late, they returned (I assume it’s them), and built a new nest in the same place. I call the bird on the nest patient pigeon: she just sits there without moving, one eye on me and one on the garden. She seems happy with my taste in music.

The other day she made an uncharacteristic loud, happy cooing noise and when I went to look I saw her with an egg. Later it rained, and she hunkered down. A couple of days later I saw the second egg, as she worked at refining her nest.

wet pigeon

fixing nest.jpg

Two years ago we were fascinated by the nest building, and I posted several photos. The last post consisted of daily shots. I’d planned to continue this as the squabs grew up and left the nest – which they did, hanging around the garden like pets for longer than seemed healthy. I took the photos, but work intervened and I didn’t get around to editing and posting them. I’ll do so if anyone’s interested. This was 2014:

June 27: Pigeon culture
They start to build a nest

June 29: Pigeon news 2
Nest construction continues

July 1: And now we have an egg
The first of two

July 26 2014 Growing squabs
Photo a day from July 3 to 26, showing appearance of two squabs

Boris Anrep National Gallery mosaics

NG guide.jpg

I posted photos in my earlier blog about Boris Anrep’s National Gallery mosaics, but I didn’t know much about them. I now have a copy of the gallery’s out-of-print guide. Here are some better-informed details that visitors might find interesting pending a new guide, and at the end a few words about a portrait Mary Beard acquired in 2008. I bought the guide online from Anytime Books, and was pleased to find the kind seller had included a separate fold-out leaflet, published in 1993. The plans here come from that.

The floor mosaics, writes Lois Oliver in the guide (2004), were created between 1926 and 1952. They were not his first works in Britain: Augustus John had promoted his talents, and his first commission came in 1914 for a mosaic floor at a house in Chelsea – Anrep so pleased the society hostess whose home it was, she later asked him to decorate her walls too. A 1919 mosaic in John’s Chelsea house showed him perched on a pyramid of wives and children. In 1923 he completed a floor in the Blake room at the Tate Gallery.

Anrep’s National Gallery work was all done in his Paris studio. He set out in 1926 to make The Labours of Life (west vestibule) and The Pleasures of Life (east vestibule), featuring respectively subjects such as commerce, engineering and science, and swimming, dancing, cricket and hunting (some of his choices, says Oliver, were “idiosyncratic”: he put music and theatre with labours).

The Awakening of the Muses followed, on the half-way landing, a larger work with an arrangement of scenes. Finally, on the floor of the north vestibule, Anrep completed the set with The Modern Virtues, which he began after the war in 1945.

He continued to work well into his 70s, says Oliver, his “last great work” being “an important cycle” for the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament in Westminster Cathedral (1962).

Beard Anrep.jpg

Now for Mary Beard’s portrait (above), about which she blogged after she and her husband bought it at auction. Said to be an oil of Anrep, it was signed L Inglesis but otherwise came without information. No one was quite sure who the painter was (there are several good comments on the blog). The pose bears an interesting comparison to one that Henry Lamb caught of Anrep in a portrait of 1919 (below, from the NG guide), which sold at Christie’s in 1995 for £2,300 (Beard and Cormack paid £50 for theirs), and is now at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. There are separate pencil sketches of Boris and Helen Anrep.

Lamb Anrep.jpg


From Artnet

floor plan.jpg

life east-west.jpg



Beatrice de Cardi

Corsica 1978.jpg

My obituary for Beatrice de Cardi has just gone live on the Guardian website, and I guess will be in the paper tomorrow. I have written a longer version for the Society of Antiquaries’ newsletter (Salon), which fellows will receive next week.

She was an astute and discrete lady. I suspect we will start to find out all sorts of things about her that few knew, and collectively that very likely no one person fully understood. She kept her work in the UK and the Middle East quite separate, but there’s a third area that may turn out to be at least as interesting: Corsica.

Through her father Count Edwin de Cardi (1875–1935) she was, it is said, the last in line of an aristocratic Corsican family; she was herself a Countess, though she never used the term. In the past few days I’ve not seen anything in which she mentions Corsica, and it didn’t come up when I interviewed her in 2004. So I was intrigued when I heard that one of her requests for her funeral was a Corsican liberation song.

So here, for Beatrice de Cardi, are two images of Corsica I took in 1978: the megalithic alignments in the maquis at I Stantari; and protest graffiti.

I Stantari 1978.jpg

And then there was her mother, a would-be opera singer from Pennsylvania. The Museum of London has some of Christine’s clothes, including this evening gown (left), and (right) an “opera cloak, satin, velvet, lace, ostrich feather, Jacques Doucet, early 20th century”, too delicate to unpack.



Photos: Museum of London






Beatrice de Cardi 1914–2016

Beatrice de Cardi in 1966

Beatrice de Cardi, distinguished and honoured archaeologist, founding secretary of the Council for British Archaeology, with a career that ranged from Mortimer Wheeler’s personal secretary to significant fieldwork in the pre-Islamic cultures of the Arabian Gulf and Baluchistan, died this morning, aged 102. A dear and dignified lady. Expect many tributes.

Below is an interview from British Archaeology in 2004.

Beatrice de Cardi 2004

For Jo Cox

And all she fought for and believed in.


Lawrence Johnston’s gardens at Hidcote, Gloucestershire, June 18 2016.

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