Sitting on history

Photos James Dixon

Here’s something that has spooked the editor of British Archaeology. In February last year I published an interesting feature by James Dixon about his research in modern Bristol. It’s not on the magazine website, so you’ll need to find a copy of the Mar/April 2009 issue for the full story. Essentially, he suggested archaeologists might treat urban regeneration not just as an opportunity to excavate historic towns, but as a topic in its own right.

“Rather than using it as the opportunity to record the moribund past”, he wrote, “can the contemporary archaeologist bring past, present and future together to study the changes themselves? If, as I believe, urban regeneration is constant, can we bring an archaeological perspective to bear on the moments of change happening around us today, in such a way as to help people understand what is going on?” He thinks central Bristol offers a good opportunity to test this idea.

Well, one site he described concerned the traces of benches in the public space within the large St James Barton roundabout (“the Bear Pit”). The left photo above illustrates what James called the stratigraphy of bench design: he highlighted the sites of earlier benches visible through changes in the tarmac surface, first red (many benches, close together, friendly); then blue (fewer benches, set apart); and now purple (single-seaters with arms to stop people sleeping on them). (Despite all this, note the person sitting on the wall…)

So here in the marks of bench history, wrote James, was the story of change from a “quite friendly vision”, through a time when people started to use the space less, to the present: when “rather than making the place safer” – presumably the council’s intention – “the benches starkly deny homeless peoples’ right to be. They make for an unpleasant, even sinister experience where once was a unified modernist vision of the post-war future, and is now a contested space with physical evidence of the council’s philosophical myopia.” Who’d have thought it? Strong stuff.

It seems the council thought it strong too. James has just shown me a second photo (above right: I altered the orientation of the left one a little to make the comparison easier, no other changes). Apparently two months after his feature appeared in British Archaeology, writes James, “Bristol City Council came along with a couple of wheelbarrows full of wood chippings and covered over the offending stratigraphy. Only the bits that were within the frame of the published picture.” (Check his photo below of the whole roundabout.)

“Don’t ever think that archaeology can’t change the world”, he adds. But what does the change mean? Is there an offended or embarrassed councillor or estate manager? Or instead one with a strong sense of urban history and irony? It could be sheer coincidence, but I prefer to think of it as just the start of a conversation about urban space and memory – microhistory benchmarked.

Photo James Dixon

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