thinking about archaeology

Archive for June, 2016

For Jo Cox

And all she fought for and believed in.

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


The New Tate Modern – and what it made me think about the British Museum

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Listening yesterday to Nicholas Serota talk about Tate’s vision, and how that had led to the new extension which opens to all, for free, in two days, I thought of the British Museum. I couldn’t stop doing so, as Lord Browne (Tate chair) followed Tate’s director, and then Sadiq Khan (London’s mayor), Frances Morris (Tate Modern director) and finally Ed Vaizey (culture minister).

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Twenty years ago, said Serota, this was a derelict power station. Now it offers a new view of the world, not just about art, but about the city, about London and what art can do for the community. This shows what we can achieve when we remain open to ideas and to the world, said Browne, in a barely veiled dig at a backward-looking little England currently making all the noise. Vaizey said the same, while managing to sound as if he was unaware of an impending EU vote: Tate is a statement of a confident Britain that looks out to the world.

Now is Tate’s moment and I don’t want to make it about the British Museum. I will return to the BM at the end, but most of this blog will be photos I took yesterday – I hope you can pick up some of the excitement I felt just about the new building and the spaces and views it creates.

It was like being in a great cruise ship before the first passengers embark. Unscuffed stairs and landings that will fill with people and noise. Silent, sparkling cafes where reputations will be made, memories created and lives changed. Empty rooms like levels in a softly furnished multi-storey car park. Great expanses of galleries, where anything might happen. And not just any cruise ship. The long angled windows, the swish of the automatic doors and a curious hum on some of the landings: we were on the Starship Enterprise, to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new art, to boldly go where no gallery has gone before.

There are 11 floors (11 floors!) in the Switch House, from the basement to the top – and you can walk from 0 to 10 up deliciously designed stairs, which change their attitude as they rise. Entrance from the south is on the level of the bridge across the Turbine Hall, which now unites the two sides of an enormous museum. There is a real quality in the simple detailing and the acres of fine wood (despite the scale, there are more intimate corners than in the old wing, now named the Boiler House). But what most impresses are the huge spaces, many of them outside the galleries, and the heights, and the playful opportunities given to light which variously sweeps, glares and hides among the concrete frames and piers. There is nothing remotely comparable in a public building in London.

I’m going to open with the view out to the east, starting on the first floor. It was pouring heavily at that point, but by the time we’d reached the top it had cleared and the sky was rich and grey.

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And then around the top, the Viewing Level.

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Now some spaces.

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Space enough for Will Gompertz to interview Jacques Herzog in the background (architect with Pierre de Meuron – the two men sat in the front row for the press speeches without saying a word), and another team to talk to Sadiq Khan in the foreground

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A new bridge connecting the 4th floors offers a terrifying view down the Turbine Hall (that installation on the ground beyond Ai Wei Wei’s newly installed tree is the array of empty seats after the press speeches)

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And finally a bit of art.

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There were some things completely new to me that I liked a lot. Below is a room for a Romanian artist, Ana Lupas, showing her The Solemn Process (1964–2008). This must be a tiny part of what she made over decades. Working with straw and clay and rural craftspeople using traditional techniques for housing and fencing, she created wreaths and columns that look ritual and ethnographic, but apparently have no prior meanings. She photographed the installations, and over time and social changes, they decayed and she turned to more craftsmen to encase remains in metal. The solemn process apparently refers to the farming cycle. Land art meets pagan ritual, and folk and agriculture museum.

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Next, Untitled (Ghardaïa), at the back of a gallery called Living Cities. By Kader Attia, born in France to Algerian parents, it’s a scale model of the historic city Ghardaïa in the M’zab Valley in Algeria. It’s made entirely of couscous. On the wall behind are photos of architects Le Corbusier and Fernand Pouillon, with a copy of the ICOMOS document that recommended the Vallée du M’Zab for world heritage site listing, and (the main text) explained why, dated December 1981. The ancient buildings inspire 20th century European architects, but while Le Corbusier and Pouillon watch the city, it dissolves and falls until it’s rebuilt with new couscous (prepared, we are to imagine, in a domestic Algerian kitchen). Tate’s “summary” describes further French-Algerian links in the work and the artist’s life. Ghardaïa itself is one of a cluster of five fortified villages with powerful medieval roots, topped by a minaret and grain stores. Concentric rings of houses embody a principal of social equality.

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And my last, Louise Bourgeois’ cabinet of curiosities, the first display of Artists Rooms from Anthony d’Offay’s gift to Tate and National Galleries of Scotland. Wonderful things. In a smaller room at the back is a voluptuous marble figurine (Femme), accompanied by a document hand-written in a fantastic mix of French and English talking about motherhood, femininity and death.

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If you’re an archaeologist, you might have noticed where this is going. I selected these three works because I really liked them. They have clear archaeological resonances. That is no coincidence, but it’s not because I’m an archaeologist. So much contemporary art is like this. Modern artists and archaeologists are engaged in the same basic project: to understand who we are, where we came from and what it means to be human. We do it in different ways, but there is much overlap. Many archaeologists are would-be artists. Artists are frequently engaged with archaeological projects in this country. A prominent example in recent years is Drawing Stonehenge, where a number of artists were brought together by Helen Wickstead (an archaeologist who teaches in the School of Art and Design History at Kingston University) to respond in the field to excavations as they were taking place. I featured this in British Archaeology in 2008 (July/August); the flag below is part of Mark Anstee’s work about the Stonehenge Cursus.

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Attia’s couscous houses reminded me of Karen Guthrie and Nina Pope. They had a one-year residence with the Cambridge Archaeological Unit at the North West Cambridge development. They and a team of volunteers built a scale model village out of cob (a traditional building material of mud and straw), on the site of large-scale excavations which uncovered remains of prehistoric and Roman villages, based on the development’s masterplan. Tomorrow, Today, wrote Guthrie in British Archaeology (May/June 2015), engaged with “the site’s present nature, and the fleeting, unique archaeological access to the past, as well as encouraging reflection on human transience and future communities.” And, she said, they got very muddy and extremely cold. This future vision, one of the largest art and archaeology projects yet seen, was left to weather and was then backfilled. Soon it will be built over.

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From left, Karen Guthrie and Nina Pope with archaeologist Christopher Evans. Photo Cambridge Archaeological Unit

Places like the New Tate Modern, said Lord Browne, are places where we form a common identity. Where we come to be informed and to be challenged. Referring to St Paul’s across the river, he compared London’s beating heart to its cultural cathedral.

The old power station is a site for weekend family visits, said Sadiq Kahn. Tate is re-imagining the museum, seeing the potential for change, putting people at the heart of what it does and leading the world. He even noted how it embedded culture in the planning system.

Most significantly, Frances Morris observed that since Tate Modern opened, art and the world have changed. The collection has to change too, she said, bringing in more countries, more diversity and more women. Expect our galleries, she said, to look very different in ten years.

All this is what archaeology does, and does well and does around the world – but particularly so, I suggest, in the UK. Archaeology informs and challenges. It entertains. It affirms and shapes identities, locally and globally. And fundamentally, it changes. Our understanding of the past changes daily, as research and excavations create new stories, make new finds. The questions we ask about the past change too, as discoveries and the world around us stimulate new ideas, and different people bring their own interests and curiosity. Archaeology is fundamentally creative and dynamic.

I love the British Museum and everything it stands for. But I think it would be fair to say that the sentiments of the previous paragraph are far from the way the museum presents itself to the world. It hosts one of the most successful archaeological projects, uniquely British and admired around the world, for combining research and public engagement and sometimes off-the-wall enthusiasm and eccentricity: the Portable Antiquities Scheme. Yet PAS thinking does not run through the rest of the BM. The museum has not shown convincingly that it wants to continue supporting it.

It’s too long a topic for now, but there are ways for the BM to continue on its current route while taking on the vitality of Tate Modern, and representing the dynamism and engagement of what is really going on in archaeology today. Not easy! But worth a shot.


#lookdown Boris Anrep

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SPAB is running an excellent historic floors promotion which they are calling #lookdown, asking us to share images of our favourite floors. Here’s one of mine. If my experience is anything to go by, many people must walk over these every day without realising what’s under their feet – it was long after my first visit to the National Gallery in London that I really noticed these extraordinary mosaics. These are snapshots I took with my phone a couple of years ago.

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The mosaics were created by Boris Anrep (1885–1969), a Russian artist who fell in with the Bloomsbury Group. Astronomer Fred Hoyle climbs a church spire in Pursuit. Ernest Rutherford admires an exploding atom in Curiosity. In Profane Love something seems to be going on between two men, a woman and a Pekinese dog, while Contemplation features what appears to be two men struggling with their love for each other. In Lucidity Bertrand Russell is poised to remove a blindfold from an otherwise naked woman. Another woman site on the back of a motorbike in Speed. TS Eliot contemplates Einstein in Leisure (“roll[ing] the universe into a ball”).

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The gallery commissioned Anrep to lay two pavements in the vestibule of the Main Hall, to illustrate The Labours of Life and The Pleasures of Life (1928–29). Later he was asked to do a third, The Modern Virtues (1952), which allowed him to reflect on the war: we see Winston Churchill personifying Defiance; in Compassion, Akhmatova (with whom Anrep had a damaging affair in Petersburg during the first world war before leaving Russia for good) is saved from death by an angel, while she gazes out of frame to Anrep’s gravestone (Here I Lie). Looking at them now, the designs have the air of a planned whole, despite the more than two decades over which they were made. There is so much in them. There are many more panels than I show here, but even in these few photos you can see details than cry out for explanation.

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Particularly poignant is Delectation, featuring Margot Fonteyn (with, according to Wikipedia, Edward Sackville-West at the harpsichord). Last week I wrote in Salon about Jane Fawcett, who died in May. Around the world, the focus of her obituaries was encapsulated in a headline in The Economist: ‘The deb who sank the Bismarck’. Good stuff, but after the second world war she had an important career as an architectural conservationist and campaigner, which deserved more recognition. One of her passions was… historic floors. She wrote a survey of cathedral floor damage (ICOMOS 1991), in which she lambasted stiletto heels and tourists with “little interest in the cathedral as the House of God… destroying for each other whatever experience they might have expected by sheer noise and weight of numbers.” Margot Fonteyn? Fawcett shared studios with Fonteyn when they were training as dancers. One of those careers came to naught: Ninette de Valois told Fawcett she was too tall, and her parents sent her to Switzerland to learn German.

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New British Archaeology

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The new British Archaeology is out this week. The digital edition is online now, and printed copies are in the post and will in the shops on Friday.

There are two pieces that I particularly like as classic examples of archaeology at work: finding human stories we’d otherwise know nothing about.

First is the discovery of 400 wooden writing tablets from the early years of Roman London; the texts include the oldest reference to the city’s name, Britain’s earliest dated document (January 8, AD57), and advice to a moneylender.

BA 149 A'a.jpgThen there is A’a, a wooden figure of a Pacific god collected by Victorian missionaries. It’s been in the British Museum for over a century, but new scientific studies revealed many surprising – and, for some, challenging – insights.

BA 149 Ambrus.jpgI have profiled the distinguished illustrator Victor Ambrus, best known for his work on TV’s Time Team.

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Stonehenge may get a road tunnel: how do we judge the options? The CBA sets out some principles.

Another unexpected discovery, and one easily overlooked for its significance, is still under excavation, at Bulford in Wiltshire. There are two small henges (known since OGS Crawford’s time from air photos, but thought to have been bronze age barrow ditches) and lots of neolithic pits full of “ritual” deposits. The site is just back from the east bank of the river Avon, above the junction with its tributary the Nine Mile river. The relevance of that location becomes clearer if I add that on the west bank opposite, are Woodhenge and Durrington Walls. This is a news story, but I put it on the front cover (some of you may recognise Phil Harding and Alistair Barclay standing on the right, and Josh Pollard on the left). I hope the archaeologists will write about it at greater length for British Archaeology when the dig is over and analyses are under way. It’s an important addition to the world heritage site landscape (albeit the wrong side of the river!).

And much more. All in all another issue packed with the best of British archaeology!

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