thinking about archaeology

Archive for December, 2016

Fog on Uffington


Out for a walk this afternoon round the hillfort and white horse at Uffington, foggy and cold with frost patches remaining in areas of shadow and some lovely light. Despite the apparent archaeological evidence, I still find it difficult to imagine this outline of a horse to have been maintained up there since before 500BC. Yet everything about it is curious, so who knows?


Happy Christmas everyone!

Christmas 2016.jpgFrom Boris Anrep and the National Gallery Gallery (and Mike Pitts)

Dunelm House

_MP26400.jpgI was in Durham yesterday. This is Dunelm House, a student union building (1965), reached by a concrete footbridge opened two years before. It’s a lovely, delicate thing that drapes over the cliff down to the river Weir like a rug on the back of a chair. And it’s crumbling.



Ove Arup, responsible for both bridge and building

Karen Bradley, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, has rebutted Historic England’s request to list it, on the grounds that it has design flaws causing maintenance problems. I guess the same cause lies behind the need for the works currently in progress at the cathedral the other side of the river.

Is taking control of architectural heritage not one of our government’s duties?

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Paul Nash at Tate: archaeology and trauma


Paul Nash with a megalith: photographed by Clare Neilson in the Forest of Dean in 1939, from an album in the Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, and displayed in Tate

I went to see the Tate Gallery’s previous big show in London about Paul Nash in 1975, with my friend Diana Hale, then a student at Goldsmiths College, who died in November. Nash, along with an ever-growing club of artist and writers, stayed with me ever since. At first it was his landscapes. Working and living around Avebury, I’d see his tree clumps on the downs, his megaliths, and his collections of flints and wood. Later I could see more in his piles of logs than rustic scenes, and thanks to exhibitions such as (most recently) that at Dulwich Picture Gallery in 2010, I imagined I could appreciate the variety in his work as a wholeness rather than a fragmented series of conflicting styles. In Tate at the new exhibition that’s there until March 15 (which naturally I thoroughly recommend), I thought back to a painting I’d seen there 40 years before.

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Imperial War Museum

It was one of three watercolours, with a dab of collage, painted in 1942 to illustrate the horror of a Nazi invasion of Britain. They have the general title Follow the Führer, and were rejected for propaganda use by the Ministry of Information, perhaps for their unmitigated darkness hovering on the edge of farce. They were in private hands in 1975, and are now in the Imperial War Museum’s collection, and owned by Tate (though none are in the current exhibition). Above the Clouds shows Hitler as a flying shark leading squadrons of fighters and bombers. I can’t find an illustration of Under the Waves, and I don’t remember it from 1975. The one that impressed me was Over the Snows. Here Hitler is a screaming face leading a surge of bleached, open-mouthed and broken skulls, across a landscape and straight at the viewer. It is deeply disturbing. In 1975 I found it hard to reconcile the image with the rural views hanging nearby.

There was always a lot of archaeology in Nash’s work, from megaliths and earthworks to his more general interest in things and landscapes. Archaeologists have written about this (such as Christopher Evans, see references at end). Sam Smiles especially, a writer and researcher into British art and visually-transmitted knowledge who teaches at Exeter University, has looked at Nash’s relationships with archaeologists and antiquity, and written a series of perceptive and well-informed articles.

Emma Chambers, who curated Tate’s show with Inga Fraser, kindly gave me a printed list of the works in Nash’s library, which is now in Tate’s archive. I was struck by the number of loosely archaeological items it contains. Nash had copies of Stukeley’s Abury, and Crawford and Keiller’s Wessex from the Air. He had four books by James Frazer. And more. But what most struck me was an offprint, signed and given to him by Stuart Piggott in 1938. The archaeologist had published the article three years before in the journal Antiquity; it is called “Stukeley, Avebury & the Druids.” Piggott owned a signed lithograph by Nash, an imaginary but realistic-looking view of the West Kennet Avenue, created for a series of educational posters for schools. It was hanging prominently in Piggott’s Berkshire cottage when he died in 1996. Nash had given it to him in 1938.

I like to imagine the two men exchanging gifts. We know from an entry in one of Keiller’s excavation diaries (thanks for this, Ros Cleal), that Keiller, Nash and Piggott were together in Avebury in June 1938, so it’s quite possible. Although he wrote little about it publicly, Piggott had close relationships with several artists of his day. Was Nash among them?

With the evidence we have, it may be impossible to say, though some material remains to be fully examined (not least the wonderful Stuart Piggott archive at the Institute of Archaeology in Oxford, where I was privileged to have a peak yesterday; Nash does not appear in their catalogue). But I do think we can see more archaeology in Nash’s work than most of us realised.

I’ve written about this in the new British Archaeology. I argue there that Nash was profoundly affected by his experience in the trenches of the first world war. He was a war artist in a greater sense than that he painted both wars. His mature life’s entire work, I think, was partly a response to war, an expression of the personal impact of its eternal ugliness. He was an artist of trauma.

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(C) Tate 2016 (left), M Pitts (right)

What does that have to do with archaeology? In 2015 archaeologists Helen Wickstead and Martyn Barber argued convincingly that one of Nash’s key works – Equivalents for the Megaliths (1935) – was inspired by Maud Cunnington’s painted concrete markers at the Sanctuary, Avebury (above). This was a revelation, for Nash himself left no clues to suggest it. Maybe it’s a fantasy (if the colours match now, did they in 1935?).


Circle of the Monoliths (1937–38) © Tate 2016/Leeds Museums & Galleries

But once you start looking for hidden archaeological references, you keep finding them. The red of the round marker (in the paintings and in the grass today) appears in other works, including three significant oils in which megaliths stand on red discs. Now we can see, perhaps, that these stones are portrayed as rising out of the ground through red portals, as Nash might have imagined them at the Sanctuary – even “real” megaliths are “equivalents” for absent histories.

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(C) Tate 2016/Private collection

In another work, shown for the first time in the Tate exhibition, three objects are arranged in a tense still-life. The painting is actually named Encounter of Two Objects (1936–37). Those two are natural stones, but the unnoticed third is something else. It might be a miniature Silbury Hill, seen from above with a conical shadow as viewed in air photos that Crawford might have had, and illustrated by John Piper in an article published in Axis in 1937 (the spread below is taken from Alexandra Harris’s book, see references). But more likely I think is a very specific item of bronze age Wessex gold, a pointed button-cover from a grave at Upton Lovell in Wiltshire. Such Wessex artefacts were the focus of a substantial research project by Stuart Piggott in the 1930s. Is that coincidence?

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Axis 1937/Harris 2010


Silbury from above (left), Upton Lovell gold (right)

I note more in the British Archaeology article, but a key work is that watercolour with the wave of skulls, I’m convinced it’s directly influenced by Nash’s visit to Mortimer Wheeler’s excavations at Maiden Castle.

Nash and Wheeler first met when they were studying at the Slade in London; Wheeler later claimed him “a treasured familiar”, though what Nash thought of Wheeler we can only guess. Both were at Passchendaele in October 1917, Nash drawing, Wheeler in charge of a Battery in “the definition of hell”.

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Burials at Maiden Castle photographed by Nash in 1935, (C) Tate 2016

At Maiden Castle, the archaeologist interpreted a cemetery of skeletons as the remains of native defenders slaughtered by an invading Roman army. Nash’s three watercolour collages, Follow the Führer, depict Hitler leading armies of death into England. In Over the Snows, the landscape backdrop fits that of Maiden Castle, and the white hollows in the foreground – shell craters, trenches – could be chalk as much as snow. The rolling blanket of fractured skulls surely derives from Nash’s photos and memories of the excavated burials.

Returned from the first world war, Nash found consolation for death in landscapes shaped by people long gone; the trees and fields of rural England, animated by antiquity, were a sign of nature’s power to survive devastation by humanity. (And note the success today of Operation Nightingale, which runs archaeological investigations with service personnel recovering from action with the British Armed Forces; see features in British Archaeology Jan/Feb 2011/122 and May/Jun 2014/136).

When war returned in 1939, so did Nash’s demons, shown graphically in the horror of Totes Meer (1940–41), the sea a swirling mass of wrecked warplanes. In his last few years, Nash found light and colour in the symbolism of solstice and eclipse (drawing on Frazer). But at Maiden Castle, Wheeler had exposed the dead that lie beneath the mud, as the shells had done at Passchendaele. For once, the ancient landscape had thrown up the figures which Eileen Agar, with whom Nash had a powerful affair, tells us were of no interest to him in his engagement with prehistory. They were not welcome.


BA 152 Nash.jpgSee my “Paul Nash: Encounters with archaeology,” British Archaeology Jan/Feb 2016/152. All editions of British Archaeology can now be viewed digitally. I wrote about the concrete markers at Woodhenge, which have been better researched than those at the Sanctuary, last year (A vote in a Wiltshire field about drainpipes).

Sam Smiles: “Ancient country: Nash & prehistory,” in Paul Nash: Modern Artist, Ancient Landscape, ed Jemima Montagu (2003). “Thomas Guest & Paul Nash in Wiltshire: two episodes in the artistic approach to British antiquity,” in Envisioning the Past: Archaeology & the Image (ed Sam Smiles & Stephanie Moser, 2004). “Imagining the past: archaeological & artistic perspectives,” in Written on Stone: The Cultural Reception of British Prehistoric Monuments, ed Joanne Parker (2009).

Alexandra Harris: Romantic Moderns: English Writers, Artists & the Imagination from Virginia Woolf to John Piper (2010)

Christopher Evans: “Unearthing displacement: Surrealism & the ‘archaeology’ of Paul Nash,” in Substance, Memory, Display: Archaeology & Art, ed Colin Renfrew, Chris Gosden & Elizabeth DeMarrais (2004).

Helen Wickstead & Martyn Barber: “Concrete prehistories: the making of megalithic modernism,” Journal of Contemporary Archaeology 2 (2015).


The trauma of war. Trails (this morning in Wiltshire) turned to entrails (Battle of Britain 1941, Imperial War Museum):


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Imperial War Museum

A new British Archaeology – and another 151 editions

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The new British Archaeology has a great mix of stuff, with its usual features, reviews, news, the interview (Taryn Nixon), Bill Tidy’s cartoon and so on. And we have a new column, from the great archaeological photographer, Mick Sharp, who will be writing in every edition about visiting sites with his cameras. I’m really proud of the wide range of places and topics, and of all the contributors who have brought so much to this issue.

BA 152 fort.jpgThe front cover features a wooden Anglo-Saxon coffin – one of over 90 preserved in an early Christian cemetery, as never seen before. From London comes the surprise discovery of a Roman fort, which helps explain why the city is where it is.

BA 152 dead danebury.jpgWe ask what happened to all the missing dead from prehistoric Britain (giving me an opportunity to bring out some of my old Kodachromes). How did people in Scotland over 4,000 years ago decide which pots to put in their graves? And what lies behind the plaster mask on a skull dug up in Jericho 60 years ago? The Jericho skull features in a temporary display at the British Museum which opens on Thursday (December 15). You can see the skull online in 3D in Dan Pett’s Sketchfab rendition.

BA 152 Jericho skull.jpgI particularly like Colin Haselgrove’s overview of a huge and long-lived project designed to explain expansive earthwork fortifications at Stanwick in Yorkshire. I saw the site (or parts of it) for the first time earlier this year, when I was nearby for the funeral of Percival Turnbull – he launched the field project with Haselgrove back in the 1980s. Befitting them both, the feature is a perceptive, inspired analysis of late iron age Britain as much as the description of a dig. The new monograph behind it will be much read.

I’ve written a feature for this edition myself, inspired by Tate Britain’s Paul Nash exhibition. I’ll say something about it in another blog.

The Council for British Archaeology has digitized the entire back run of British Archaeology. We were the first archaeology magazine to offer a full digital edition as well as print, and now you can dig back to number one, and everything in between, without having to wade through mountains of uncontrollable paper. One great benefit of this is the search facility, which allows you to look for any terms within all editions, a significant step up from a conventional index. I will always enjoy the feel of leafing through a proper printed magazine, and its presence as a thing. But for work I find the online index a real boon. We are not of course a peer-reviewed journal, but great care goes into fact-checking and keeping up with what’s going on: issues become more precious as they age, as records as much as news.

Digital access comes with the package for CBA members, and is also available to anyone associated with subscribing institutions, including universities, government departments, colleges and libraries. You can subscribe separately, via iTunes or online at the Exact website. Even if you haven’t paid a thing, you can nose around through the archive looking at front covers and the first few pages of every edition. Or you can just nip round to the newsagent.

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