Monthly Archives: August 2013

English Countryside Interludes: Bat’s Castle & Whortleberry Jam

The gorse was dense and packed with brambles that caught and cut. There was patchwork-pretty countryside all around us, neatly divided by hedges and dotted with sheep and thatch roofs, but this hilltop was primeval with purple heather and shaggy ferns. I pulled a thorn out of my thumb and kept pushing through the scrub, looking for a particular low, shrubby plant with a small, blue-black berry.

We finally found a thick concentration of the plants on the leeward side of Bat’s Castle, an Iron Age Hillfort that had been re-used by the Romans and during the English Civil War. While I was initially disappointed by the low, undulating ripples of these hill-top “castles”–where were the ramparts? How dare they call them castles?–the picturesque placement and quiet of these sites was starting to grow on me. I’ve been to Maiden Castle and Danebury, both huge and trenched by famous archaeologists over the years, but I like the small, out-of-the-way forts, like Cow Castle, described by George Tugwell in 1863:

A real discovery it was of an indubitable Camp, with its line of outer earthworks as perfect, gateway and all, as when it was first piled–and it is to be found in no book or antiquarian memoir in all the three kingdoms.

There it stood, a circular crown on the brow of a lonely conical hill, washed on three sides by the wanderings of the Barle, out of bow-shot from all the neighbouring heights, within reach of abundance of water and provisions, for three valleys trended from it in a triple direction, commanding a wide and glorious view of peak and ravine, centrally placed in the very heart of the Forest.

And thick along the ditch of Bat’s Castle is a plant locally called the Whortleberry, more commonly known as the bilberry, and that was our target. Not quite a blueberry–tiny and incredibly pesky to pick, the bilberry is rarely cultivated.

It took the two of us about an hour to pick just over a pound of whortleberries, munching on a few stray wild raspberries and just-ripe blackberries along the way. 

It dyed our hands dark purple–the bilberry is also used as a traditional dye for wool. We carefully cleaned the berries, then added the juice of a lemon and a pound of sugar and brought the berries to a boil. Dan sterilized a few jars and we bottled up the Whortleberry Jam. It made about 2.5 jars and it’s my favorite jam in the world–similar to blueberry jam, but less sweet and more delicate.

We ate the half-jar over the last week but will hide away the other two jars for an after-Christmas welcome-home-from-Qatar treat.

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“Found any gold?” Piggott in the Pub

sutton_hoo

The Sutton Hoo Belt Buckle, courtesy of the British Museum.

Stuart Piggott is my academic grandfather–the advisor of my advisor–and I’m sad that I never got to meet him, because all the stories I’ve heard about him are great. I was particularly delighted to find this story, in his own words from The Pastmasters:

My memories of this extraordinary occasion (working at Sutton Hoo in 1939 with Charles Philips) are those of mixed feelings of inevitable excitement at the splendour of the finds, and a sense of frightened inadequacy in making the drawings to record the burial deposit, in which every feature was unique and startling, and where no precedent existed to guide us. We had to keep the sensational nature of our finds secret, carrying back the most valuable pieces to the pub in Woodbridge where we stayed, and locking them in a suitcase to await Kendrick’s next visit to transfer them to the British Museum. Coming home one evening and making straight for the bar, I was met with the inevitable hearty greeting,

“How are the diggings, ole chap? Found any gold?”

“Yes, weighted down with it”, I answered, covertly grasping in my pocket the box containing the great belt-buckle, over 400 grammes (16 ounces) of solid metal.

“Ha! Ha! Jolly good. Have a drink?” I accepted, knowing the truth would not be believed.

I have to wonder how many finds got lost back in the day after a good evening in the pub. Raise your next pint to Professor Piggott, and his ridiculous goldy gold belt buckle.

Gone Home: Materiality & the Enchantment of the Mundane

I didn’t expect to spend several hours this weekend playing a video game, but the buzz around Gone Home was too much to ignore. The premise is incredibly simple yet breathtakingly elegant: during a dark and stormy night in the mid-1990s you arrive home from a trip overseas to an empty house. You aren’t sure what happened, but everyone is gone.

The rest of this post will give spoilers for the game. Download it. Play it. Come back when you are finished.
http://www.gonehomegame.com/

Amidst the growing clamor around the treatment of women online and the (still!) incessant hounding of Anita Sarkeesian by trolls for daring to turn a critical gaze onto video games, Fulbright Games has dropped a subtle, wonderful video game with fully developed (though absent) female characters. There are three (arguably 3.5) storylines that you explore as you move through exploring the contents and structure of the very large (!) house that your parents moved into while you were overseas.

There are already several reviews that describe how intimate the storyline is and the “ludonarrative harmony” that Gone Home uses to “exploit gamic expectations, gamic tropes.” Beyond the fantastic storyline (setting the game in the mid-90s, featuring riot grrl music and zines left me nearly immobile with nostalgia), the way the game uses found objects, assemblages, and a domestic structure to connect the player with missing people deserves some attention from archaeologists and others who are interested in digital materiality.

The setting of Gone Home is, from the perspective of a western gamer used to deep space and fantasy realms, hopelessly mundane. The house, while incredibly large, is not unfamiliar to anyone who has been to suburban America. Its contents are a little jumbled, as your parents have just moved in, but it is completely full of glasses, tissue boxes, coasters, televisions, and empty pizza boxes. Yet these contents are not randomly scattered through the house. In time, through your exploration and increased understanding of the family members, you associate these objects with individuals and can “see” which rooms each of them frequented.

x-files

Personal letters, tickets, receipts, calendars and photos help the narrative along, and you assemble this detritus into an intricately detailed picture of what happened in the house while you were overseas. Gone Home is deeply about context–did your mother cheat or not? What was the relationship between your father and his uncle? Even some of the “meaningless” objects, the objects that do not directly advance a storyline, help build both the context and add depth to the characterizations.

There is also a measure of respect for these objects–unlike most video games, you do not have to smash everything you see so that you can look inside. You are invited to put cassette tapes into players and put things back in the right place after you examine them. I admit that I took a certain amount of joy in throwing tampons all over the bathroom, but this may mean I’m just a little more Sam than Katie. In an interview with the Fullbright Company,  Steve Gaynor explicitly cites haikyo, or urban exploration, finding a story “through voyeurism and exploration” as one of the main sources of inspiration for the game.

The objects fill us with a sense of unease–as a family member, you (as Katie) are, in theory, allowed to go through the house, even though your sister asks you not to try to find out where she is. Yet you feel a voyeurism as you sort through the domestic detritus, and find out uncomfortable details of your family’s life. This ambiguity is intriguing–the only way to finish the game is to use the objects to learn, yet the objects do not always tell a comfortable story. The mundane details of life in Gone Home are hopelessly enchanting.

As an archaeologist, I am thrilled to see a game that tells such an intimate narrative about a household through objects. How much of our story is in what we leave behind? How can we convey meaning through objects without a didactic label? Can we ever hope to make a story about the (more distant) past as vibrant as Gone Home? Mostly importantly, am I so hopelessly old that it breaks my heart that Sam did not end up going to Reed for creative writing?

English Countryside Interlude

“It is going to be bitter.”

There were two that looked acceptable, one still slightly auburn, but that could be overlooked. I leaned over the low stone wall and tugged the berries off the bramble. I took the reddish one and gave the other to Dan. We popped them into our mouths in unison, then both made faces and laughed.

It’s good to be back in the countryside–raincoats, wellies, huddling next to a wood-burning stove in August. The green-growingness, old brick, and ducks in the river Exe almost seem normal these days, almost go without remark.

I hopped the train yesterday out of hot and frenzied London after wading through a horrible mess at Oxford Circus (hsss, tourists…as if I’m not really one of them) frowning at loud talkers on the Quiet Carriage, towing my bright red suitcase through Paddington, which I almost don’t notice anymore, the iron work, the soaring arches, the huddled trains is a glass aquarium.

I’d like to live in London again someday; we’ll see what these unending job and grant applications bring. The countryside has a lot of quiet though–the hustle from living over Seven Sisters road was unending and the city always begged me to go down nobbly cobblestone alleyways and look in the shop windows at things I couldn’t afford.

There’s a leg of lamb from the neighbor to cook and Dan’s gone to pick vegetables in the rain. I’ll just leave you with Finsbury Park, one of my silly map drawings, my universe until yesterday.

Finsbury_Park_Map