The Archaeology of Peepo

“…and the nursery rhymes are different!”

I was commiserating with another translocated mother; she’s British and raising a son in Hawaii with an American husband, while I’m exactly the opposite. (Yes, I’m fairly sure that York is the opposite of Hawaii, alas.) We had been speaking about the subtle but substantial differences in nomenclature for British and American babies–everything from nappies vs. diapers to how the wheels on the bus go round and round, either all day long or all through town. London Bridge is rebuilt with different materials (silver and gold??) in the UK, whereas in the USA you take the key and lock her up…my fair lady. Needless to say, this all feeds into my shonky, blinkered ethnography of the UK, with this particular instance falling into the chapter on raising children.

Many of Tamsin’s books are from her grandparents who amassed a wealth of literature through teaching and having four children of their own. These are well-loved, disintegrating, and taped-together but remain compelling and most are still in print today. My favorites are the decidedly psychedelic Meg and Mog books (late 1970s):

From Meg’s Veg, sorry for the tipsy photos, I was battling a toddler

Though The Tiger Who Came to Tea (1968) is a close second–its ambiguous (anti-fascist?) narrative of a very large furry tiger who eats all the food and all the drink in a house occupied by a little girl and her mummy while daddy’s away is oddly chilling, and requires a greater literary scholar than I to unpick.


Janet & Allan Ahlberg’s Peepo (1981) is another classic British children’s book that I was not familiar with. Without getting too much into the literary devices in the book, it is told from the perspective of a little baby boy who peeps through a hole cut into the next page at various scenes of family life.

While it is not stated, the book is set during WWII, yet portrays a happy domesticity during a devastating war. This would have probably been obvious to any British readers, with the barrage balloon/anti-aircraft blimp in the background of an image of a park, a bombed-out building in the distance, gas mask on the bed, and the father is shown in uniform toward the end of the book.

This is obviously a idealized, heteronormative vision of the British past, one that probably feels true and right and comfortable. Dan tells me that a lot of children’s books are set during this time; my sample and experience are still relatively limited. What caught my attention is the architecture–we live in a similar Victorian terraced house that backs onto a small, paved yard with a tiny garden.

I started noticing the period-specific features of the house, ones that are mostly gone from ours, like the big stove in the kitchen and the outhouse tacked onto the end of the shed. The traces of these remain in our house, and some of our neighbor’s houses still have the back shed.

I realized that you could figure out the interior of the house and the location of the various rooms from a generalized knowledge of the architecture of these houses. This is how ingrained and ubiquitous these terraced houses are in the UK. In fact, after reading the book at least 1,000 times, I reckoned it was close to this set up:

This layout is from a house a block away from ours, stolen from a real estate website.

In this modern version the back shed has been converted into a kitchen and the former kitchen is now a dining room.

The interior scenes in Peepo are remarkably consistent, with objects (artefacts) appearing and reappearing as the everyday things interwoven into life. I wondered if the house was based on one from the Ahlbergs’ past, or if terrace houses were so generalizable that elaborate planning of the various scenes was not required. Of course the kitchen is there, with the stove just so, and the clothes horse in the corner.

I also love the book as potential inspiration for archaeological illustrations and reconstructions. It’s not messy, just full, rich with materiality and every object has a used and purposeful feeling to it. Small piles of toys are a playtime interrupted, but not quite cleared away. According to an interview in The Guardian, the illustrator Janet Ahlberg used The Army and Navy Stores Catalogue, 1939-1940 for reference and “would get waylaid in it and sit for ages looking at bread-bins and kettles.”

The book is from a baby’s perspective, watching his family move around him and the details he picks up that might go unnoticed by adults. It also evokes the “daily round,” of waking, daily activity, then bath and bedtime. Out in the back yard he sees:

A bonfire smoking
Pigeons in the sky
His mother cleaning windows
A dog going by

Here’s a video of Allan Ahlberg reading Peepo:


Voice, Collaboration, Archaeological Publication…and Google Docs

I love publishing collaboratively. It shows the collective nature of knowledge construction in archaeology and it’s one of the ways that I can use my (relatively limited) power to push new ideas out in the world and to give other scholars a boost. I haven’t actually published “up” (with senior scholars) as much as is normally expected, though I have been included in a couple of publications for which I’m very grateful. Rather I’ve published articles with staff members, undergraduates, Master’s students (not my own), PhD students (also not my own), commercial archaeologists, fellow grad students in grad school, etc etc etc. (And, perhaps inadvisedly, my husband. I should burn a sage-filled manuscript for Sally Binford.) When I’ve solicited contributions for edited issues or conferences I try to contact a broad range of people to add their perspectives to the conversation.

I’m not necessarily trying to get kudos (I find this short piece on performing virtue and “rigid radicalism” extremely compelling), but it’s important to foreground participation and representation when “manels” and all-male journal editor boards and such are still happening. Like any good white liberal radical woman, I’ve got a good balance of (self-identified) male and female co-authors and, through the virtue of the projects that I’ve worked on, a few POC and “indigenous” scholars as well. (indigenous in quotations because I’m unsure they’d label themselves as such) These collaborations have never been out of tokenism but have been the result of compelling ideas formed out of collaborative work. Anyway, I’m being so reflexive that my palms are sweating. You can probably tell by the amount of parentheticals that it’s an uncomfortable subject to try to pick apart.

This is all to foreground something that has been nagging at me as I’m working on the edits for a chapter in an edited volume. It was collaboratively written by four people in very different career stages. There’s an undergraduate, a Master’s student, me (then a postdoc) and a Professor (sadly we never walked into a bar together as 2/4 are non-drinking Muslims). There are relatively large chunks that were contributed from the Master’s student and undergraduate, filler + theory from me, and some really gutsy, introspective stuff from the Prof. Interestingly, if you ranked us in academic power, then it would pretty much go as you expect. However if you ranked us in relative power in the socio-economic context in which we work, it might go something more like (in descending order of power): undergraduate, Professor, Master’s student and me (doh). With fairly wide gaps between a couple of these positions. I’m first author though. These kinds of interpersonal relationships and power differentials are so telling and important, and yet not visible to our eventual readership.

So we’ve put this Google doc together. The cool thing about the juggernaut of corporate evil and yet convenience that is the google academic ecosystem is that it is very easy to work collaboratively AND it is easy to unpick the relative authorship of a document by going through the version history (forget github, most academics begrudge you asking them to write in something other than Word). If journals published the version history alongside the final article you could see the 1) intellectual trajectory of the article 2) the impact of the peer reviewers and editors 3) the individual contributions of the authors to the writing. And cursing, probably. A whole new world of academic transparency.

I’ve been thinking about this as I’ve been going through the editorial comments on the chapter. Some of these comments have dealt with shifting spelling conventions (US vs UK), fine, but others have dealt with the use of the active voice, “we,” which I’d like to resist but it’s the style of the rest of the volume and the (non-white, non-western, though they’d probably not describe themselves in the negative–writing about identity politics while keeping identity anonymous is near impossible, argh) editors don’t necessarily subscribe to my particular brand of stroppy (white, western) feminism as performed through writing (strong; like a man). Other comments have more explicitly asked us to write with a consistent voice. As lead author, I guess that is my voice. Without the “we” or me. So I go through and subtly change or obliterate all that does not sound like me. So much for heteroglossia.

Rosemary Joyce co-authored a brilliant book, Languages of Archaeology that brilliantly delves into the creation of archaeological writing in a much more rigorous and poetic fashion than my mangy and fraught blog post. Joyce has pointed to the possibilities of hypertext on several occasions, and Jeremy Huggett encourages a further investigation of the form. It’s compelling to imagine ways to reveal the craft and co-authorship of individual research articles, but I think I’m kidding myself if I thought anyone would actually go through and unpick them–people hardly read academic articles such as they are. Though perhaps the influence of collaborative writing through transparent(ish) version systems would be more upon the writers than the readers. Authorship and the gradual transformation of the text is very visible and gives us a chance to rethink academic power and responsibility. Maybe.

Aaannnnd that’s 850 words on meta-writing/procrastination. Back to the chapter.