Tag Archives: england

English Water Rites

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I am a child of drought. Growing up in the Great American West, I was taught to turn off the water when you brush your teeth. If it’s yellow, let it mellow/if it’s brown flush it down. Only turn your sprinklers on at night. Plug the bathtub when you take a shower and re-use the water for plants. The desert was normal, the desert was home, and the drought only got worse over the years.

The conservation of water was inculcated as a moral good. Bad people had golf courses in Arizona, built water parks in Las Vegas, and planted watermelon in the Valley. That guy who washes his car in July? The worst.

This has been reflected in most places I’ve done archaeology. I’ve worked in Jordan, where we showered with two litres of water, where the mighty River Jordan is a waller. I’ve worked in Turkey, where intensive agriculture is lowering the water table and threatening the deeply buried archaeological remains. I work in Qatar, where the little groundwater available is saline.

I had no idea how normal this was for me until, of course, I moved to England. I’ve been mystified over the usual things–weather talk, how to order rounds at the pub, the two different goddamn taps for hot and cold water, but the water culture (?) habits (?) ethic (?) mores (?) is probably the most altogether foreign.

Run your tap for a few minutes before getting a drink. Why? Lots of pipes in England are still made out of lead. Have a bath. Why not have two? The water to your house isn’t metered, after all. Low-flush toilets? Are you joking? Most of the infrastructure in England is made to get rid of water! There are bogs on top of hillsides! That last one was a particular surprise, as my hiking boots and socks disappeared into the sludge. Not to mention the recent floods here in York. There is constantly, urgently, too much water.

It is easy to start seeing the endless water in all aspects of life. England’s early control of the seas. The criss-crossed canals, striping the countryside. Towns perched across the Ouse, Thames, Cam, Avon, Irwell. Not to mention the endless social reshuffling of water in the form of tea and beer. Hot water runs through our radiators and I’m currently cradling a hot water bottle in my lap as I type away in this Victorian terraced house. Most of the terraced houses suffer from damp problems, so you have to leave the windows open in the wintertime, even with your heat on. It’s nearly impossible to dry clothes, and hardly anyone has tumble dryers. There are special cupboards for drying towels.

Waterfat, like in Herbert’s Dune. Water as a taken-for-granted. Water as thoughtless power. It’s tempting to think about it that way until the Ouse & the Foss take out half of your favorite medieval city. Water as uncontested force. Water as relentless difficulty.

Yet what is sitting outside of all of the flower shops, in this country where you can grow almost anything besides tomatoes? Rows and rows of cactus. They’re popular here, and nobody even seems to have a sense of humor about it.

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Contested Stonehenge: Battle of the Beanfield

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Last term I guest-lectured in Sara Perry’s MA students course on Visualization, Ethics, and Dark Heritage. I was looking into sites of “dark” or difficult heritage–heritage that hurts–in the United Kingdom. Many do not realize that one of English Heritage’s most beloved monuments, Stonehenge, is one of those sites.

June 1st marks the 30 year anniversary of the Battle of the Beanfield; 500 ‘travellers’ were arrested and 200 vehicles impounded by a confrontational, violent police force who forbade their entry to Stonehenge for the summer solstice. In her excellent Stonehenge: Making Space, Barbara Bender talks about the contested landscape of Stonehenge, and the uneven power relations that surround the site.

There is very little acknowledgement of this violent suppression at the country’s foremost heritage site, though £23,000 was later awarded to plaintiffs in the case for ‘assault, damage to their vehicles and property, and for not being given the reasons for their arrest.’ When I last enquired, there is no mention of the Battle of the Beanfield in any of the Stonehenge interpretive material or at the site museum, and though people may enter the monument during the winter and summer solstices, it still remains deeply contested.

Who is Stonehenge for? When do conservation principles translate into brutality against vulnerable people? Can we stay open to alternative understandings of the landscape? Bender’s statement still rings true:

If this chapter is…somewhat polemic, that is because it was, in part, spawned in anger at the efforts of English Heritage and parts of the Establishment to promote a socially empty view of the past in line with modern conservative sensibilities.

I hope that more progressive forces within English Heritage can win out over this suppression of the contemporary heritage of Stonehenge, but in the current political climate, with vast cuts to heritage spending, that may be a big ask.

Yorkshire & the Ragged Ends of Travel

I was standing in the middle of a medieval street when it finally hit me–I’m going to be here for a little while. It was nighttime and cold, and I’m woefully unprepared for wintertime in Northern England. I am still living out of a suitcase, which is only half-full anyway, as I left most of my summery digging clothes back in Qatar. Two hoodies, a cheap scarf that I bought on Green Lanes in London wrapped so that you could only see my eyes, a pair of gloves with a hole in the thumb, and shoes so thin that I could feel the exact dimensions of the flagstones beneath my feet. And I was happy.

I had one of those moments that the full impact of two years spent ricocheting between continents came to rest on my shoulders. A wild reel of colors and flavors and faces, and a profound weariness. But there’s a certain satisfaction that comes with that kind of weariness, a reliance on your own endurance and self-preservation.

The street was unfamiliar, full of huddled medieval timber houses that lean over you, arching their eyebrows and trying to get in a word. I passed by a pub where Guy Fawkes was born, and a big, fuck-off cathedral, and isn’t this a little bit different than dusty ol’ Oklahoma? As I walked through the streets I was taking the usual inventory of useful shops and streets-I-should-remember, slowly getting used to the idea that this will become familiar and invisible in the months to come. The casual way the tea shop uses the Roman wall to prop up their signboard, soup advertised with all sincerity, the unselfconsciously tweedy old folks, the profound whiteness of this little Northern city will no longer deserve attention or comment.  The constant travel has only sped up the cycle of acclimation.

Earlier that day we had hired a removal service, which sounds very Repo Man-meets-the-mafia to me. All of my possessions were decanted from their storage unit and are trundling North toward a very tiny terraced house that I managed to lease on the same day. I’ll somehow cram all of my books and eventually my wayward husband into the place–he’s still off directing excavations in Qatar for the foreseeable. Still, I’m looking forward to doing a nice little bit of research while I’m at York, and they’ve been kind enough to furnish me an office in the stately King’s Manor, which King Henry VIII fussed around in at some point. Though I doubt he came to my office, which is next to the former kitchens.

Later I found out that the name of the little street that I stood on was Stonegate, but at that moment I was only aware that I was outside of a small bar with stiff drinks, and I shrugged off my introspection and went in out of the cold. To my delight they had Bulleit, which I ordered neat, with a cherry. Because not everything changes, and a sweet bourbon goes a long way to make a girl feel right at home.

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.

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Avatars, Aging, Coins, and the Queen

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Never touch your avatar photo.

I received this sage advice from a fairly prominent social media person to never change your avatar photos, particularly your Twitter photo. It is your brand and people who skim through their long long Twitter streams need to recognize you immediately.

Last Saturday, at the inaugural meeting of the Centre for Digital Heritage at York I spoke to Andrew Prescott who told me that I was shorter than my Twitter avatar appeared. I laughed–I have gotten various reactions over the years from people who have met me offline after getting to know my work online. After finishing the PhD last December, I had to rove around various sites, updating profiles and amending CVs, updating my new social media reality. I didn’t touch my profile photos.

Still, this presents a dilemma for those of us who have been online…awhile. My Twitter photo is from the same year I signed up for the service–2007. Interestingly, Google has a patent on the aging and the removal (!) of avatars–this centers more on inaction within virtual worlds rather than a temporal span, but leave it to Google to own virtual death. According to Google, aging online means that you lose resolution, become pixellated and finally are scattered back into the binary haze from which you came.

Perhaps a slightly more palatable solution could come from the numismatists. I was shocked when I discovered that the portrait of the Queen of England ages on the coins issued in England and associated countries. After all, I’m American and dead guys on coins look the same forever. Every few years there is a new portrait of the queen on the coins, though older coins still circulate. I also recently found out that the portrait will flip when whoever succeeds her gets on the coins. A strange business, constitutional monarchy. Perhaps we could all just version ourselves. Colleen 1.0. Colleen 2.0. Colleen 2.5, the PhD edition.

Anyway, my younger self still holds forth on Twitter, and there will likely be a time that we will be represented with up-to-the-minute 3D scans, but for now online embodiment remains fluid, an essential self, rather than a true self.

Anarchy and Ammonites

Almost everything interesting in Bristol was closed when we got there yesterday–the markets, the anarchist collectives, the galleries. Still, I wanted to see more of the city than the university campus and the small neighborhood where I was holed up during the snow & sickness. In particular I wanted to check out Stokes Croft, informatively dubbed “The People’s Republic of Stokes Croft.” Sound familiar?

The neighborhood graffiti and murals were interesting–one of the first well-known Banksy murals is over the main street and the nearby squats are completely covered in art. I also wanted to see Turbo Island, a small area in Stokes Croft that was excavated to investigate heritage and contemporary homelessness–an interesting experiment in contemporary archaeology. From John Schofield’s email announcement of excavations on Turbo Island:

As some of you will know, the project that Rachael Kiddey and I have been doing with homeless and vulnerably housed people in Bristol is taking a new turn. During our perambulations last summer (and ongoing) we regularly returned (physically and in conversations) to Turbo Island, where Stokes Croft meets Jamaica Street – people kept telling us (hi)stories about the site, how it was a ‘speakers corner’, and how they used to hang pirates there. So we thought it would be fun and interesting to involve them in a small excavation of this place where they spend so much time – to perhaps uncover some of the stories of Turbo Island.

There wasn’t a lot left to see besides a few Tiki heads and the Stokes Croft museum was closed. Another time, I suppose.

After Bristol we ran off to East Quantoxhead, a tiny town on the north coast of Somerset that is famed for the huge ammonites that are eroding out of the beach head. The town is built out of the local rock, so there are fossils in all of the walls and houses. We looked around a bit, but had to hurry–the sun was setting and we wanted to get to the beach before it was dark!

The short walk follows a small stream through lovely green fields and out to the beach. I swear I want to spend a summer just walking through England, eating pub food and taking photos. It was foggy and gray, so the trail looked like it disappeared into nothing, like we were on the edge of the earth, instead of looking out over Wales.

The beach itself looks like it was intentionally cobbled with smoothed limestone and alternates with dark and lighter sediment. The light was almost gone, so we only saw a couple of small ammonites–not the huge ones that we were hoping to find. I think the area has also been heavily quarried by fossil hunters–it’s too bad, really.

So we headed back through the fog, down sunken, hedge-lined lanes and over to Exeter to meet with a few friends. It’s cold here, but I’m not sure I’m ready to leave for Qatar in a couple of days!

Wandering Around Exmoor

I’ve spent most of the last week in Dulverton, near the border of Devon and Somerset in western England. As I mentioned in the last post I’ve been ill, and just now coming out of it, so I haven’t been able to wander as I would have liked. It’s also been pretty cold and snowy, which I have been assured is absolutely peculiar for this time of year. Luckily, the frost has started to thaw, and everything is still ridiculously green beneath all the snow.

Not my photo, sadly. Still, Exmoor ponies!!

One of the absolute necessities of the trip was to see an Exmoor pony. They’re a herd of semi-domesticated and vaguely prehistoric-looking shaggy ponies that live up on the moors. We managed to track a few down, nibbling on the greenery underneath the snow.

The moors themselves are pretty fascinating–they’re a high plain with poor soils, so there isn’t much up there besides heather and a few roads. I’d love to come back over the summer to wander around and find a few of the hillforts and other ruins around.

We came down out of the moors to the north coast to check out Linton and Linmouth, Porlock, Minehead, and Dunster. Dunster is an adorable little medieval town that has a nice, newish castle and a tower-folly on the Bristol channel. People were out and about even though it was a bank holiday, and some of the shops were actually open. We refrained from going into any pubs though–the day before we had a trial run at a local pub and I had an Exmoor Beast, a fairly terrible high-alcohol holiday ale and I just wasn’t up for another drink yet. Still, Dunster was nice, if a bit twee. There’s a cute dovecote, a water wheel that still grinds flower and a church with a 500-year-old rood that survived the reformation. And a pet cemetery!

The fog was thick up on the moor and in the valleys, but broke around the coast and I got a few rays of sunshine–not that you can tell from the photographs.