This is Archaeology

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Logo: Council for British Archaeology

By Neil Redfern, Executive Director of the Council for British Archaeology

Image of Neil Redfern (Neil Redfern)
(Neil Redfern)

Have you ever found yourself wondering how our landscape was created, how the field patterns and the hedgerows came about or what the Barn Owl actually tells us about change in our landscape and farming practices?

Whilst on the face of it these are very general questions; they lie at the heart of archaeology.

So, what is archaeology? Well for me it is about who we are today and not necessarily all about the past. It is the way we ask questions about the things we see around us, the things which define and shape us today. It is the way we explore life and what it means to be human on this planet in the 21st Century. Yes, we use things – features and material left over from the past - but we look at them through the lens of our own lives. This lived experience is fundamental to archaeology and how we tell great stories.

The stuff in the ground like burial mounds, round houses, castles and abbeys is not really archaeology, it is just stuff. Archaeology is how we think about these places and things, how we explore them and read them. Yes, archaeology is like reading and writing a book. Our landscape is the greatest book ever written, it has taken thousands and thousands of years to write. It is a book that is still not completed and best of all hundreds and hundreds of pages are missing, have been ripped out or written over. Exploring this book is about discovery, curiosity and inquisitiveness – it’s about asking questions of the things you see and how we make it into our story. What’s your favourite page? What would you like to rewrite, add to or change?

A large tree standing on cut grass next to a road
A Bronze Age Barrow on the Castle Howard Avenue – landscape markers made c 4000 years apart! (Neil Redfern)

Some elements of this book are repetitive and can be read over and over again as we see similar patterns created by humans as they adapt and relate to the environment around them. I like to call this process ‘archaeogeography’ – geography with the invisible thrown in as well and it is very human centred.

For example, when a buried Roman fort was visible, they used the same topography and visual markers as we might see still in that place today (the rivers, the hills, the views). That landscape resonance is a really powerful thing, and we all have the ability to experience it and to shape it. Think about that when you are next out in the countryside walking through a wood or sitting on a tractor. Think about the fact that there is not a single square cm of this landscape that has not been discovered, walked over, altered, managed and shaped by human activity. You are in a long line of placeshapers and landscape story makers.

Think about the thousands of people and the millions of footsteps that have come before you and ask how do you differ from them? What did they think about? What kept them awake at night?
Did those who came before you have a favourite place to rest and to look at? Ask these questions and then understand you are asking the same questions as an archaeologist.

I do have to admit that I actually loved geography at school. But not physical geography! When I applied to university, I chose a geography degree with a difference; with archaeology added on. It was the best decision of my life. My specialist geography subjects were around human geography and landforms – how did medieval ownership shape the landscape we have today? You bolt on archaeology to that conversation and you get this total landscape and time narrative. A sharp focus on human interaction with the landscape and how it influences who we are today and vice versa.

This constantly evolving landscape needs managing, it needs us to interact with it, but not from the perspective of fixing it in aspic or preserving it. We need to see it as a landscape of multiple values that interact with each other in a dynamic and ever-changing way. Rather than preserving the past we need to understand our role as creative. Heritage and archaeology are about understanding and creating new cultural value and new cultural meaning. I don’t mean we should bulldoze everything and start again, far from it. We need to read the landscape book in front of us, unlock its stories, add our own interpretation, and then add the next chapter – not overwrite the past but add to it, deepen it and pass it on.

I am really fortunate that I get to experience and talk about amazing places, meet incredible people who know so much about the places they live and work in. In May I walked the full length of Hadrian’s Wall for charity. It was also a bit of work to promote the Hadrian’s Wall 1900 Festival and to promote our own CBA Festival of Archaeology. It was an amazing experience and changed my view of ‘The Wall’. Along the way I met and spoke to people who live and work on and adjacent to the wall and its resonance is so strong and has such personal meaning to them. At one location I met a farmer who had lived in an area west of Carlisle all his life. He had an amazing collection of brick and land-drains and what he did not know about the landscape, the soil and the water table was not worth knowing – all essential information to an archaeologist. Another was the National Trail Ranger. He spent a day with me talking about maintaining the footpath and it was enlightening. He also made me walk an extra 4 miles to look at the stretch of the wall with the most amazing trees growing out of it – it was worth it! Just along from that location I took these 4 photos and put then on twitter asking: is it a wall? is it a hedge? or is it a wire fence? And the answer of course is that it is all three, because it is The Wall. A place that represents nearly 2000 years of landscape continuity.

a fallen wall with the stones covered in moss
Is it a wall?
a gnarled old hawthorn tree in a hedge next to an old fence and wall
Is it a hedge?
A broken fence standing on a tumble down wall
Is it a wire fence?
a row of hedgerow trees in a green field
Or all three?

The CBA Festival of Archaeology

You can find out more about archaeology and how you can get involved on our website. Our Festival of Archaeology runs between 16 th July and 31 st July and this year’s festival theme is Journeys. Getting from A to B, one step in front of the other, road to nowhere, life in the fast lane, life journeys, career paths, holidays and pilgrimages: our cultural language and heritage is littered with references to the Journeys we make in our lifetimes. The theme of Journeys resonates through archaeology. Journeys happen at every scale, through space, time and personal experience. Journeys include daily commutes, trade routes and migrations. Journeys cross land and sea or take place within yourself as a personal journey, as I have talked about here.  

Logo: Journeys - Festival of Archaeology

Journeys of, and within, people traverse all genres and eras from prehistory to the modern day, a journey encompasses careers and volunteering (either from youth or a midlife change) to a journey of recovery and/or discovery. We hope the theme of Journeys will help people discover the archaeology that is all around them. It will flow throughout the 2022 Festival in a myriad of ways, from the obvious such as pilgrimages, roads, canals and railways to the wider influence of folklore, customs, beliefs, traditions, knowledge and language.

A Journey encompasses many aspects of archaeology and heritage. We want to help people discover new journeys and to share their own. Will you help us? Be placeshapers and landscape story tellers; see where your Festival of Archaeology Journey takes you!

You can find out more about the work of the CBA and the Festival of Archaeology on our website at: Council for British Archaeology or Festival Council for British Archaeology

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Posted On: 05/07/2022

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