Tuesday, 3 March 2015

What heritage/History means to me. Pt.1 - Blood and Bone.

Welcome to the beginning of the Norfolk Medieval Graffiti Survey mini blog festival 2015! Over the next two months we are welcoming guest bloggers to write on the them of 'What history/heritage means to you?'

We already have some superb blog pieces and writers lined up for you, with contributions from historians, archaeologists, renowned bloggers and volunteers. All of whom will be writing upon the same subject, but each from their own unique perspective and based upon their own unique backgrounds and experiences. However, the one thing that all of them have in common is their love of history and heritage. It is hoped that by bringing together such a diverse group of people that this series of blogs can both highlight the differences between the various areas of today's heritage world, but also allow us all to explore the areas that we have in common; and perhaps even generate a few ideas on how all areas can work closer together in the future to ensure that our world heritage is both valued and cared for.

We kick off the mini blog festival at the end of this week with the first of our contributions from abroad; two American female historians that I must admit had escaped my attention until recently. However, as both have recently co-authored and published a book entitled 'The Medieval Vagina' I am sure that like me, you will be watching their work very closely in the future! Their new book has certainly generated a lot of attention on social media and the internet in general, despite apparently having a quite 'tame' front cover, so when they volunteered to write a blog post for our little collection - how could I say no? Having now also read that blog post I also know that you won't be disappointed. Superb writing. However, before we get to the real quality, I have been reminded that I said that I also would write the first post. A short introductory piece about exactly what 'Heritage/History means to me'. So, in the beginning...

Matthew Champion: Project Director, Norfolk Medieval Graffiti Survey

Now this may surprise some of you, or not, but I haven't always been "that weird graffiti guy with the bad attitude". Oh no, for many years I worked in heritage and archaeological publishing, where I was known as "that weird publisher guy with the bad attitude", and before that I was involved in historic buildings, working alongside your regular type of English builder who just knew me as "weird". I could go on, but will spare you the tedious litany of what my parents used to describe as "why can't you get a real job". However, of all the jobs I have had, and roles I have largely invented for myself (according to one former county archaeologist), have all had one thing in common - they have been low paid...  Actually, scrap that. They've had two things in common. Alongside the appallingly low rates of remuneration all of these roles have, to some degree, been involved in history and heritage. For me all of these roles, all of these jobs, were simply ways to discover more about the past, to make connections with those who have gone before us; those who have shaped the world in which we live today. Looking for someone to blame I guess...

Exactly why I had/have this need to connect to the past is, as it is in all of us, a matter of some debate. I've studied enough history and archaeology to be able to say quite categorically that it most certainly isn't a belief in the idea that 'things were so much better back then'. They almost certainly weren't. Indeed, being born into just about any age other than the modern one would have most likely resulted in a life that was nasty, brutish and short. Perhaps it is the result of a childhood trauma? A wish to escape the reality of the modern world? Who knows. What I do know is that this connection to the past is important to me. It helps define who I am, and informs the decisions I make; and whilst knowing that there are a hundred generations peering over your shoulder can be a little intimidating, it can also at times be reassuring. To be able to look at a building or landscape and unravel the story of the past laid out before me is something that informs how I interact with that landscape or building today. However, to me and above all things, heritage and history are far more than the stories of the visible world around us today. More importantly my view of the past, and what it means to me today, is informed by people.

Right, we have to do a bit of time travel now. We have to jump back in time, many, many years, to when I was about eighteen or nineteen years old (feel free to add in Dr Who style sound effects at this point). Can you see it yet? Black and white images rolling backwards, pages blowing off an old fashioned calendar, grainy images of people rapidly walking backwards down the street... and suddenly we are there. Back in the days before wifi, decent coffee and any foreign beer other than cheap aussie lager. Back in the days when I had hair - and lots of it. Well, way back in those dark long forgotten days, I used to work in an armoury. That's right - an armoury. Not one of your modern places full of guns and things that go bang with unnerving regularity - but a medieval armoury. A place full of sheet metal, swords, daggers, rapiers, halberds and red hot forges. Now this wasn't just any old medieval armoury (knowing that you are bound to have come across at least a few dozen such places) but one of the best in the country, that undertook conservation work for many of the major museums in Europe and beyond. Indeed, it really wasn't unusual to come across a group of loitering security guards tasked with protecting some incredibly valuable piece of arms and armour that had been sent to us for restoration - and by the looks on their faces wondering just who the hell they'd entrusted it to. However, much as I liked the shiny sharp stuff, my job was to do the leatherwork; to create copies of things like sword scabbards and knife sheathes in exactly the same way in which they had been made centuries earlier. A bit of a specialist area as you might imagine with, as usual, very few career prospects.

So there I was one day, sitting in the former stables where we kept all the leatherwork, listening to the banging of hammers and very, very loud Vivaldi from the workshop next door - and with a work of art before me. A broken work of art. It was a late medieval sword scabbard, formed from two thin pieces of wood that had been covered in leather and then bound together with tiny almost invisible stitches down the back. On the end, to prevent wear, was a highly decorated metal 'chape' that covered the last few inches of the scabbard - and which I had to try and remove so that the stitching could be repaired. Eventually the chape came away with a slight jolt, revealing the end of the leather covered scabbard - and the stitches along the leatherwork that it had concealed. And then it struck me. Looking at that tiny line of stitches, I realised that I was the first living soul to have seen those stitches since the medieval leatherworker who had made it over five centuries before me. That the last fingers to run along the slight raised ridge of stitched leather had been his, and that he had long since crumbled to dust leaving nothing on this planet except the tiny piece of craftsmanship that sat before me. The sounds of metalwork from next door seemed to dim, and it was as if I could feel him there, looking over my shoulder, admiring a job well done. Five centuries slipped away and two people, separated by an eternity and only the thickness of a moment, shared a connection that was both ethereal - and as deep rooted as blood and bone.

So for me history and heritage has always been about people. It has always been about making connections with the past, and how those connections can influence us today. It is about what history and heritage really 'mean' to the people who interact with it. My role is a simple one. I'm just a facilitator. Someone who helps others discover their own connections with the past. Hopefully they'll mean as much to them as they have done to me...

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