Tuesday 28 June 2016

The death of heritage (part 2): playing in the ashes of the past...

It is a recognised historical fact that there are times when people are more likely to create graffiti than others. Times when society is under stress, when things are going wrong, and the people feel helpless to do anything about it. They are invariably times of conflict, either physical or social, which we term 'chronological hotspots'. Just as there are places and locations that are more likely to attract graffiti than others, there are also period of history too. You'll recognise the dates in many cases. 1939-45, 1914-18, the middle of the seventeenth century, the middle of the sixteenth century - and of course 1349. Put simply, when things go bad, when chaos comes knocking, people start writing on the walls.

I'm expecting a really good crop of graffiti from the last week. A large and REALLY good collection.

The last week has been... interesting. Interesting from many perspectives. From an outside historical perspective it has been totally fascinating. Watching a society once known for its tolerance and pragmatism collapse in on itself; the very last act of a dying empire. Once the empire is gone, as history invariably shows, the centre-point upon which it was built will implode like a dying star. The last days of Rome played out on the world stage.

But leaving aside the politics, the blatant lies and the deceit, what will this actually mean for history, heritage and archaeology in England (and you'd better get used to calling it England rather than the UK)? Well, all the experts have spoken. Obviously there are many of you out there who won't be interested in hearing. You've heard enough from the 'experts' after all. However, for those that are interested, for those that aren't trying to drown out the surge of rising choas by sticking their fingers in their ears and chanting "we won our country back" (contrary to the evidence), then it makes pretty interesting reading.

Firstly there are the effects on commercial archaeology. Less work and cancelled contracts. Simple as that. As construction and house-builders have already taken a massive economic hit contracts are being put on 'Brexit-hold'. This may of course just be temporary. It may not. However, it doesn't really make a lot of difference for the diggers who don't know if they'll be working next month, or the month after that, or the month after that. They will suffer or they will be gone. The likelihood is they'll suffer AND be gone. And this isn't a prediction for the future here - it's already happening. It's been happening since last Friday morning. And that isn't even touching upon the archaeological protection currently being offered by EU legislation...

Then there are the academic projects. Those projects based on universities and institutes of higher education. Well they've already spoken about this. They are devastated. With a massive proportion of university project funding either coming directly from the EU, or using EU monies as match funding, the impact is going to be significant. Project are already being cancelled - and you don't have to take my word for this. Over the weekend the Society of Antiquaries of London, one of the foremost historical institutions in the country, asked its Fellows for their opinions. You can find the results here - and it doesn't make pretty reading. So what you might think. What's a few less academics to the world? Who needs more experts?

And then there are the projects like this one. The medieval graffiti surveys. The 'peoples' projects that have jogged along with minimal funding, and certainly nothing from the EU. Trying to help real people get involved, discover their own history, and do 'real' archaeology.  Surely they'll just carry on. Business as usual. Thing is, it isn't as simple as that. What little funding we do receive comes from the Heritage Lottery Fund (God bless 'em), and as EU funding drains from elsewhere then there are going to be significantly more calls on the HLF for funding. Calls from big, high profile organisations, with whole teams just dedicated to writing funding bids. The trickledown effect simply won't trickle down to many of the smaller community based projects. To an extent this was already beginning to be the case. Austerity had seen to that. Now it is going to be even more difficult for those smaller projects.

I'm really only just touching on a very few obvious areas here. There are so many more consequences - many of which will only become apparent over the coming weeks. This is going to impact on county heritage service, on museums, on libraries and art galleries. So, all in all, it isn't looking great for heritage and archaeology. It'll be great for historians in the future obviously. Those who sit down to write the books about what just happened, what is still happening, what is still to come. They will have a great time. They can talk of 'a country rudderless and adrift', the rise of xenophobia and the far right, and talk of 'history repeating itself'.

I suppose this should at least then leave us with one clear lesson from all of this. History is great to study - but really rather crap to actually live through. You might want to ask the Polish checkout girl in Fakenham Tesco's some time. The girl whose family fought alongside the British in the darkest hours of 1940, and who has been told no less than six times already today to "go back to where she comes from". As for me? I'm still angry at the moment. Angrier than I have ever felt before. Angry at a future stolen by a couple of Eton schoolboys who got ambitious, and went from pig screwing to screwing a whole nation. Angry that a schoolboy spat has torn a country apart to the extent that the words 'civil war' are not being used to describe a historical event. Angry at the stupid baby-boomers - who were given everything by the generations that came before them - and stole everything from the generations yet to come. I'm angry at a system that can spend months pedalling lies - money for the NHS, reduced immigration, free trade - take your pick - and then simply laugh at the voters and say it was all a mistake.

So, if you do see any really good referendum graffiti, or anything really good on the walls over the coming months (apart from the blood obviously), then please, please feel free to drop me an email... 

Wednesday 22 June 2016

Marking the stones: medieval mason's and a bunch of bankers...

The marks left by medieval mason's are invariably the very earliest markings that can be found on any medieval structure, and can tell us a great detail concerning the medieval design and construction process. The traditional view of mason's marks is somewhat simplistic, albeit useful in terms of interpretation, and states that each mason who worked on a structure had their own individual symbol with which they would mark the individual stones, or area of the building, that they had worked on. These marks were then used by their employer or the 'master mason' to work out exactly who had done which piece of work, and how much each mason was to be paid. Although useful, such a narrative is both overly simplistic and in many cases just plain incorrect. Wrong. However, if it helps you to think of them in this way then please feel free to do so. You'll be wrong, but have a nice cosy warm feeling inside - which has to be worth something after all.

There are three main types of mason's marks that can be found on medieval stonework, all relating to different types of stonework and construction techniques.

Banker's/Quarry marks
These are the marks applied by the lower standard masons who were simply roughing out the stones for use in the walls of a building. The masons doing this work may have been apprentices, but just as likely were skilled men used to working large stones very quickly. In some cases, particularly where the majority of the stone was locally sourced, these marks may have been applied as the stones were quarried and cut to rough size - or could have been applied after they were cut to exact size in the mason's lodge on site. Such marks are usually fairly large in comparison to internal mason's marks. They are fairly crudely formed, but created using mason's chisels or punches, and in shape often take the form of a crude representation of mason's tools, such as the set square The fact that many of these marks often appear at angles, or even upside down, indicate that the marks were applied to the stones prior to them being inserted in the wall.

The presence of lots of these banker marks at a site is usually an indication that the rough masons were being paid on a piece work rate; a set rate for every finished stone. However, at many sites existing documentation suggests that individual masons could and were paid by the yard of finished stone. A surviving document for work at Lincoln cathedral in 1308, made between the cathedral administration and the mason Richard of Stow, indicate two different rates of payment - one for plain walling and the other for carved work. Those undertaking the more skilled carved work were paid a daily wage, whilst the less skilled 'walling masons', were paid by the amount of work they produced. If the rough masons were paid by the yard then there was no need for them to mark so many stones, just to indicate the general areas in which they worked - and less banker marks will be visible.
Fine mason's marks

The second type of mason's mark most usually encountered are those located on the higher status fine stonework. These were made by the expert masons undertaking the detailed carving and forming of the moulded stonework, such as arcades, fine finished walls or moulded stones. Such markings are invariable smaller and more precisely cut that the banker marks found on the general walling stone, and are usually formed of straight lines cut with a selection of mason's chisels. As a general rule, if it isn't precisely cut with a chisel - it isn't a mason's mark - no matter what some archaic Victorian text book may tell you. Not chisel cut - NOT A MASON'S MARK. Are we all clear on that bit?

Many examples show evidence of having been created in situ once a particular piece of work was completed. In this respect the finer mason's marks can also be seen as  a form of quality control mark, being applied to an area of work upon satisfactory completion of the set task. In normal circumstances only one mason's mark would appear on a single stone - but there are recorded exceptions to this. Exactly why this is the case I am happy to report - we don't actually know as yet. A master and apprentice perhaps? Really friendly mason's who shared their work? No idea as yet - and it is REALLY rare.  In contrast to modern masons, who hide their own marks on the rear of stones or within bedding joints, the medieval masons had no qualms about leaving their marks in plain view on the surface of the stones - a practice that is believed to have changed only in the seventeenth century. It is generally understood that the mason's were less concerned with their marks being on the visible face of the stone as the surface was most usually then painted or decorated, which would have obscured the markings.

Tradition also states that each mason had his own mark which he would use throughout his career, and in some cases would 'pass on' the mark to an apprentice or son. However, this interpretation is not really standing up to scrutiny (a rather polite academic term for stating that it is complete bo**oxs). There are certainly cases of the same mark appearing on buildings constructed several centuries apart, which obviously led to the idea of generations of the same family continuing a tradition. Either that, or we had some REALLY old masons. However, with there only being so many different marks that can be made using straight lines and a set of chisels, duplication over time is pretty much inevitable. There is also very clear evidence of masons changing their marks for particular projects, most probably the result of two or more masons being contracted for a job and discovering they have very similar marks. Therefore, just because it is the same mark on two structures doesn't mean it is the same mason.

There is also the traditional idea that the mason's mark was meant to operate as some form of tally system, allowing the master mason to work out who had done what work, and therefore what they were to be paid. Leaving aside the fact that it would have been a pretty poor master mason who didn't know what each of the half dozen masons under his control was actually working on, this interpretation also fails to explain the marks found at numerous sites. Whilst some churches might have as many as half a dozen different mason's marks (and worth bearing in mind here that the whole of Bodiam castle appears to have been constructed by only nine masons and their apprentices in under a decade) others are found to contain many dozens of marks - that are all identical. How is that meant to work then? The mason is marking his stones to prove he did the work - when he's the only one employed there? I think not.

So what are mason's marks for then? Well, put simply, a number of things. In some cases they probably are actually being used to mark out an area where a specific mason worked, but this most likely has little to do with how much he was getting paid - unless it's a banker mark. Instead they were applied to finished pieces of work, in some cases as a form of quality control, marking out an area that was 'completed'. In others it appears to be a craftsman signing off his own work, in the same way a proud artist signs his own masterpieces. In many instances it is a combination of things - the end of a section, a quality control mark AND the mark of a proud mason. Put simply - there isn't a simple single answer.

However, and this is where it might just get a tad confusing, some masons used as their marks symbols that have become associated with apotropaic functions, or ritual protection marks; in particular here I am talking about the VV symbol and the pentangle. Yes, these marks are undoubtedly ritual protection marks - but they are also used as mason's marks. Just because you find a structure covered in pentangles or VV marks doesn't necessarily mean they are witch marks. It is a little more subtle than that. A little more nuanced. If they are repeated throughout a structure, as at churches like Loddon in Norfolk, and if they are chisel cut in a neat and precise manner - then they are MASON'S MARKS. Now here's the thing, just to really annoy you, it is worth bearing in mind that the masons may have chosen those particular marks simply because of their recognised protective function...

And then there are the third type of mason's mark - those created by the Master Mason.... but I think I'll leave that for another time...

So, when looking at/for mason's marks here are a few simple rules to bear in mind...

Rule 1 - if it isn't cut with a chisel it isn't a mason's mark. Simples.

Rule 2 - just because you see the same mark on two different buildings does NOT necessarily mean they are the mark of the same mason.

Rule 3 - just because it looks like a witch mark doesn't mean that it can't be a mason's mark.

Rule 4 - all the above rules are subject to variation and change without written notice (please see Terms and Conditions)

Wednesday 1 June 2016

Tea, cake and graffiti - National Volunteer Week

This week is National Volunteer Week - just in case it may have escaped your notice. Just in case you've had your head stuck down a dark hole or something. Just in case you are just emerging from rehab for the seventh time - that sort of thing. National Volunteer Week - seven days in which to sing the praises of volunteers from all walks of life, undertaking voluntary roles within all sorts of organisations. Over 21,000,000 people volunteer in the UK each year, contributing an estimated £23.9bn to the economy - so we aren't talking small beer here. To put it into perspective, if all the UK' volunteers were members of a single organisation, it would be the largest organisation in the country. So massive is volunteering in the UK that this year Volunteer's Week actually runs from the 1st to the 12th of June.... although they might want to look at the name... just saying...

A week such as this is particularly relevant to anyone who works within the heritage field at the moment, and even more so within the field of community archaeology. You see, the things is, without the input and help from any number of amazing volunteers, most community archaeology simply wouldn't happen. It couldn't. Without the thousands of hours these amazing people put in to doing something that they love these projects just could not take place. Take the graffiti surveys for example. With over 1150 surviving medieval churches in Norfolk and Suffolk alone - and a couple of cathedrals - any attempt at fully surveying them all with any degree of thoroughness would take an individual many, many years to do. If undertaken by a commercial organisation it would cost tens of millions of pounds - at a time when that sort of money is barely available to even keep the buildings water-tight. The only way in which to carry out surveys on this scale has been with a fantastic band of loyal, and slightly barmy, volunteers.

And what volunteers they have become! Take for example the Norwich cathedral survey volunteers. They began, as I'm sure they won't mind me saying, as a rather disparate bunch. A few had some archaeological or historical experience, but most came to the idea of undertaking a detailed building survey as something entirely new. However, in the last four years they have more than risen to the challenge. They have undertaken measured surveys, and drank tea. They have carried out raking light surveys, and eaten cake. They have tried their hands at doing RTI surveys - and laughed, smiled and joked their way through countless Saturday's. They have led tours of the building, spent hundreds of hours talking to the public about medieval graffiti - and have even been involved with training the cathedral guides. And whilst they were doing all this, whilst they were busy enjoying themselves and educating others, they have become some of the very best graffiti surveyors I have ever come across. I have no reservations in stating that they are now far better than many of their commercial counterparts - and much more fun to be with.

The thing is, much as we value our volunteers, and simply couldn't get along without them, we simply aren't very good at working with them all the time - and it's quite likely that they won't be around too much longer anyway. 

In community archaeology in general it is worth remembering that those people leading the projects - myself included - are first and foremost archaeologists. We aren't volunteer managers, have usually only received the barest training in working with volunteers, and have generally had to make much of it up as we went along. Occasionally we get it wrong - but hopefully learn from the experience. It shouldn't be this way - but it is. However, if we want to continue operating these sorts of projects into the future then that really, really has to change - because volunteering is going to change - and that change is coming very soon...

At the moment there are many, many projects being undertaken in the UK that completely rely upon volunteer input - the medieval graffiti surveys being just a single example. There are also some pretty major heritage organisations, in particular charities like the National Trust and many major museums, whose own business models - essentially their ability to function - is based upon being able to access a large number of volunteers each and every day. Without volunteer input these organisations just couldn't carry on doing what they are doing in the way they are doing it. Only a few weeks ago I was a small part of a much larger team of archaeologists who spent an entire week training National Trust volunteers many different aspects of archaeological fieldwork. During the week the volunteers learnt everything from undertaking a geophysical survey and standing buildings recording, to graffiti surveying and landscape history. By the end of the week the individuals were volunteering for additional archaeological activities - and were already taking an active part in one of the National Trust's largest ever archaeological projects. The problem, of course, is that this level of volunteering quite simply won't be available in the future. There will, unquestionably, be a far reduced number of volunteers available - and they'll be very different volunteers than the ones that so many projects rely upon these days.

The problem is pretty straightforward really - age and economics. As the individuals who currently volunteer get older, but largely remain fit and active (quite possibly in part due to their volunteer activities), they'll want to continue volunteering. And why shouldn't they? They offer a wealth of experience and knowledge that any organisation would be just plain daft to turn down. However, whilst there are only one or two things that volunteers in the 55-70 age group can't currently do, as they get older there will be increasing physical limitations. Certain activities are going to get more difficult or problematic. As a result the volunteer activities they undertake will have to change - and the business models will have to change with them. Now this wouldn't be much of a problem if there were a new generation of volunteers appearing to undertake those tasks once carried out by the older volunteers - but it simply isn't going to happen. The time when people could retire at sixty-five, sixty, or even as young as fifty-five, is soon to be long gone. As life expectancy increases so will the average retirement age, with recent studies suggesting that retirement at seventy could be the new norm by as soon as 2030. What that means is that for those people currently in the forty to fifty-five age group retirement may simply never happen. They'll be too busy working to volunteer for anything.

The end result of this is that many, many organisations - from the National Trust and major museums, all the way down to local community archaeology groups - are going to have to start seriously addressing the issue of future volunteering. In the first instance we are all going to have to make much, much better use of the precious and finite resource that volunteers represent. Large scale volunteer led projects, such as the county graffiti surveys, may have a limited shelf life. If they aren't completed in the next decade or so then it is quite likely that they will never be completed by volunteers at all. For organisations such as the National Trust and many museums the challenges may in fact be far greater - and more long term. They are going to have to fundamentally rethink how they operate. So I suppose the lesson is, in this week where we celebrate all our amazing volunteers, let's make them really understand just how special they really are. We need them more than they need us - and that is going to become increasingly clearer as each year passes...

So - Colin, Pat, Tony, Mark, Jess, Lesley, Paul, Claire, Terry, Ann, Clare, Brian, Hugh, Kathleen, Bev, Sarah, Chris, Simon, Frances, Joy, Louise, Jenny, Robert, David, Mike, Mike, Mike, Mike - and all the other Mike's, Kett's rebels and the wonderful tea-drinkers - thank you for ALL of the hard work, the friendship and the support. NONE of this would have happened without you.