Friday 7 March 2014

PART ONE: More thoughts on saving history

Steven Broom, an ethical metal detectorist, recently challenged my view that "History is a cerebral concept. You cannot hold it in your hands." ...

And metal detectorist don't do this...??? Historical finds (either made through metal detecting or "tedious" and "lengthy" excavations) can be the trigger that fires up a society's interest in the past. History is not simply cerebral. I had no interest in history at school because I could not touch it or feel it. However, I can remember every single detail about the first roman coin that I was lucky enough to recover. The feel of it, the investigation work that I had to do to discover who the ruler was and where it was minted and then providing the information to the PAS to assist with any possible further investigation of the site. This is how I "feel" and "engage" with history and as long as what I do does not destroy or obliterate the chances of adding to the future knowledge of history, then I cant see how this can be an annoyance. The study, inquiry and investigation of any site can and should include evidence provided by detectorists.

Steven posed that "History is not simply cerebral." (I have replied to other points in my post below.)

History is a narrative of the past. It may be based on such things as written sources, oral tales, personal experiences or the archaeological record - including artefacts or objects within that record. But the objects themselves are not history. Even an enormous object (monument) like Westminster Abbey is not in itself history; its history is the story we can derive from it in conjunction with other sources. 

Some years ago, I wrote several articles and books on English vernacular furniture, the largest of which was illustrated with literally hundreds of items of furniture. Many of those items were very attractive but not one of them was "history". The history was the narrative derived from interpreting those items - together with contexts provided by such things as regional environments, buildings, local idiosyncracies, period decor, spatial arrangements, contemporary images, knowledge of workshop practices, timber availability, dendrochronology, hardware and construction development, oral traditions or written sources (such as wills, inventories, trade manuals, design books, journals, etc.).

One of the items I illustrated was a painted four-poster bedstead (shown here) inscribed with initials and the date 1724. Divorced from its context it would have been described in a London showroom as "Probably Continental" and sold as a pretty "decorator's piece". But it was found in its original context, a cottage in Kirkbride, together with related items, and research gave us the precise details of its history. It is a rare testimonial of a tradition of painted vernacular furniture in Cumbria and the complete history illuminates a regional lifestyle. 

Another of the items I illustrated was a plain pine chest with canted sides and traces of rope handles. Divorced from its context it wouldn't have even made it to a London showroom but woould have ended up as firewood. But it was found in its original context, a cabin on the Mary Rose. Since it was found together with over forty other chests and countless other artefacts on that ship (plus the ship itself), we have the tools to help us interpret the past. We not only have a much clearer idea of vernacular furniture of the Tudor period but are blessed with a whole microcosm of that era. 

Neither the bedstead nor the chest are "history"; it is a study of them combined with their context and other sources that provides the evidence on which history can be based.

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