Saturday, January 12, 2013

The Past Beneath Your Feet at the University of Leicester

I spent the afternoon at the University of Leicester attending The Past Beneath Your Feet. This was a public event held alongside the annual conference of The Society for Historical Archaeology.

The programme featured three public lectures and a busy exhibition area with stalls run by local and national organisations and historical re-enactors.

Francis Pryor, well known from the time team, gave the first lecture on 'The prehistory of the present' and took us through some of the discoveries made by Time Team. He has been a regular on the series for many years.

He began by saying that his specialism of prehistoric archaeology is in some ways easier. If you don't understand something you call it a ritual and invent an anthropological explanation for it. (I paraphrase, but that is pretty close to what he said. It was nice to have my prejudices about prehistory confirmed.)

By contrast, he said, every archaeological investigation of a medieval or later site takes place against a rich background of written history. So your conclusions are inevitably seen as an attempt to confirm or refute was has been argued before.

The Time Team investigation he seemed most proud of was the dig at a temporary village where navvies building the Settle & Carlisle railway had lived. The excavations there painted a very different, more civilised, picture of the life of the navvy to the one we are familiar with.

The second speaker was Carenza Lewis, also well known from Time Team, who spoke about the work of Access Cambridge Archaeology. This is an outreach project aimed in particular at involving young people in archaeology and raising their educational aspirations.

She described their work of digging test pits in villages across East Anglia, and her analysis of the results. This suggested that many villages had contracted after the Black Death, with outlying settlements being abandoned for centuries.

This sort of investigation, she said, is a great way of bringing a village together. She even suggested that her work with Michael Wood on The Story of England had brought Kibworth Harcourt and Kibworth Beauchamp together.

The third speaker was Kevin Leahy from the Portable Antiquities Scheme. He spoke about the extraordinary Staffordshire Hoard, whose discovery and conservation he has been closely involved with.

He showed us slides of the finds and explained that the hoard is almost certainly booty won in battle by Mercia from the other Saxon kingdoms in the seventh century.

It was a free, enjoyable and well-attended afternoon. Like the crowds who went to see the Richard III excavation in Leicester even before it was announced that a skeleton had been found, it suggests that there is a considerable public enthusiasm for archaeology.

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