Did you miss the Festival of Archaeology? This is one young person’s experience of it all….
“I was encouraged to join an archaeological dig in August (WARG’s Barton Stacey Dig 2018), begin archaeology classes, shoot a longbow, cut a milk carton in half with a sword as long as my leg, hammer my very own Iron Age coin, build a tank, ‘go and find Phil’ (I had a question about flint arrowheads that, apparently, only Dr Phil Harding should answer), wear medieval armour, and dig for archaeological finds. On top of all this I discussed Cretan Archaeology, battle fronts in WWII, Norfolk flint mines, the Battle of Crécy, codes of medieval combat and even Russian Literature to name only a handful of topics”
Now read on…
My name is Erica Humbey and I have returned since my placement at the museum in June to write about my experience of the Festival of Archaeology – a weekend spent delving into the past and enjoying the present.
Despite recent events in Salisbury both exhibitors and visitors to the museum were constantly enthused and seemed by no means discouraged. The usually calm space behind the main museum building was buzzing with the interaction of keen minds, crafty hands and a whole lot of historical curiosity. The study of the past attracts a diverse crowd; there are so many ways in which one can get involved and connect to history!
First of all there’s that unidentifiable familiarity, a feeling that history is not all that far removed from us today. Take archaeology for example, and biological material in particular. Southampton University brought with them to the festival a selection of bones which could be compared to diagrams of various parts of cows, goats and the like in order to identify each fossil. This simple exercise was taken up with interest; visitors enjoyed relating the bones to their own anatomy.
‘What a large tooth in comparison to yours!’
said a mother to her child as the young daughter held up the tooth of a large mammal. It was not much smaller than her finger and she laughed at the thought of her teeth being as big as that. Through archaeology the young girl could look at herself in a new way because instead of struggling to understand an entirely foreign object, she could see how this alien object related to her own body and think of the ways it was similar in order to comprehend the ways it was so different.
In the cool space of the Wessex Gallery people continued to connect with history and its people. Here was ‘talking objects’ – a museum volunteer put a selection of objects on show, and gave visitors the opportunity to discuss and handle them.
‘Put your thumbs here…you’re putting your thumbs where a Roman potter once put his thumbs!’
The volunteer said this to a child who was intrigued by a small Roman pot from the New Forest and it strikes me as demonstrating a fundamental joy of archaeology – it allows us to connect with ancient peoples through their possessions and material culture. We start to think more empathetically: What must it have felt like to be the man who pressed his thumbs into the supple clay of this pot? What were his responsibilities, fears and dreams? Was this pottery his livelihood? This small clay vessel affords us a view into his life.
As well as picking out what is familiar to us, we are certainly interested in the elements of historic day-to-day business which appear foreign and therefore exciting. The ‘College of Chivalry’ proved very popular at the festival; visitors watched in fear and awe as the character ‘John de Grey’ sat polishing his helmet while axes and sharps glistening in the sun at his feet. After 6 to 12 weekends of training each member ‘plays’ a real historic man or woman and fights in non-choreographed battles, equipped with armour and weapons according to his position in society. When asked
‘What’s your favourite weapon?’
‘John’ answered in character that his favourite would be the axe; when sharpened on the inside he could use it to hook behind your ankle, tearing your achilles tendons and ensuring that you would never walk again. A gruesome answer but unquestionable logic! Doing as he described would mean that his opponent would never pose a threat again, but their armour would remain intact and they could be sold for a significant ransom if they were a wealthy lord.
Visitors of every age tried their hands at archery, and the air resounded with the ‘thwack’ of arrows shot from longbows. Certainly, some would have been more successful in battle than others, but as there were no armed enemies charging towards us everyone had a fantastic time.
Have you ever picked up a sharp piece of flint, proclaimed it to be an ancient tool and fancied yourself a world-class archaeologist? During the festival a large number of people improved their flint-identifying skills with the help of Southhampton University – they learned how to search the flint for the striking platform, bulb of percussion and perhaps even marks where the flint has been chipped to form a sharper edge – features which suggest knapping.
The conversations and activities that visitors and stall holders alike were engaged in over the weekend where multifarious and fascinating: I was encouraged to join an archaeological dig in August (WARG’s Barton Stacey Dig 2018), begin archaeology classes, shoot a longbow, cut a milk carton in half with a sword as long as my leg, hammer my very own Iron Age coin, build a tank, ‘go and find Phil’ (I had a question about flint arrowheads that, apparently, only Dr Phil Harding should answer), wear medieval armour, and dig for archaeological finds. On top of all this I discussed Cretan Archaeology, battle fronts in WWII, Norfolk flint mines, the Battle of Crécy, codes of medieval combat and even Russian Literature to name only a handful of topics. What an opportunity. I hope that the festival will return year upon year to inspire even more new interest and rekindle old love for history and Archaeology.
Many thanks to the fabulous team at the museum; the organisation was superb and the volunteers seem to have endless energy and passion to offer. After seeing the success, variety and opportunities offered by the festival it’s no surprise to me that I saw it advertised as far away as St Andrews, Scotland!
– Erica Humbey