Monday, November 13, 2006

CHAT conference

Well, as usual, an interesting and wide-ranging series of papers, with much food for thought. More thoughts will appear here shortly (as we collect them!) as well as the solution to our crossword and sudoku puzzles!

Best wishes to everyone we met at the conference, and we hope you all had safe journeys back home. You are always welcome at Ironbridge!


Friday, October 20, 2006

Looking ahead to CHAT

The CHAT conference at Bristol is coming up in November, and we are looking forward to some interesting and stimulating discussion. Will and Emma will be giving a paper about their work at Wednesbury Forge, some of which has featured on this site.

Doing archaeology at Wednesbury

We are also very much looking forward to seeing Greg Bailey's film of the 'Transit van excavation' project, which has aroused some controversy in the archaeological world since appearing on this blog!

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Ironbridge Archaeology Van (viii)

We have recieved the third (and possibly final) report from John Schofield at Bristol...

Final days

Excavation of the van is now complete and on Wednesday – with the help of the AA once again – we take the van to Avonmouth for disposal. The last few days have seen physical effort largely replaced by the close inspection of parts, catching up with context sheets, drawing elevations and scientific analyses … with one notable exception: the engine was removed on Friday, and we were finally able to dismantle sections of it and assess its condition. Scientific analysis of the van is now underway. Researchers from the chemistry department have taken samples of seat fabric, door panels and headlining, and dust from behind the facia – they are planning to assess the pollutants the drivers of the van were exposed to. Our own forensic work has involved examining hairs recovered from the floor, while we have been contacted by Exeter University – somebody there wants to examine the bugs we have recovered, from the interior, the air filter and the radiator. This week we have also benefited from discussing our forensic strategy with a Crime Scene Manager from Avon and Somerset Police.

One of the unexpected benefits of our work has been the opportunity to invite comment on contemporary archaeology from passers-by, people who wouldn’t normally have the opportunity to debate such things. Amongst others, we have discussed the project with cleaners, police and security, research and teaching staff from numerous departments at the university, Peter Lee of the Transit Van Club, and a group of summer school students. Most understand the project and see benefit in what we’re doing, making the familiar unfamiliar. We realise this isn’t an opinion shared by all and have welcomed all comments left on the BAJR and Britarch discussion pages.

We now turn our attention to researching the place of origin, date and condition of parts and components, completing the scientific analyses, writing the project report, compiling the archive, and film production. The film will be shown at the forthcoming CHAT conference, at Bristol University, at the Cube on Saturday evening, 11 November.

Research- ers from the Chemistry depart- ment at the University of Bristol take dust samples for analysis.

A visit from summer school students.

Forensic invest- igation takes place on hairs from the back of the van.

The elevation drawings are prepared

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Ironbridge Archaeology Van (vii)

Welcome to all who are visiting via the BBC website and from the discussion on Britarch. Please scroll down to see earlier posts about the project. Work on the van continues and further exciting discoveries have been made, including more coins and other debris from the van's working life. Analysis of the structure itself has also found evidence for former uses - illicit as well as official.

Some comments already made by correspondents to the Britarch list include...

" will add much to the Daily Mirror's fun and nothing to the profession's credibility" (Nigel Swift)

"Discussion of the goings on at Bristol Uni reminded me of one of my favourite quotes from a fieldwork report in Hertfordshire some time ago... 'During the excavation for the foundation of the Junior School, an entire car (dated to c.1935) was recovered. This was reported to the police, who confirmed that it had been stolen 20 years earlier'." (Mark Barratt)

We very much look forward to your comments - make them here by clicking on the '** comments' button below, or on Britarch or BAJR or wherever you like - but please let us know what you think!

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Ironbridge Archaeology Van (vi)

John Schofield has sent a second interim report on the excavation of the Van which is now ongoing in Bristol...

The Van – work continues
Conceptually things have changed at the van – we no longer think of our van as a van, but as an archaeological site, with structures, deposits, features, contexts, finds and so on. And this reflects the fact that our procedures, our close attention to detail and the dialogue and language we use are similar to those on any archaeological site. But there are differences. For instance how we describe things (engine and body parts for instance) involves constantly referring to our Haynes manual, which also instructs us in the order of our excavation - though Haynes assumes the vehicle will be reassembled, and as ours’ won’t be we can treat some parts with a heavier hand.

What else? Fingerprints appear to be widespread in the cab and outside it, but less so in the back. Some mysterious chips on the offside front widow ledge have defied explanation to date (see picture below). Artefacts beneath the wooden panelling in the rear and the rubber mat in the cab include part of a confetti box, lots of screws, some raw plugs, wire, a crushed walnut, rolled quality street wrappers, a small sherd of seventeenth century slipware, some slag, a piece of coral and a Victorian threepenny bit (see picture below). All of the various pens and pencils we found were around and underneath the driver’s seat, and numerous bits of paper from hole punching were all immediately behind the passenger seat. In the engine a number of parts are pristine – the air filter for example. Other parts are very worn and some damaged.

The list of unanswered questions is getting longer. Anna returns to site tomorrow (Wednesday) to work in the laboratory; Greg continues to film progress and interview visitors – archaeologists like Mick Worthington and others who pass us on their way to lunch; and Cassie and I continue with the excavation, recording and interpreting as we go. We are conscious that this project has caused a mixed reaction, and for us that’s a clear justification for what we’re doing – it’s creating dialogue and debate about the very nature and scope of contemporary archaeology, as in archaeology of the familiar, and archaeological practice today.

Chips and fingerprints on driver’s door

Clearing deposit on nearside sliding door step

Finds from the cab floor

Friday, July 21, 2006

Ironbridge Archaeology Van (v)

It is now one month since the BAJR poll was first put up. Between then and now, 57 people have voted...

The key above shows abbreviated interpretations of the original four options for which people have voted. The original questions were...
1. It is utterly pointless and a complete waste of time - you cannot be serious ('absolutely against')
2. It is interesting but does not contribute anything to archaeological theory, method or practice ('not really convinced')
3. It is interesting and is useful as a way of questioning and/or refining archaeological methodology ('fairly convinced')
4. It is extremely interesting and will make a significant contribution to archaeological methods ('totally in favour')

We have also had a number of further comments, which include the following...

"Modern and experimental archaeology over the years has proved invaluable in determining how the evidence is interpreted. There may also be spin to forensics. So for example can it be determined where this van has been purely from the physical evidence? ... In a strict sense I would regard the project as ethnography rather than archaeology. Using an archaeological van will mean that many people will be willing to help with infomation to test the physical evidence of the van."
Dr. Peter Wardle

"Sounds like a load of crock to me and makes archeology look stupid! I really think that archaeologists could do without this form of publicity at the moment. Especially if you want more funding. You wonder why some people don't care about what you passionately believe in."

"[The project seems to me]... worthwhile if you are applying the full logic and methodology that currently pervades UK archaeology. I wonder if it might be possible to do the same with three or four similar vehicles and apply random/specific sampling strategies, excavation techniques etc. If my memory serves me right in the archaeology museum in Stockholm one of the galleries contains a half sectioned site hut backed onto a half sectioned site vehicle. My favourite part of the museum, (especially as I suspect that one of the curators occasionally changes over the assorted footwear in the site hut. Probably a very funny archaeological joke in Swedish)."
Kevin Wooldridge

"Whilst contemporary Archaeology is well out of my field and something I wouldn't really pretent to know a great deal about, I think that it is an excellent way to push the boundaries if you like. The forensic side seems to have a lot of value and I am sure that there is plenty of theoretical stuff for people to get their teeth into (like I say, not an expert)."

"If some think it a waste of time to investigate the van archaeologically because we have other sources of information, surely that undermines all archaeological practice in 'historical' periods. We know better than that. The Van project has a lot in common with established ethnohistory and contemporary archaeology research practices and potentially raises very interesting questions about how we remember (and forget) alongside the micro/forensic data that the project will produce. The archaeology will stand in relationship with the other methods being used so there will be quite practical outputs from this in terms of best methodological practice."
Dr. Angela Piccini

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Ironbridge Archaeology Van (iv)

The Bristol team have begun work on the van and have prepared this first interim report. John Schofield writes...

The Van – first news
Work has now started on The Van. On Monday Cassie and John started surveying the interior of the van, and mapping some of the artefacts. This has continued, and today – Wednesday – Anna arrived to begin sampling the van for her forensic investigations. A wide range of materials were collected including hair, rust, screws and nails of various kinds, window glass, a fruit stone and what may be tiny sherds of pottery. The interior is now largely clear. Greg has been filming and taking sound recordings of the entire process, and interviewing some of our visitors. Work begins on the engine tomorrow. Some photographs of the site, and the recording are included here. We continue work at least until next Friday, 28 July. Visitors are very welcome.

The site in landscape context.

Front elevation

Our list of tasks for engine checks, after Haynes.

Artefact scatter in the rear of the van.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Ironbridge Archaeology Van (iii)

Update! A Draft Project Design is now available on the Contemporary Archaeology page of the Ironbridge Gorge Museum website.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Ironbridge Archaeology Van (ii)

This project aims to 'excavate' the old van in an archaeological manner, to try and learn what we can from it. Please scroll down for earlier posts.

Here are some more photographs from yesterday's removal of the van from Telford to Bristol. These photos were taken by Dr. John Schofield. Many thanks once again to Mark Grainger of the AA for his assistance with the move. We have also posted some comments on the merits (or otherwise) of project made by archaeologists and non-archaeologists. Please keep comments coming in, and/or vote on the BAJR poll.

Greg Bailey (back to camera) interviews Paul Belford before the van is loaded onto the truck.

The van passing Junction 10, south- bound on the M5.

Is there an engine in here? Mark Grainger of the AA inspects the vehicle after arrival in Bristol.

Some comments...

"I am racking my brains as to what I may have left in it.........."
Glen Lawes, Chief Executive, Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust

"I have a vivid memory of breaking down (clutch went) on the Eastern Primary in the van on the way to Birmingham some time ago - I had to borrow that one because the 'L' reg (the more refined of the two, bigger, cleaner and which had a cab wall for noise reduction) was in use."
Barbara Taylor, Graphics Department, Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust

"Whilst I have every respect for the discipline and the hard graft of all the Ironbridge archaeologists - this project does seem a bit of a waste of time/resources and the subsequent report following forensic investigation of the van may not shed too much new light on the socio/economic or indeed technological histories of vans or indeed archaeologists. Is there a danger of disappearing up the proverbial arsehole?"
Harriet Devlin, Lecturer in Historic Environment Conservation, University of Birmingham

"What a stupid waste of time... Haven't they got anything better to do with their time? ARCHAEOLOGY INDEED! WHAT IS THE WORLD COMING TO? ... we should be paid more so that we can drive around the country in the RED van and round up all of the people who think it is worth while to EXCAVATE A VAN and send them to Mars on a big space ship."
Sophie Watson, Field Officer, Ironbridge Archaeology

"I think it is useful as a way of questioning and/or refining archaeological methodology – as it shows how ridiculous some archaeological theory is becoming."
Katie Page-Smith, Landscape Investigator, English Heritage

"An excellent form of madness if ever I saw one. I love all this kind of stuff. I agree that a site would be better to excavate than a van though, perhaps a site hut on the last day of a long job... It is best if your analogous material has as much similarity to your subject matter as possible. What can you compare a van to? boats? cartwheels? ... If nothing else this kind of work highlights the fact that archaeology is a practice and process of inhabitation: building upon the activities of the people we study. Mind you, anyone who has looked down on a big ditch section at the end of a hard day's work can tell you that. After years of thinking about ditches I still can't say clearly what ditches 'mean', but I think I know what it 'means' to have spent all day cleaning the silt out of one and seen water flow down it again ... I suspect that your efforts are doomed to failure."
'Tom Wilson', via the BAJR website.

"Sounds like a load of old rubbish to me" [with a (presumably ironic) link to the Suffolk County Council ‘Garbology’ page].
‘Vulpes’, via the BAJR website.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Ironbridge Archaeology Van

Today was an epic day in the history of the Ironbridge van, which has served the Museum well over the last 16 years. It has now become part of a contemporary archaeology project at the University of Bristol. The project intends to dismantle and investigate the vehicle archaeologically. The reasoning behind the project, and some of the views of the archaeology team about its value, were discussed in an earlier post.

Today, the van was handed over to its new keepers...

The lonely van, almost the last occupant of Furrow's former compound.

Rear view, the old phone numbers date the van as well as the number plate.

Odometer reads 27,845, in reality this is at least 227,845; life expired at 3.03pm!

The formal handover took place today between 12.00 and 12.45. The Bristol team was represented by Dr John Schofield (English Heritage), Cassandra Newland (Bristol PhD student and also a former Ironbridge Archaeology staff member) and Greg Bailey (an MA student who was filming the event). The Museum was represented by Paul Belford, Senior Archaeologist. Many thanks to Mark Grainger of the AA.

Cassie and John seem delighted with their new acquisition!

Loading of the vehicle onto the AA truck took less than 10 minutes. The whole process was carefully monitored and recorded by four archaeologists with at least 8 degrees between them.

Greg (with video camera), John and Cassie watch as the van is loaded onto the AA truck...

...the winch cable is run out...

...the van is winched up the ramp...

...and firmly lashed down...

...the ramp is retracted...

...and they set off to Bristol!

Dismantling of the van will start in mid-July. We are going to monitor this work and updates will be posted here. We will also gather together the various historical documents associated with this 'artefact' such as old MoT's, service records and the insurance description of the famous accident.

Anyone who now works, or formerly worked for, the Museum and drove this van is strongly encouraged to contribute their reminiscences to the project. If you can email the archaeology unit, or any of the Bristol group, we can make arrangements to interview you either at Bristol or at Ironbridge. The project is aiming to build up a social history of the vehicle as well as analyse the various changes that happened to it.

If you have any views on the project as a whole (and we have recieved a number of comments already) then please either add comments here, or email us, or vote on the 'Contemporary Archaeology Poll' that we have set up on the BAJR forum.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Staffordshire Graffitti

During building recording works at Tean Hall Mills in Staffordshire we have come across some interesting 20th century graffitti. This corridor passes between two of the mill buildings and was evidently the scene of illicit loitering for generations of mill workers, who left their names scratched into the brickwork.

General view of one of the corridor walls.

W.P. 1897; W.E.Dale 1928; T.A. 1931; D.M. 1980

Photographs by Sophie Watson.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Old Archaeology Van

An exciting new contemporary archaeology project by the University of Bristol will involve the 'deconstruction' of the former Archaeology Van. The van was bought by the Museum in 1991, and has seen a great deal of action over the years. It ceased being the exclusive property of the archaeology unit many years ago, (coincidentally) following an accident and various party-related incidents. However we continued to use it for various projects and personal adventures.

The aim is to disassemble the van under forensic conditions and in an archaeological manner. Pariticpants include Dr. John Schofield, Cassandra Newland and Greg Bailey. The project is entirely self-supporting, with no grant and people working on it in their own time.

The aim is to learn... ????

At Ironbridge Archaeology, despite our 'official' enthusiasm for contemporary archaeology, the team contains a wide range of perspectives on this project.

Some of us (for example Sophie) think that the project will show no more than that this is a well-used transit van with lots of mechanical wear and tear. Whilst undoubtedly the stratigraphy of damage/wear will be of interest, it is unlikely to tell us much about the use of the van over time, either as a functional entity or as social space. There are a myriad of more useful things to do in archaeology.

Others (notably Emma) are more sympathetic to the project and suspect it will develop into quite an interesting study which will have wider applications. Specifically, Emma says:

"The project is useful as an analogy, in that it helps us to reflect on the usefulness (or otherwise) of methods of excavation, recording and interpretation. In studying something so recent and familiar we can gain confidence (or not) that archaeological techniques give us information distinct from that gained by either oral or documentary history, or plain 'common sense'."

To which a sceptic (Paul) replies - "If the project is only useful as analogy then why not test archaeological methods on a site type more relevant to the majority of archaeological fieldwork such as a house, or a church or a fortification?"

To which Emma's response is to argue that archaeology is a discipline concerned with the relationships between human behaviour and the human environment (however constructed). Most of us spend a great deal of time in the environment of our motor vehicles, so this is an entirely valid investigation.

We shall see.

The scheduled pick-up date for the van (which is currently in a compound at Furrows in Telford) is 21st June. It will be towed to Bristol (with thanks to the AA) and then dismantled during July. We shall post news and photographs of this exciting and controversial project as it develops...

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Bermuda dockyard

These insignia have been left by ships visiting the Royal Naval Dockyard in Bermuda. Some of them have been recorded by staff of the Bermuda Maritime Museum, but many are being left to decay and will eventually be lost. Recent alterations to the former Casemates Prison at the Dockyard will also destroy much of the twentieth century archaeology of the prison. Events at the prison in the 1970s had a profound effect on Bermudian history, but sadly no archaeological analysis of the remains of the prison has been undertaken.

Discussion of some of these issues can be found on our Archaeology in Bermuda blog.

HMS Bristol, visiting in 1978, 1988, 1990 and 1996.

HMS Jezebel and HMS Warspite.

USS Whale, and various research and other civilian vessels.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Tean Hall Mills

We have recently started work on a project recording the power system at Tean Hall Mills, Staffordshire. Although this is a very traditional 'industrial archaeology' brief, we are also taking the opportunity to record more ephemeral aspects of the recent history of the site. Some examples from a preliminary visit are shown below. We will also be recording grafitti left by local kids (mainly on the subject of their drug experimentation) whilst the building was abandoned.

Fire evacuation notice providing details of room functions, c.1920

National No Smoking Day poster, 20th March 1985

Calendar from a Sheffield saw manufacturer, May 1988

Spice Girls promo-tional photos (and a tax disc) in the former boiler room.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Forging in Wednesbury

One of our current projects is the survey and excavation of a forge in Wednesbury.

Clocking on.

The earliest documentary evidence of forging activity on the site dates to 1597 and it is rich in artefactual evidence from the last 400 years (see some of the finds here). We have been undertaking a photographic survey of the most recent period of activity on the site, recording the mid twentieth century buildings and their contents.

The toolshop.

In this part of the forge, tool moulds and other machinery parts were produced and repaired before being used in the forge.

Many employees seized on opportunities to personalise their workspace, displaying photographs, newspaper cuttings, or their collection of fruit stickers.

Many of the forge's products were exported across the globe, as this tool mould shows.

Accidents were inevitable and a dedicated First Aid block was provided in the 1930s. It had separate entrances for male and female employees, two side rooms and a central treatment room.

The First Aid block contained mid twentieth century furniture and fixtures. Injuries to eyes and ears were common, as were sprains, and this is reflected in the contents of the medicine cabinet: bottles of eye wash, olive oil and bandages.

Employees used the toilet facilities to let each other know what they thought of their working conditions...

...and more important matters

Employees used spare materials to construct this bench outside the forge.

When the forging operation closed last year, many of the employees painted their dates onto the wall.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Ephemeral Consumption

Simon and Paul at the Ironbridge christmas lunch, 16th December 2005

Why do we do contemporary archaeology? Indeed what is it? Is it the study of the material culture of the present for its own sake, or is it intended to assist archaeologists of other periods in their analyses? Or indeed both. Graham Fairclough has written that "one of the attractions of contemporary archaeology is that it’s a mirror in which what we sometimes like to think of as the obvious, self-explanatory given of ‘proper’ archaeology are reflected, often in very distorted ways". This seems about right.

But it is still a challenge to convince many colleagues that contemporary archaeology is worth doing.

One of the interesting areas that contemporary archaeology can address is that of the ephemeral. This is clear in our showcasing of graffitti at Stourbridge, and our 'academic exercise' of Postal Archaeology shown below.

Indeed the Stourbridge project as a whole is very interesting as it is monitoring the process of demolition. The process of demolition and reconstruction is one which is often very prominent in our cityscapes (as Jim Dixon and Sarah May have pointed out in the context of Sheffield) but one which often eludes the conventional recording of such places. How many of us, when on holiday (for example), have eschewed taking a photo of a building 'under restoration' sheathed in plastic sheeting or scaffolding. However at any given moment a large percentage of our built environment is in some state of being unfinished.

Thus the temporary hoarding is an important part of the fabric of our landscape. Such erections are by their nature ephemeral, but often take on an air of semi-permanence, particularly on long-term projects. The recent redevelopment of the Bull-Ring centre in Birmingham was a three- or four-year project with temporary roadways and elaborate scaffolding structures as footbridges.

This is a theme to which we will return when we start to showcase (hopefully over the Christmas period) some recent work on our long-running project on the Archaeology of Motorways.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Postal Archaeology - Part One

This was an 'academic exercise' provoked by discussion on the CHAT discussion list. This followed a posting about a bit on our other blog about recording graffiti in Stourbridge. The study has been presented in the conventional form of one of our archaeological reports.


This project was managed by Paul Belford. Fieldwork was undertaken by Emma Dwyer and Simon Roper and the report was written by Emma Dwyer. A copy of this report and all photographs will be archived with Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust.


Photo 1 - The parcel, as it arrived in the Ironbridge Archaeology office

On the 15th December 2005 Ironbridge Archaeology undertook an archaeological excavation of a parcel received at the Ironbridge Archaeology offices, on the above date. The parcel was most recently located at Ordnance Survey Grid Reference SJ 6675 0475.

Project Background

Ironbridge Archaeology decided to undertake stratigraphic excavation of the parcel in order to better understand its origins and the nature of its contents.


The most suitable method of excavation of the parcel was considered to be by scalpel. The primary record comprised an extensive series of digital photos taken with a 5 mega-pixel digital camera; this was used to record the process of excavation and any archaeological features and artefacts encountered during this process. All features were assigned context numbers and would have been recorded on pro-forma recording sheets and field drawings at 1:10/1:20 scale on drawing film if we'd been bothered.


The results can be split into two parts.

a) Recording of the external features of the parcel, and its opening, followed by
b) Recording of the contents.

The first two layers to be recorded were an adhesive label, on which the address of the archaeology unit was printed <1001> and a clear cellophane envelope on which was printed 'Documents Enclosed' <1002>. Contained within <1002> was a white sheet of paper <1003> measuring 297x210mm; comparison with similar artefacts held within the Ironbridge Gorge Museum suggested that this served the function of a dispatch note.

Photo 2 - The dispatch note

Contexts <1001> and <1002> were both overlying a layer of clear sellotape (1004) which in turn overlay brown parcel tape (1006) the cardboard box <1008> and an adhesive paper label attributing the contents of the box to a manufacturing establishment in California <1005>. Beneath the sellotape (1004) but overlying the brown parcel tape (1006) and cardboard box <1008> another adhesive paper label gave the address of a delivery depot in Daventry.

Photo 3 - Simon begins excavation

The decision was taken to access the deposits within the box directly, as the stratigraphic relationship between the features on the exterior of the box had been straightforward to ascertain, and did not warrant further investigation.

Photo 4 - The contents of the parcel in situ

The parcel was opened, revealing a single mixed deposit of inflated cellophane packaging and cardboard boxes (1009)

Photo 5 - The assemblage


Examination of deposit (1009) revealed some exciting new illustration software (hurrah!). The software had travelled from where it was manufactured in California, all the way to Shropshire...via Daventry. On contacting the museum IT department it transpired that we were not the intended recipients of the parcel (oh).