All work and all play

It’s been a good few weeks since I posted anything and there are two good reasons why. First, I’ve been up to my eyeballs in writing my MA dissertation, which has taken up most of my waking hours (not to mention a few of my sleeping ones – yes, place-names related dreams can and do occur…) Second, it’s the summer, so right now I’m on holiday doing absolutely diddely-squat of relevance to my dissertation or any other academic work. Instead, this past week has been all about camping, swimming in rivers, eating sausages, and finally getting around to reading the excellent Owen Hatherley’s Militant Modernism. If it’s good enough for Jonathan Meades and Will Self, it’s good enough for me.

See you soon.

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Making models, material models – a past and a future?


The reproduction of Watson & Crick’s DNA model (by Roger Luck and Claudio Villa of the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology Workshop) in place in the stairwell of Two Temple Place

A little while back, I went to see an exhibition my good friend Lucy had helped to mount at Two Temple Place, the extraordinary London home-cum-headquarters of the Transatlantic Victorian magnate, William Waldorf Astor. Consisting of a wealth of pieces loaned from the collections of the various museums in Cambridge, it was a great show. One of the most striking things on display, not to mention among the most modern, was the above; a towering reproduction of the model of the DNA double helix made by the pioneering molecular biologists James D. Watson and Francis Crick in 1953. Here they are next to the original:

“You missed an atom…” (image via

What got me so geed up about the model was its sculptural quality, not just in terms of its size but its materiality. The representation of an effectively invisible thing through the use of everyday equipment (it’s been a good 15 years since I last set foot inside a science lab, but I’m not going to forget the stands and clamps used to put it together) made me consider how appropriate the modelling of a concept/phenomenon in such a manner might be to a field like medieval archaeology or history.

Recently, among the ream of paper I brought back from my last visit to Nottingham, I rediscovered a photocopy of two pages from the 1972 David L. Clarke edited volume Models in Archaeology. I had sought it out for Ellison and Harriss’s interesting if slightly unwieldy study ‘Settlement and land use in the prehistory and early history of southern England: a study based on locational models’, but couldn’t help be distracted by a photo facing the title page which at first glance seemed to depict a piece of abstract sculpture. Here’s the photo (excuse the pretty awful quality of the image reproduction) in question:

An indirect artificial hardware model (but you knew that already)

An indirect artificial hardware model (but you knew that already)

The subject of the photograph is a model which aims to articulate ‘the correlation values between attributes within the artefact type population of British beaker pottery c. 2000-1500 B.C.’ The first thing to note is that it is not directly analogous to the Watson and Crick’s, since it is not a representation of a real-life structural arrangement but an abstraction of a system. Beyond that, given its prehistoric subject matter, I’m in no position to say how successful it is in realising its stated aim, either in terms of the scholarship of the early 1970s or the contemporary understanding of the data (and the legend beneath the published photograph goes on to acknowledge certain limitations, albeit mainly around there not being other counterpart models which would abet comparison of ‘goodness of fit and evaluation’).

What I do feel able to say is that I love the fact it’s not simply another line drawing or graph, but a composite object fashioned by someone from physical materials. In this era of digitisation, such a nuts-and-bolts method (is this an appropriate context to use the word literally?) seems archaic and suitable only for circumstances as specific as an exhibition to mark 50 years of the double helix. Indeed, it’s no surprise to find that the picture of the model appears in the book divorced from any related essay and is proffered as little more than an inconsequential oddment of fleeting visual interest. Today, the whole concept of a physical, made-out-of-stuff model has the air of retro-futurism about it; a nice idea, but something you don’t see a lot of for a fairly good reason.

Despite the postmodern turn in the social sciences more or less tearing to shreds the notion that a model can be universally applicable to what it endeavours to portray, models still get produced in printed and/or digital form because they are (sometimes) useful abstractions of a particular reality. I can’t help but think material models remain an especially stimulating means of communicating complex ideas to a wider audience. My current unease with the primacy of the academic publication, be it book, chapter, article or even review, over other possible forms of analytical response to a subject is thrown into slightly sharper focus when that subject is material culture. Is it out of the question that research output might not be presented solely on the printed or pixelated page but, where appropriate, in other, more physically-substantial media? Just as with the written word, those who produce such works must acknowledge the limitations of the chosen medium but at the same time seek to emphasise the advantages such alternatives present by conveying information in a different way and perhaps causing the audience to respond to them differently too. I for one would go to see the exhibition.


Clarke, David L., ed., Models in Archaeology (London: Methuen & Co., 1972)

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Contacts and Networks: University of Nottingham Institute for Medieval Research Postgraduate Conference 2014

Contacts and Networks conference

Over the past couple of months, I’ve been working alongside a number of postgraduate research students within the University of Nottingham’s Institute for Medieval Research planning its annual Postgraduate Conference. I think I’m right in saying the conference is in its fifth year, and this time around has the theme ‘Contacts and Networks’. It will take place on 5th July 2014 on the University Park campus in the west of Nottingham. Now we’ve reached the point where everything is booked and programmed, we’re going on the offensive to publicise what I think it’s fair to say is the best one-day medieval conference happening anywhere this July…

I’m especially excited about the conference because I will be chairing a session, in which the three papers are united by a common theme of travel and travelling. I expect this to yield some great insights into the world-views of different individuals from all corners of medieval Europe, and perhaps even some unexpected commonalities of experiences across time and space. Overall, as befits the conference theme, the papers being presented throughout the day are on an extraordinarily broad range of topics – making it the ideal event for anyone who wants to be challenged to think about unfamiliar topics and places and how they relate to their own research.

So whether you’re planning to head to the north of England for the International Medieval Congress and/or the Grand Départ of the Tour de France, or simply like the look and sound of the PG Conference, I highly recommend you register to attend. Take a look at the attached documentation below, then make it happen. And between now and early July, please tweet/link/email/word-of-mouth the hell out of the publicity materials!

Nottingham IMR Postgraduate Conference 2014 Poster

Nottingham IMR Postgraduate Conference 2014 Programme

Nottingham IMR Postgraduate Conference 2014 Registration Form

(While I think of it, the organisers of the Society for Medieval Archaeology’s Student Colloquium, happening in mid-November in Belfast, have just issued their second call for papers. I gave a paper at last year’s event in Aberdeen and had a thoroughly good time, so I would encourage postgraduates past, present or future studying in any even vaguely related subject to get involved.)

Posted in Archaeology, Art, Being organised, Conference, Hagiography, History, News, Nottingham, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Books on Anglo-Saxon Surrey are a lot like buses…

… but as I’m sure you know how the saying goes, I won’t belabour the point (other than to note that unfortunately it doesn’t apply to the bus stop outside my front door, which has a steady stream of services around the clock). For all that I’ve posted on the subject over the past three years, Surrey is not a massively “Anglo-Saxon” county in the same way as Lincolnshire, Norfolk or Kent (let’s agree not to get into the Jutish question right here and now, okay?). It has a reasonable amount of Anglo-Saxon mortuary archaeology and likewise a decent-sized corpus of documentary records (some of the aforementioned being of national, if not international, importance – for instance the great square-headed brooch from grave 225 of the Mitcham cemetery, pictured below, or subregulus Frithuwald’s endowment charter for Chertsey minster a.k.a. S 1165) but overall both quantity and quality are somewhat lacking. This is reflected – not unfairly, I would go so far as to say – in the less-than-spectacular flow of new scholarship with a Surrey focus published over the decades.

Image via Museum of London's Medieval London AD 410-1558 online catalogue

Image via Museum of London’s Medieval London AD 410-1558 online catalogue

Given this situation, for a new book to be published which deals at length with one aspect of life and material culture in the Surrey area during the post-Roman centuries is something of an event. To have two published around the same time is rather remarkable. For three to come out in the same calendar year – well, that’s inviting the misuse of a bus-related colloquialism in the name of emphasising quite how extraordinary such a triplicate coincidence is.

One of the three titles, Susan Kelly’s Charters of Chertsey Abbey, has been the subject of so many apologetic emails from Amazon (yeah, sorry, but they were doing a deal…) explaining publication had been delayed for unknown reasons that when I say I’m expecting to at long last have a copy of it in my hands by the end of this month, I do so with the hopefulness that only an innate optimist can retain after so many disappointments. Needless to say when(ever) it does appear, it will be a work of the highest quality and a substantial fillip for research into the monastery at Chertsey, its considerable landholdings and early medieval Surrey at large.

Two evenings ago, I was at the UCL Institute of Archaeology for the final seminar in this year’s IoA/British Museum medieval series, delivered by Sue Harrington on the topic ‘The Early Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms of Southern Britain AD450-650: Beneath the Tribal Hidage. Readers in the know (or who have worked out the above image is a book cover) will be aware the title is the same as that of an important new book which is on the cusp of being published, the key product of a three-year funded research project which ran between 2006 and 2009 (an overview of said project under its original title Beyond the Tribal Hidage can be found here).

The delay between completion of the research and publication of the main report can be attributed to two factors: the enormous size of the assembled dataset (we’re talking tens of thousands of entries) and the untimely death of the principal investigator, Prof. Martin Welch, in 2011. Dr Harrington was open in explaining how the latter had curtailed the breadth of the final report, with not all of the original research questions able to receive full discussion. This is immediately apparent in the book, which offers extended accounts of themes such as the importance of visibility in the choice of Early Anglo-Saxon cemetery location – lavishly illustrated with photographs by Dr Harrington in her presentation – and the Frankish influence exerted upon the material (and by extension political) culture of what is now south-east England, but not so much in the way of overarching conclusions; the final synthesis runs to only a handful of pages.

In her presentation, Dr Harrington referred to the book as ‘a fragment of the potential of the data’, which is perhaps to underplay the scale of what her and her late co-author (and the many others who were involved in the project) were successful in bringing to print, but nevertheless is a frank and accurate acknowledgement that the sheer volume of information collected could never be subject to comprehensive analysis even if circumstances had been much more favourable. Of course, this gives researchers like me the opportunity – and, through the data assembled, the material – to go forward and answer some of the unfulfilled research aims of the original project, as well as taking the analysis in entirely new directions.

To this end, I was particularly excited to discover that Surrey is the subject of a case study chapter considering the provenances of the relevant archaeological material and the reasons for their uneven spatial distribution. I wasn’t able to read the chapter in full (I was doing my best to skim-read the book during a wine reception, dahling) but gleaned enough to appreciate that it takes forward the template for the county-level comprehension of the archaeology laid down by John Hines a decade ago. I look forward to giving it my undivided attention when my pre-ordered copy is delivered soon (word to the wise, do as I did and get it from Oxbow for a special price).

SpoilHeap Publications

One book which is already out and which I heartily recommend is a new double excavation report with the snappy title of *takes a big breath* Late Upper Palaeolithic/Early Mesolithic, Roman and Saxon Discoveries at Fetcham, near Leatherhead. Written by Tom Munnery but with contributions from several specialists, it details the results of two excavations conducted in 2009 and 2010 in the mid-Surrey parish of Fetcham. As the title makes plain, the work extends across several periods and offers some useful observations, such as the identification of a Roman villa in a Surrey river valley, a rare occurrence as things stand although I am firmly of the belief that in Surrey, as in other English counties, we don’t even know the half of it when it comes to the numbers and densities of villas (if they are indeed susceptible to classification as a single group of buildings-cum-settlements). In other words, its characterisation in terms of its situation as ‘unusual’ may be an index of its discovery and excavation rather than it being counter to a trend which prevailed in the county area in the second to fourth centuries AD.

The Anglo-Saxon period is well represented in the book, with the account of the excavation of 18 inhumation burials forming the bulk of the second chapter. However, arguably as important is the note that the discovery of Early Anglo-Saxon pottery at the Roman villa site ‘raises the possibility of continuity of occupation’ into the fifth century, although wisely this is backed up with an concession that such things are notoriously hard to demonstrate clearly (page 39). The aforementioned inhumations are identified as belonging to the long known about but haphazardly excavated cemetery of Hawk’s Hill. The majority of the burials contained grave goods, which permitted the burials to be dated to the seventh century, a conclusion which is extended by Rob Poulton in his contextual discussion to apply to the whole cemetery (one distinguishable in time as well as space from an earlier, albeit ?late sixth-century, furnished burial site at Watersmeet to the north-east).

Images of a coin of Hadrian (minted c. 119-22), pierced for reuse as jewellery, found in Inhumation 229 at Hawk's Hill (Copyright SpoilHeap Publications, not mine)

Images of a coin of Hadrian (minted c. 119-22), pierced for reuse as jewellery, found in Inhumation 229 at Hawk’s Hill
(Copyright SpoilHeap Publications, not mine)

Poulton’s subsequent appraisal of the regional context, in which he pays particular attention to the estate/parish-edge location of the cemetery and the relationship between the excavated burials and the Christian conversion of the Surrey region, will make for an interesting point of comparison with Harrington and Welch’s county case study. In turn, both will warrant testing against last year’s Anglo-Saxon Graves and Grave Goods of the 6th and 7th Centuries AD, a work of such formidable academic – and physical – weight that I am only able to tackle a few pages at a time before my brain starts to initiate meltdown sequence. Dr Harrington made this point with regard to her book in the course of her presentation, and I know that the issue is one faced by others working in the same field (btw, cheers to Toby Martin for recent advice rendered on material culture matters).

In the spirit of every scholarly book reviewer, I suppose it is contingent on me at this point to air a couple of gripes with the published work. There are discrepancies between the two county maps (Fig. 1.31 on page 38 and 2.40 on page 87) which would probably pass the reader by unless, like me, they have an interest in the Hog’s Back and so are left a little perplexed by the depiction of the inhumation burial from “Wen Barrow” as variously a Roman inhumation and an Early Saxon barrow burial (expect a lot more about this complex site from me in the coming weeks). The font chosen to render the Domesday spellings of the estate names around the Hawk’s Hill site (page 86 Fig. 2.39) is horrible, even if it bears a modish resemblance to the script of the inscribed cross from the Staffordshire Hoard.

The above shortcomings are trivialities and I find pointing them out here more irksome than encountering them in the book. Over all, it is a highly commendable production, not least because it took fewer than four years to go from trench to print, constituting an impressively quick turnaround which has brought the results of two significant excavations into the public domain unlike so many other sites of at least equal interest and importance. If there can be said to be such a thing as an archaeological scene in Surrey (and I’m probably the first to ever give voice to such a notion), then the folks at SpoilHeap are the ascendant stars, and Tom Munnery and his colleagues deserve to have praise heaped – sorry, I couldn’t help myself – upon them for producing a stream of consistently excellent volumes.

Posted in Anglo-Saxon, Archaeology, Books, Dating, Landscape, News, Publishing, Surrey, Talk, Topography | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Forgive us for our trespassing: seeing the Dorset “seven ditches”

I first wrote about the lost earthwork-cum-execution site atop the Hog’s Back in Surrey known as “seven ditches” around four years ago, and it was the first piece of work I added to this blog when I set it up in 2011. Since then, as well as remoulding that paper into the form you will find it in today, I’ve written various additional bits and pieces on “seven ditches” as a name and as a place (you’ll find them all under the Work heading with a bit of judicious cursor hovering). More often than not, I’ve relied upon the internet to tell me about certain things when I didn’t have access to the relevant publications, to the point where I got all meta on the topic and wrote something about Googling “seven ditches”. Rather brilliantly, when I repeated the search a couple of days ago, I found that Surrey Medieval (or was it Wikipedia?) has been bumped off its top spot in the search results by 7 Ditches, a Dutch TV company. Thanks to the wonders of Google Translate, I can tell you 7 Ditches ‘makes TV interviews with entrepreneurs and other fascinating people’. With such a remit, I look forward to hearing from them before long.

The reason for my return to Google searches of old was that I was in the process of writing something else about “seven ditches”. About three months ago, I came over all angsty and took to my laptop to try and set the world to rights. There and then I vowed to try out some different approaches to my research, one of which was to write things of more phenomenological and/or psychogeographical nature. Such pieces are best produced at the time or very shortly after the direct experience(s) of the place(s) under discussion. So far, I have not been able to work this angle, but I have found the time since conference paper delivery/exam sitting/essay hand-ins to write up an account of a visit I made to the Dorset “seven ditches” where the titular earthworks still survive in an overgrown and largely out-of-bounds state. The time-lag between my visit and hitting the Publish button has been of the order of nine months, which has done nothing for my powers of recollection and so I have had to rely upon the notes I made on my phone (!) more than I would have liked. With the weather improving and greater amounts of free time on my hands, I hope to be posting similar reports of trips out into the field without anything like the lengthy delay this one has experienced.

Posted in Anglo-Saxon, Archaeology, Being organised, Charters, Dorset, Excuses, Landscape, Phenomenology, Place, Place-Names, Seven ditches, Topography, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

One hectic week done, time for some PiMMS

So the Leeds Monasticism Conference – indeed, my return to Leeds in general – was all I hoped it would be and more. Slickly run, diverse in its subject matter and with a couple of really stimulating roundtable sessions at the end of each day, I aim to make the conference an annual fixture in my calendar and would recommend you do the same, whether monasticism is very much your bag or just a more minor element in your research or interest in the medieval period. I’d put together my presentation on the St Mary Overy origin story (a summary of which I’ve added to my Academia profile) in isolation from “monasticists” but it seemed to go down well among those present.


From the other presentations and discussions I enjoyed at the conference, I came to realise that my approach of breaking down the story into several elements then subjecting them to tests to ascertain if they may be derived from historical fact is perfectly valid, but ignores what can be gleaned from consideration of the broad themes common to many such stories. In the case of St Mary Overy, some of the more spurious elements pertaining to the Anglo-Saxon phase of the church’s existence may have a lot to say about Southwark’s perception of itself relative to London, and an attempt to construct a basis for being seen as a “real” in its own right. I’m not sure what the final outlet for my work on the origin story will be but expect to see my presentation slides and maybe something else appear under my Work heading in the coming weeks.

Screen shot 2014-05-23 at 12.59.03

Before I gave my paper, the session chair was kind enough to give a shout out to Surrey Medieval. It turned out mine is not the only WordPress blog run by a conference participant. PiMMS.Net, to give it its frankly fabulous abbreviated title, is a project in its early stages but with big ambitions. My own research (not least my LMC presentation!) owes a great debt to the name-forms and associated information collected as part of the Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England (PASE) database, so another online resource is most welcome. They’re on the look out for contributors, so if you’re doing something vaguely monastic and/or prosopographical and are looking for a platform for your work, get in touch via their blog. Though it’s a long way from being my specialist subject, I’ve resolved to put something together for them at some point. Go on, summer is almost upon us, mark it with PiMMS.

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Surrey Medieval is three, won’t you come and celebrate in Leeds with me?

WordPress in its infinite loveliness has just bid me a Happy Anniversary, which I think is its way of telling me that it was exactly three years ago that I finally got my digit moving and created Surrey Medieval (unless signing up for this platform involved entering into a secret marital contract, surely not?) I’m not one for speeches, even of the typed variety, and this milestone probably isn’t deserving of one, so I’ll merely note that I’m pretty chuffed with myself to have kept this thing going for so long and not let it go the way of my other forays into the blogosphere (RIP Posterous).

Leeds Monasticism Conference

This time next week I will be in Leeds, preparing to give a paper to the Leeds Monasticism Conference. A two-day event now in its third year, the forthcoming LMC (NB. not IMC!) has as its overarching theme ‘Monastic Myths: Origins, Identities, Legacies’. I’ll be speaking on the origin story of the Augustinian priory of St Mary Overie (now Southwark Cathedral) as told to/by the sixteenth-century London topographer John Stow, an account I’ve been interested in for several years and for which a fair case to be made for it containing more grains of truth than has hitherto been thought. If you are in the area, or have a love of matters monastic and medieval, then I recommend you come along to what promises to be a really stimulating conference. Take a look at the conference programme here – and take note that I’ve had to switch from the Friday morning session to the afternoon session.

Moving away from Leeds and much closer to home, I spent part of yesterday ensconced in the Local Studies Library at Godalming Museum transcribing a couple of sixteenth-century deeds as a follow-up of sorts to the research I undertook for my talk on Puttenham parish place-names and field-names a few weeks back. I learnt of the existence of the two documents a long time ago during a prolonged trawl of various online archival databases for tidbits to do with Puttenham, but had never made the time to go to Godalming and consult them. I’m glad I did – you can read about the reasons why here.

The whopping Early Anglo-Saxon spear head on display in Godalming Museum

The whopping Early Anglo-Saxon spear head on display in Godalming Museum (note too Neolithic polished axe head in lower left of photo, thought to have been found in the Puttenham area)

Had a quick peek at the museum displays before I left and was very happy to see up close for the first time the socking great iron spear head found in the Farncombe area many years ago but which only arrived at Godalming Museum in 2007. It’s a marvellous object and worth stopping by to inspect if you ever find yourself in the town – until then, take a look at its PAS database entry for more information about its discovery, date, and state of preservation.

Posted in Agriculture, Dating, Documents, Folklore, History, Leeds, News, Portable Antiquities Scheme, Puttenham, Religion, Talk | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment