Playing away at

The past month has been bonkers busy, or, to use the slicker corporate jargon that now disfigures my professional writing and speech after two months of working for a leading tech company, my bandwidth has been maxed out all too frequently. So, if you were wondering why posts have been rather thin on the ground hereabouts of late, there’s your somewhat opaque reason. Keep checking back in over the next couple of weeks and I should have posted at least one or two of the clutch of pieces I have waiting in the wings (mainly the wings of my mind, so expect them to take a while to complete).

Fortunately for this post and your decision to persevere with it this far, I have an exciting little announcement to make. Despite the impression given above, I have managed not only to start but more importantly to finish writing something recently, only for a different blog to Surrey Medieval. Cad! Bounder! I hear you cry. Well, not quite.

The library at Gregynog. You definitely would, wouldn't you?

The library at Gregynog. You definitely would, wouldn’t you?

Back in the early spring, I went to the postgraduate workshop event that was run as a preamble to the annual conference of the Society for Name Studies in Britain & Ireland (fondly know by its excellent acronym SNSBI) held at Gregynog in the heart of mid-Wales. No idea why I didn’t blog about it at the time, as it was an excellent event (I seem to remember it overlapping with the most ferocious and long-lasting of all my recent bouts of mouth ulcers, which perhaps explains more or less everything). At the workshop I met Alice Crook, a PhD student at Glasgow who, it turns out, also runs the website Cut to the other side of the summer and, not long after finally catching up with how things are done in the year 2014 by sharing my post-dissertation reflections post on Facebook, Alice dropped me an email asking if I might like to contribute something for the site’s Feature of the Month, er, feature. Somehow, in between a new job, transatlantic travel and generally being a slowcoach, I managed to take her up on the offer by writing…


‘The thing about -ing(tūn), a 1500-word excuse to look in more detail at something I did touch upon in my MA dissertation, but for all of a paragraph or two. There’s still a heap more that could be said on the matter, and that’s just on the historiography! In fact, one of the pieces I have earmarked for posting in the coming weeks is a thorough analysis of the textual sources which contain genuine early attestations of singular -ing name formations, with particular reference to the changes in practice evident in the peerless corpus of boundary descriptions from Kent. Read through to near the end of my Onomastics post as *spoiler alert* it introduces some of the basic historical framework in which I think the toponymic evidence can be interpreted.

Now I have my marked dissertation copy back, I will be making corrections (and one or two additions) before getting it printed and bound properly. The Surrey Archaeology Society has offered to host a copy on its website, which should give it exposure to people who might not usually go looking for such things. Of course, I’ll upload it on this or Academia – or both – for added exposure. Speaking of Academia, make yourself a brew and settle down to read the Master’s dissertation of Michael Cheong, a.k.a. The Eastern Anglo-Saxonist, still occasionally of this parish of WordPress. It’s a great piece of research, and looks nice too (I’m guessing UCL doesn’t have the same strictures as Nottingham around using an unattractive font and so forth).

Anyway, many thanks to Alice for letting me loose on her website. I feel like I should return the favour one day and let others stage mini-takeovers of Surrey Medieval. Maybe I’ll let things calm down a little around here first.

Posted in Anglo-Saxon, Dating, Documents, History, Kent, Mercia, Nottingham, Old English, Place-Names, Publishing, Surrey | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Beowulf in California

Here’s a big bit of news I’ve been sitting on for a while because, well, I didn’t know if I’d be able to afford to make it happen. But I can! So, without further ado, I’m pretty darned chuffed to announce that ten days hence I’ll be on my way to California to participate in the 112th Pacific Ancient and Modern Languages Association (PAMLA) Annual Conference, being held in Riverside outside Los Angeles between 31st October and 2nd November.

Another lost weekend. Lost in a sea of Old English poetry, that is.

Another lost weekend. Lost in a sea of Old English poetry, that is.

The full programme (really I should say program) is available to look through here. It’s an extraordinarily diverse event, with ‘Beowulf and Related Topics’, the session featuring my paper, coming a little beyond the halfway mark. Said paper will go by the title ‘Beowulf beside the Thames? An Old English estate boundary description as evidence of the influence of heroic poetry upon Late Anglo-Saxon prose writers’, and will be an exploration of one of the main themes of an essay I wrote as part of my MA which led to this post and some of this post and in an roundabout way this post as well. It’s been equal parts tricky and fun to wrap my head around a topic I haven’t touched for a while, but it’s all coming together nicely now.

It’s made all the more exciting as I’ve never been to the US before and I have wangled a week off from work in which to do some unabashedly touristy things in LA, then travel Amtrak up the West Coast for a couple of days apiece in Portland and Seattle. If by very good fortune you are reading this and happen to be going to the PAMLA conference, please drop by my session and say hi. Alternatively, if the above hasn’t got you looking up last-minute travel websites for flights and hotels to the Golden State, then you might be interested to learn I’ll be speaking on much the same topic masquerading under a different title – ‘Pagan, Christian, or Heroic? Understanding “ritually-deposited” early medieval metalwork at Battersea and beyond’ – at the Surrey Archaeological Society Medieval Studies Forum’s ‘Belief and Unbelief’ meeting, taking place in the Education Centre of Guildford Cathedral on Saturday 6th December. If not at the first time of asking, second time around it’ll be glitch-free for certain…

Posted in Anglo-Saxon, Battersea, Being organised, Charters, Documents, London, News, Old English, Ritual, Talk, Thames, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Acleah, that is, Junction 7 of the M25? Part 2: Ockley Wood and environs

This post concerns the second half of my walk over the North Downs of East Surrey – first half here if you need to catch up – which now seems a long time ago but in fact was not (my perception may have something to do with the weather outside being decidedly autumnal in a way it was not on the day nor in the intervening weeks). More to the point, it brings me to the primary place of interest and reason for undertaking the walk, Ockley Wood, candidate for the site of the 851 battle of Acleah. If my hypothesis is correct, it took place here or hereabouts:

Medieval motorway, in a manner of speaking...

A medieval motorway, in a manner of speaking…

You’ll gather that, as early medieval battle-sites go, it’s far from pristine. Never mind the past 1,160 years or so, the past 40 years have been tough on Ockley Wood, drastically reducing its size and as part of the construction of the section of the M25 between Junctions 6 and 8 which opened in 1976. I wanted to see what could still be learned about the topography of the area in spite of these vicissitudes, and was pleased to discover there was more to be pieced together than I thought. At the end of it, I still cannot claim to have amassed sufficient evidence to state outright that the battle of 851 took place here (nor that it was the earlier-attested lost Southumbrian synod site), but my walk left me with more positive indications than when I set out on my walk. I’ll leave it to you to click on the numbers below and reach your own conclusion – by all means let me know your thoughts in the comments field below…

Posted in Anglo-Saxon, Archaeology, Barrows, History, Landscape, Place, Place-Names, Portable Antiquities Scheme, Religion, Surrey, Topography, Viking, Wessex | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Acleah, that is, Junction 7 of the M25? Part 1: Farthing Downs

I know what you’re thinking, that there’s a pretty crazy title, so allow me to commence with some retrospection by way of orientation. A little under a year ago, I wrote a post which went to great lengths to discount a proposal made by Richard Coates that the lost 851 battle site of Acleah is commensurate with Oakley in Hampshire. Part and parcel of this was the presentation of a body of evidence which could be considered supportive of the battle site being in the vicinity of Ockley Wood in south-east Surrey. In the intervening months I can’t claim to have paid the matter much attention, though as you will learn nor have I neglected it altogether. What I did do, back towards the start of this calendar year and in a considerably less positive frame of mind, was to get myself worked up so much that I fired off a 30-going-on-13-year-old diatribe against what I perceived to be certain staid, uninspiring aspects of medieval research.

One of the few redeeming features of this torrid little rant was the list of methodological approaches I wanted to try for the first time or else bring to the fore in my research. Among the more realistic (and lower budget) intentions was to strive to base more of what I write on detailed observations gained through direct experiences of the places in question. No longer compelled to spend every day writing my dissertation, and with a couple of weeks of downtime before I started a new job, lately I have had the time to get back into the habit of doing things for Surrey Medieval. Thus, I put my best foot forward and went for a walk heading out from the outermost limits of suburban South London on the trail of Acleah.

Orientation plate capping trig point atop Farthing Downs - extra credit for the Old English place-name quotation, but instantly forfeited for giving the wrong date (from a highly spurious charter to boot)

Orientation plate capping trig point atop Farthing Downs – extra credit for the Old English place-name quotation, but instantly forfeited for giving the wrong date (from a highly spurious charter to boot)

I came back with so much material that, for the sake of readers’ attention spans, what was going to be one long post has been split into a brace of more manageable offerings looking at the two main sites of interest. Here, I will set the scene and then discuss a set of monuments which provide indirect but arguably very important evidence, and leave recounting my experiences of the hypothesised site of the battle for a second post. Even so, to avoid presenting you with a wall of text and occasional photo, I’ve paginated this post and encourage you to click on the numbers below to progress through it.

Health warning! What follows is not thoroughly phenomenological in the same way as, say, this paper I read the other week, which frankly is probably as much of a blessing as it is a letdown – I often get the sense authors over-egg descriptions of minutiae and lose sight of the bigger points they set out to convey. At no point during my walk did I attempt to put myself in the mind of a member of a seventh-century burial community or mid-ninth-century Viking war-band as well as in their footsteps. I did, however, have my eyes and ears wide open, my notepad in one hand, and smartphone with camera set to Pano mode in the other, and so acquired a range of visual, verbal and aural information (the last mostly traffic noise unfortunately) to analyse afterwards.

Posted in Anglo-Saxon, Annals, Archaeology, Barrows, Charters, History, Landscape, London, Old English, Phenomenology, Place-Names, Surrey, Viking, WPLongform | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Post no bills? Reflections on visits to place-names in the Surrey Weald

It’s over. My dissertation is handed in, my part in my Master’s degree is done. Finally, time to relax and enjoy the summer. I’m not much of a Doctor Who fan but nonetheless I enjoyed the coincidence of the episode aired that weekend being set in and around Nottingham. It’s been quite a year, strange at times but overall a good one. I can’t claimed to have learned Old English in the process, but I have got a handle on the basics – or at least those parts of the language I’ll need going forward – as well as a heap of other new knowledge and experiences to boot.


My dissertation – there it is above disappearing into the assessed coursework submissions bin – looks at the Surrey place-names claimed by various authorities over the decades to be derived from Old English -ingas and -ingahām, two toponymic elements about which much has been published over the years (here’s an early Surrey Medieval page that acts as a bit of a primer on some of the key literature). You may think this means there’s nothing much else to be said on the matter. Au contraire, now seems to be the time to draw together all that has been published and take a fresh, impartial look at them untainted by preconceptions about their age or “tribal” connotation.

I started off collecting all relevant names (and by that I mean anything with an historic or modern -ing-, -ing particle) from Surrey and Sussex, which left me with a massive dataset dripping with possibilities, but not amenable to be analysed successfully within the confines of a 14,000-word dissertation. Duly, I reduced the scope to Surrey alone and trimmed out all names containing a use of singular -ing (look out for a post about these in due course) to leave only those in one of the plural forms. However hard I tried to write economically and succinctly about them, this still left me miles over the limit so again I was left with no option but to readjust the compass of the analysis, plumping to consider just the two types of -inga(s) place-name formation. This at least had the advantage of being able to realign the dissertation with the important overviews of such place-names in Surrey published by Eilert Ekwall in 1962 and John Insley in 2005.

The verbiage which didn’t make the cut wasn’t just based on dipping into books and journals. It was also derived from site visits, sometimes testing my own hypotheses, other times those of previous authors who seem not to have gone to the places in question. It’s an example of the latter I want to begin with and then extend here.

John Dodgson, alongside his seminal work on the age of -ingas and -inga- place-names, also published a series of articles on various uses of -ing in Old English place-names. They are less well known today because they were published in the German journal Beiträge zur Namenforschung, hardly a regular feature of many academic libraries let alone private equivalents, but together are more important in the interpretation of name formations of this ilk. The articles are a long way from perfect: densely technical, repetitive, and, when it comes to some of his individual name analyses, over-reliant on some under-critical treatment of the philological data. All the same, they are effective in demonstrating the picture presented in some earlier works was a simplification of the reality.

Dodgson opened with Great and Little Billing in Northamptonshire as the lead example of a place-name formation found throughout England. Whereas previous scholars from J. M. Kemble on treated a name like this as betokening Billingas, ‘folk called after Billa‘, Dodgson introduced the idea of derivation from a singular name formation, either a ‘topographical proper-noun Billing or a common-noun billing, which the basic element is a topographical term rather than a personal-name’ (Dodgson 1967, 326-27). The relevant term is bill, ‘sword, cutting tool’, a subject for which I have previous. Its topographical connotation seems to have been a landform which came to a point; much the same applies for bile, whence Modern English bill of a bird. Dodgson saw the occurrence of bill in combination with -ing being so frequent as to indicate *billing was a lexical item, one which was capable of being understood (and, where circumstances were appropriate, replicated) by many who encountered it in a toponymic context. This has been adopted by later scholars, although its standard translation as ‘hill-place’ is laughably vague (VEPN, 100).

The discussion moves on to Billingshurst in Wealden Sussex, a name for which Dodgson offered multiple translations, the most credible being ‘the hyrst (called, at) Billing‘ or ‘the hyrst of Billing‘, in which hyrst means ‘wooded hill’ (Dodgson 1967, 329-30). Here, the first half of the name has *Billing (or conceivably *billing) in the genitive singular. Usually, this inflection is used with personal names and, since Dodgson wrote his articles, the personal name Billing has been identified in the earliest portion of the Durham Liber Vitae, composed in the earlier ninth-century (Insley & Rollason 2007, 169). An interpretation “wooded hill of [a man named] Billing” would be entirely compatible with the evidence of the collected attestations of the place-name Billingshurst, only there is persuasive topographical motivation, in the form of a prominent narrow (one might even go so far as to say sword-blade-shaped) ridge to the east of the town, at whose apex the parish church is sited.

My dissertation fieldwork took me to two places in the Weald in Surrey, which in different ways shed new light on how and why Old English bill was used in respect of Wealden landforms. The first is High Billinghurst in Dunsfold parish (OS Grid reference TQ 020369). It was appraised by Dodgson (1967, 330), who noted the earlier suggestion – and did not discount the possibility – that it was a possible ‘manorial’ transfer from Billingshurst (see PNS, 235). Importantly, he also observed that either way the names (High) Billinghurst and Billingshurst are analogous, with the former incorporating *Billing either in its uninflected nominative/accusative singular form or just possibly the dative singular *Billinge.

High Billinghurst from west

High Billinghurst (and some startled horses) viewed from the west

High Billinghurst from NW

High Billinghurst viewed (so far as trees allow) from the north-west

Seeing High Billinghurst first-hand in its landscape context proves that the name is without a doubt one coined to reflect the topographical situation of the place. The present-day farm sits atop a distinct eminence, which may not be brought out especially clearly by the above photos, that is sufficiently prominent as to confirm it is the origin of the name (High seems to be a late prefix added to minor Wealden place-names attached to hilltop sites, e.g. High Loxley, also in Dunsfold parish: PNS, 236). Therefore, not only is explaining the name in ‘manorial’ terms unnecessary, but the different inflections incorporated within Billinghurst and Billingshurst are reflective of choices made at the time the two names were coined.

Billeshurst Wood

Billeshurst Wood and surrounding area, from OS Explorer map (copyright Ordnance Survey, not mine – reproduced via without permission but with the utmost respect…)

The other place I visited with the intention of seeing whether its name stems from topographical bill is Billeshurst Wood in Lingfield in the south-east corner of Surrey (centred on grid reference TQ 403443). Its similarity to Billinghurst is partly illusory; early spellings beginning with Billesersse 1198 show the generic is not hyrst but Old English ersc, ‘ploughed land’. PNS (328) identifies the specific as a personal name Bil(l); Gelling and Cole (2000, 268) opt for *Bill (a slightly strange choice given the Domesday-attested Bil). What made me think there may be another way of understanding Billeshurst was consulting the OS map and spotting how the 50-metre contour forms a very distinctive finger-like projection from the north-eastern corner of Margaret’s Hill – just the sort of thing which in the Old English period might attract use of the term bill.

Seen in real life, the proposed bill of Billeshurst is not especially striking in its prominence – less so than the *billing of High Billinghurst – though this may be partly explicable by the obscuring effect of Billeshurst and Dencher Woods. The treeless ground in between – which could well be equivalent to the ersc – slopes gently down, with a slightly steeper gradient on its eastern flank. Here, then, if it is not the product of false analogy with a personal name, we seem to have a compound beginning with the genitive singular-inflected form of topographical bill. To translate the name on the same lines as Dodgson’s suggestions for Billingshurst, this may denote either “ploughed land of/at the bill” or “ploughed land of/at [the place known as] Bill“.

Billeshurst from north east

Stood on the bill looking south-west from Dencher Wood towards Billeshurst Wood and Margaret’s Hill

Why some names were formed using bill and others *billing, and why some were in the genitive inflection and others in a different case, is something that will require further investigation. Could it be that a *billing was a more substantial and/or more visually-striking landscape feature than a bill? Might the different inflections be a product of different dates or phases of place-name creation?

Insights may come from looking more closely at the other Wealden place-names from bill(ing). Buildings Farm and Wood in Ewhurst parish (Biledone, Billedene 1225) is the only comparable published Surrey name whose location I have not been able to visit to date. It has been interpreted as ‘Billa‘s valley’, a combination of the personal name *Billa and denu (PNS, 238). As can be seen below, Buildings Wood (centred on grid reference TQ 108386) seems to overlie a slender-ish isthmus of higher ground heading in a northerly direction from a high point close to Somersbury Wood; the valley represented by the second half of the compound is doubtless the one to the east. There is no trace of a medial -n- which would be expected if the first half of the name came from a genitive singular *Billan, but this does not always show up in Middle English spellings in Surrey. Nevertheless, given the weak direct evidence for the posited personal name and the numerous correlates for the topographical alternative, it may not be going too far to suggest in the name Buildings we have another occurrence of bill (or possibly bile). Across the southern county boundary in Sussex are a clutch of likely place-names in bill in addition to Billingshurst which merit future visitation: Bilsborough in Woodmancote, Billingham in Udimore, Bill Gut by Pevensey, possibly High Buildings in Ebernoe.

Billeshurst Wood and surrounding area, from OS Explorer map (copyright Ordnance Survey, not mine - reproduced via without permission but with the utmost respect...)

Buildings Wood and surrounding area, from OS Explorer map – note 80m contour (copyright Ordnance Survey, not mine – reproduced via without permission but with the utmost respect…)

Moreover, these are the tip of an iceberg of other possible -ing appellatives and related formations present in the name-stock of the Weald. Back in the 1950, Gordon Copley identified a series of place-names distributed along the axis of the trans-Wealden Stane Street as forming ‘a group of dependent hamlets stretching right across the Weald’, of which Poling was the head ‘village’ (Copley 1950, 101-102). Reassessment of the Surrey members of this supposed federation – Pollingfold in Ewhurst, Pallinghurst in Cranleigh, Polesden on the North Downs – indicates that they should not be understood to share a common derivation; late-recorded Pallinghurst (PNS, 231) may even have a Middle English origin. A more credible group of names – but not necessarily group of group-names – consists of Collendean in Surrey (Covelindenne 13th), Cuttinglye (Couelingeley 1286) and Cullinghurst (Covelynghurst 1354) in Sussex, all of which been suggested to derive from an unattested personal name *Cūfel(a) (PNS, 293; PNSx, 281, 367). Serious consideration should be given instead to the possibility that they share an origin from the Old English noun cūfel, ‘hood, headcloth’, used in some hitherto-unsuspected topographical sense in combination with a singular -ing suffix.

The above is very much an interim report, but, from my visits to two Wealden locations whose names probably stem from Old English bill, a few things have become clear. First, Dodgson was justified in arguing for a topographical *billing as a counterpart to bill (even if he did muddy matters by asserting parallel and alternating singular topographical and plural folk-name forms rather than resort to the more plausible explanation that such differences are nothing more significant than the inconsistent orthographical choices made by Middle English scribes). If Billinghurst and Billeshurst are representative examples, a Wealden bill or a *billing wasn’t as narrow or pointed as a sword blade, but both terms were applied to raised landforms whose proportions were not so modest as to prevent them having distinct characteristics, ones particularly appreciable at close quarters. A bill was not simply a hill, and a *billing not simply a ‘hill-place'; at the risk of introducing circularity into the argument, both were types of eminence defined by their bill-like qualities.

So far as is known, place-names in bill and *billing in Surrey are restricted to the southernmost, Wealden parts of the county, but in Sussex there are signs both had a wider distribution. Further research into my combined two-county database promises to reveal similar groups united by an element which is susceptible to testing in the field. Ultimately, I hope this will go some way to reducing the high number of Wealden place-names currently understood to be derived from extra-Wealden-based -ingas folk-groups.


Copley, Gordon J., ‘Stane Street in the Dark Ages’, Sussex Archaeological Collections, 89 (1950), 98-104.

Dodgson, John McNeil, ‘Various forms of Old English -ing in English place-names’, Beiträge zur Namenforschung, Neue Folge, 2 (1967), 325-96.

Ekwall, Eilert, English Place-Names in -ing, second edition (Lund: CWK Gleerup, 1962).

Gelling, Margaret, and Ann Cole, The Landscape of Place-Names (Stamford: Shaun Tyas, 2000)

Gover, J. E. B., A. Mawer and F. M. Stenton, The Place-Names of Surrey [PNS], English Place-Name Society, 11 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1934).

Insley, John, ‘Surrey’ in Reallexikon der Germanischen Altertumskunde, 30, ed. by Rosemarie Müller (Berlin & New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2005), 137-41.

Insley, John, and David Rollason, ‘English Monothematic Names’ in The Durham Liber Vitae, Volume 2: Linguistic Commentary, ed. by David Rollason and Lynda Rollason (London: British Library, 2007), 165-87.

Mawer, A., and F. M. Stenton, The Place-Names of Sussex [PNSx], 2 Parts, English Place-Name Society, 6 & 7 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1929).

Parsons, David, and Tania Styles with Carole Hough, The Vocabulary of English Place-Names (Á-BOX) [VEPN] (Nottingham: Centre for English Name Studies, 1997).

Posted in Anglo-Saxon, Landscape, News, Nottingham, Old English, Place, Place-Names, Surrey, Sussex, Topography | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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.

Posted in Books, Excuses | Tagged | Leave a comment

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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