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).

Postal Archaeology - Part Two

After the excavation of the parcel, it was discovered that the intended repository of the artefact assemblage was not Ironbridge Archaeology, but the museum's IT department. The site was backfilled, and the assemblage was transported to the new archive.

Photo 1 - Simon backfilling

Photo 2 - Simon transporting the assemblage from the office

Photo 3 - and across the carpark...

Photo 4 - The assemblage in the new repository - the IT department