So I have reached my fourth and probably final site in this project. It is an entirely concrete place, I guess swaying to the more urban of my rural/urban band but in its own way as mysterious as the rest of them. The concealment comes in the form of an underpass beneath the A1 (M) and this concealment is enough to attract a number of visitors, as the evidence suggests. So on a rather chilly day I make my way along the footpath beside the playing fields, running parallel to the motorway and wonder what might be waiting for me this time. Earlier on in the project when I came on my initial field walking expedition, I was quite surprisingly confronted with an abandoned, burnt out Escort van, sat right in the centre. It had caught me off guard. Blackened and charred, with blown out windows, disintegrated tyres and smashed headlights it sat discarded, yet acknowledged baring the ‘POLICE AWARE’ sticker on the bonnet. I had stumbled into a real crime scene of sorts and on this deserted footpath, with the noise of overhead traffic reverberating around the tunnel I felt an eerie shiver from this strangely sinister view. A short time on a man came along and clearly as taken aback as I had been on first view, exclaimed a profanity, had a quick inspection and hurried on by.
So I knew this vehicle would have since been removed and indeed on return last week I see it has certainly long gone. All visible trace eliminated. I got on with the task of marking, collecting, logging and photographing. This site requires a slightly different method of excavation and an important part of evidence I want to examine is the graffiti. Therefore I had to map each part of the walls and record a photo of each section. There are a mass of marks upon the two walls, a past layer has been washed over, possibly when The Green Way was set up, but much more has appeared since. A general overview tells me that pretty much all this graffiti work is not exactly a labour of love. I guess to my untrained eye this would mostly be described as your usual amateur stuff but to look more closely may reveal a few surprises maybe. What conclusions can I come to beyond, who loves who and what their mum did last night?! Who knows…?
I’ve nearly now washed all the finds collected so far. I’m up to number 310 and still rising. It was very interesting to get involved with the Norton Community Archaeological Group’s find processing last Wednesday and in many ways quite similar to my own processing (as of course I am trying to make it so). It is fascinating to consider the physical and metaphorical journey that the object is taking as it travels along this process from dirt in the field, to treasured artefact. As my husband tentatively questioned the other week… what might I do with my finds once this project is over? I reacted quite defensively – insisting that they would not be binned. I think he was disappointed by this and is slightly concerned that they might become a resident in our home at some point in the future. Hopefully it won’t come to the ‘it’s them or me’ scenario!
Last week I was invited to go along to meet up with the ‘Friends of Norton Common‘ where they were working on clearing an area of undergrowth towards the Icknield Way side of the Common. These are the very culprits that have been tidying up my potential finds and clearing away precious evidence. It was easy to forgive such differences however, especially so as they kindly offered me coffee, biscuits and mince pies whilst enthusiastically offering to help me in anyway they could. It was quite enlightening actually and I discovered a bit about the tent that had started me on this trail in the first place. It was in fact them that finally removed it after walkers had mentioned that they felt uncomfortable walking by, worried by who might be lurking. It had supposedly been there for a good few weeks and seemed not to be in use anymore. They suspected it had been used for a party. This kind of adds up with some of the finds I’ve uncovered but not others, and not the report from my aunt about a man near by. Maybe that was just coincidence after all. Anyway, as I gather all my findings together maybe I’ll be able to draw out some conclusions on this. I also could tell them a bit about my findings over at The Pudding Basin. It isn’t an area they’ve really looked at and they certainly weren’t aware of the old mattress I discovered, half buried in undergrowth and greening with moss.
It was also good to get an insight into their motivations for volunteering to do this kind of work, which seems to range from a feeling of responsibility because of its proximity to their homes and also its identity within the town, to an interest in the wildlife and fauna, and probably most come for a good day out, with a cuppa and a biscuit with some very nice people. I could certainly see the appeal and must say it was a very enjoyable morning! (I shall forgive them their tidying for sure!)
Tomorrow I’m off to help the Norton Community Archaeology Group with their finds processing from the summer dig at Stapleton’s Field. It will be very interesting to be a part of their finds cleaning process and compare it to my own that’s going on at the studio at the moment. I’ve been told to bring a mug – a chance for more tea is always a good incentive!
A new year starts and I am trying to shake off that holiday feeling and get back to it. Before my week off I had an excellent couple of days in which I had one of my excavations at Norton Common filmed by fellow artist Jo Taylor. It made rather an unusual change to have someone else along filming me and thankfully it ended up being a really interesting excavation with some notable finds. I was doing a section of the Pudding Basin at Norton Common. As soon as we arrived, snuck under a bush and into its base we were greeted by the sight of a Muntjac Deer moving through the undergrowth over on the far side. It felt like a charming start to what was a crisp and sunny morning.
At first inspection I wasn’t sure there was much to find but after marking out an area 5m x 6m around about the centre, things began to emerge. Jo filmed and I wrestled with my external reactions when quite soon into the excavation I spotted a number of hypodermic needles located around a tree stump within my marked area. My first reaction was to just pack up and leave. What on earth was I doing poking around in places that should just not be poked around in? My second reaction was to just carry on but ignore, avoid and pretend they weren’t there. In the end I resolved to deal with it and very carefully flag, bag and take them as finds. I didn’t take this decision lightly and now I have two potentially hazardous finds in my collection that make me feel a little out of my depth. I guess I expected that these might be the kind of things that would be left in these places but actually coming into contact with it in one of the most public and central sites I’m working on, somehow makes it feel more unsettling.
We also almost got attacked by someone’s dog, or it felt like a possibility momentarily as we were barked at from the main clearing. Both of us froze and watched as a large retriever tried to alert its owner to something suspicious going on in the bushes. He was called away, and the owner did take a quick look, meeting the scene of camera rolling and me, gloved up, crouched down, in amongst a sea of pink flags. Whatever he thought he wasn’t hanging around to ask questions.
It was an eventful morning and I’m preparing myself for another visit to the Pudding Basin soon. The other area at Norton Common that I’m looking at is where my aunt discovered a tent a few months back. I’ve excavated this site in several locations and believe I have found some evidence of inhabitance but the clues left have been sparse so far. I may carry out one more area excavation if I have time before this part of the project finishes at the end of January. I am currently crossing over sites as I have now started my final site, the underpass beneath the A1(m) towards Baldock.
It’s been a week to stay indoors, even if that indoors has mostly been as cold as outdoors. I have had a day and a half in the studio sorting through my collected finds. I realise now, fail to organise early and things get lost, confused and stuff is in danger of falling into chaos. I have been putting off dealing with them for a good reason; repulsion, but having decided that they need to be ‘dealt with’ I reluctantly started the cleaning process. Watching a video recently about PhD student Rachel Kiddey‘s Contemporary Homelessness study spurred me on to get the soapy buckets out and actually properly confront the things I’m collecting by first cleaning them up. So it’s been scrubbing brushes and scouring pads galore this week. And I was really surprised that once underway it actually became quite a satisfying task. As I scrubbed away the grim and the dirt and the bugs, the cans and plastic bags and cigarette lighters and other more curious objects, began to feel slightly different to me. Beyond the initial disgust lay a stronger sense of intrigue and fascination. The cleaning process is changing them from any old rubbish to my own collection.
As well as this, I also went over to Letchworth Museum for a meeting with Sian Woodward, Museum Curator. It was a fascinating half hour that turned into two hours! and gave me a fantastic insight into the issues and considerations that go into the organisation, creation and display of its collections. The timing of my research period is very lucky indeed, coinciding with a moment of big change and reevaluation at this local museum. Merging with Hitchin museum, the two will relocate to a new sight at Hitchin Town Hall and will be redeveloped under the name of North Hertfordshire Museum. Sian was therefore able to talk in much detail about how this process is being managed and what opportunity this development offers for telling a story of the history of North Hertfordshire, through its objects. There was much discussion about the relevance of the objects to the museum’s aims and how to deal with objects that either do not fit with this or have no information attached to them. She explained how objects that have become detached from their story and original context tell us very little. We also talked about how they are organising the objects into themes to help to create a series of narratives so visitors have an opportunity to understand them in a wider context, as well as relate in a more personal way.
We talked about political agendas and community expectations as well as the responsibility of the museum as trusted carers of the objects for the community. There is a huge amount to consider and I sense it is a minefield as they attempt to tell a story that whilst trying to remain sensitive to the society it is created for, is ultimately aiming to maintain an objective approach. It seems the museum’s past practice is a big enough challenge in itself, from past curators’ personal agendas, to the gaps left in the narrative where certain members of society have been bypassed when it came to collecting and preserving their history.
Bringing this conversation back with me into the studio has really helped me to consider further some of these issues I am dealing with in this project. The importance of the context of each object and who and what it represents, whose story it tells. Much of the conclusions I have come to so far are that it mostly reflects a personal relationship to these spaces. My interpretation of these objects, the ones I choose to focus on, the areas I mark out and the sites as a whole are a personal choice of course. I could conclude that my focus on these places of the margins are to expose the stories of the marginalised and give voice to those who hide or who pursue their activities out of view, but somehow I don’t think this is quite accurate. This is part of the intrigue and part of the draw but it is, I suspect a wider fascination with my own feelings of repulsion and attraction. A feeling that through these edge spaces, who and what I am is somehow challenged and in a way threatened. I am both a part of this outsider’s place as well as an intruder within it.
Finally I managed to catch up a bit last week where I had fallen behind. I carried out two excavations at the quarry which will probably be my last for now and made a start at Norton Common. The final few days at the quarry were fascinating. I have frequented this place so much now that it is becoming like my own personal playground. The usual anxiety about someone lurking within these hidden spaces has pretty much fallen away here and I notice that I am becoming more complacent in my alertness to the surroundings. Parts of this jungle is even starting to feel familiar to me. I have excavated numerous small sections throughout the quarry and as I walked around on my final day I notice that it is my own traces that are evident now. Trampled areas, cleaned and flattened, my preferred routes made more prominent. I wonder about people coming upon it post-excavation and whether the interference would be noticeable. I have had no sense that anyone has been to the quarry since I have been working here. It maybe the time of year but I wonder if this place is becoming more and more buried as time passes, concealed and forgotten as the undergrowth slowly yet steadily advances. I imagine every season claims another old pathway as the vegetation thickens and tangles a little more. I have heard that it use to be open and clear and children would come here to play and slide down its steep sides – they would have a job now. When I first dared to venture down into its belly, I felt a sense of impending doom about what I would find, who would be waiting there and how on earth I could escape. Its shadows are dark and its depths are rather deep, it is mostly impenetrable and quite unknowable but in it you can feel quite alone indeed. A treasured feeling when what you are expecting to feel is stalked.
So in sharp contrast to my comfy isolation at the quarry I am suddenly thrown into the busiest nature reserve in the centre of town. The result is quite unnerving. All the private contemplation, my eyes focused intently to the ground, is being replaced with the uneasy situation of being on public display. I can try to hide in the bushes as much as possible but two steps to the left and I’m waving to a lady out walking her two Cocker Spaniels. Maybe so much time in these edge places leaves me ill-equipped for working in a very public nature reserve. However, I know from evidence so far that this has provided a haven for someone who has found themselves on the edge, so I’ll have to persist.
This week I’ve also got a meeting at Letchworth Museum with Sian Woodward, the Museum Curator. I’m very much looking forward to this. They are currently in the process of relocating to a new museum and discussions are underway about what and how it will be organised and displayed. It is a great time to get an insight into this process and gain some understanding of the decisions that are being made with regard to how the finds and archaeological data are transferred and constructed into a meaningful narrative. With up to a million objects, this must be a task indeed! Keith has mentioned how as an archaeologist he is keen for as many objects to actually been seen as possible but with such an endless possibility of stuff and a comparatively minute amount of space and time to do it in, the majority will have to continue on their lives in boxes. Editor or storyteller is essentially how I understand it but it will be interesting to see where the conversation leads tomorrow and what light Sian can shed on the process.