Monday, June 13, 2005

Magic out of the Mud

Downley Common I have just spent a wonderful morning at Downley Common, High Wycombe helping a school group on an archaeological dig. I even got dirty at work...which is unusual for a writer!

The context for this mudpie moment was that I have been invited by the dig organiser, Dr Jill Eyers, to do some poetry work about the dig. I was keen to drop in and see the work and to get a sense of the children's experiences of the past. I am very glad that I did as it has inspired me to think further about narrative and the archaeological process. In particular, I was struck by the way that the young diggers responded to their task. It was noticable that their levels of enthusiasm waned and waxed as the reality of digging in a wood (mud, tree roots, heavy clay soils) met up against their excitement at making a discovery. One test pit, in particular produced some very strange looking pieces of metal after an hour. The kids were full of theories about these lumps of metal, which were rooted in their imaginative responses to the artefact rather than in a scientific sense of the object. Narrative was at work!

Downley Common The dig was situated in a part of the common that is covered by mature trees. It was cool, calm and somewhat mysterious under the high leaf canopy which made the experience quite unworldly at times. It felt like a setting for a tall-tale of the past. Narrative was at work!

Later in the warm, sunny car park I met an old man who told me that this area had been used to test tanks during WWII. He even pointed out the lump of concrete in the road (that I had not noticed) that allowed the tanks to cross without damaging the road surface. Narrative was at work!

I can honestly say I have no idea whether the lumps of metal are tank parts. Nonetheless it is interesting how a little archaeology sets up the opportunity to create these kinds of narratives. Furthermore, it is interesting how these potential narratives can set up a further cascade of testimony and narrative in others in the community.

I directed this chap towards the young diggers. I hoped that he would be confident enough to go and tell them a little bit of what he told me. I am sure that he would inspire the children to dig for hours.


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