Performing Memory

This week I have been taking the project on the road. I have been presenting the excavation results so far to two local archaeological societies. After my expedition to the Ingleborough Group on Monday I had a much shorter trip yesterday night to speak to the Lancashire Society. They meet in Fulwood, about ten minutes walk from my house on the north side of Preston.

This is always a fun thing to do, but it serves a useful purpose too. It is very valuable to have to explain what you are doing, why it is important and to get feedback and questions from everyone. We use these public lectures a bit like we use this blog, as a place to try out our explanations and see if they make sense and sound plausible. There is nothing like listening to yourself talking to a room full of people for making you realise when you are talking rubbish. (This happens to me at least once a year when I am teaching. I am halfway through explaining something when I make the mistake of listening to what I am saying and think ‘oh hang on, its more complicated than that, I don’t really believe that any more’.)

Not, I hasten to add, that any rubbish got talked on Monday or last night. It is about seven months since we last did any digging and we have therefore had that long to get our story straight, so both groups got a comparatively polished version.

New Laund reconstruction

Alongside my low-tech PowerPoint reconstruction of the timber circle, the big project themes all got an airing. I talked a bit about the problems of studying social memory in archaeology. In particular we looked at the question of how small-scale traditional societies preserve their memories of landscape and monuments. Why do some places get repeatedly remembered and visited and others not?

Well obviously there are hundreds of possible reasons, but we tend to focus on three in particular which are accessible through archaeological and environmental evidence. These make up the three main lines of enquiry for our fieldwork: distinctiveness; transformation and performance.


Some places probably get remembered because they are physically or geographically distinctive. This site on the summit of New Laund hill is a case in point here. It is not particularly high but you can see it from a long way away in many directions. As we discovered in our very cold survey trip last spring, people dug pits up here at some point in the prehistoric past.

Other places become memorable because people transform them and leave physical traces behind. This could be by building things, like the New Laund timber circle, but we are also interested in environmental evidence for landscape transformations like clearing woodland or planting certain crops.

Of course, these first two explanations only work if people actually go to the places. This brings us to the last reason, which is that people remember tasks or activities which were performed at these places, especially if they were done repeatedly and involved more than one person.

Beacon Fell tree throw

The large collection of worked stone tools and waste from the tree throw hollow at site K is a great example of this kind of thing. Here was a very ephemeral natural space which was marked in people’s memories by the repetition of a fairly low-key task.

All three reasons, distinctiveness, transformation and performance, were probably important in different ways at different sites. Trying to pick out the contributions of each one at different sites gives us an archaeological method for studying social memory.



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