Back to basements…

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Next to The Salutation pub, the MIRIAD  and MMU art school local, was, until recently, a car park. Soon it will be the new MMU Student Union. But first, a little archaeology exposed the basements of several nineteenth century buildings, nicely paved.

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There was even a basement complete with fireplace, water heater and sink.

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Sad that it will all be destroyed in a few weeks’ time. And few students will probably be interested in  what lay beneath the sticky floor of their bar…

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Memories and meadows

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On a glorious summer day I wandered across the lush meadows of Blackshaw Farm, north of Leek, Staffordshire, with Ela Niznik, amongst the skeletal remains of what was, for a few years in the 1940s, a US Army base, and then  for a couple of decades, served as housing for displaced Polish families. Apart for a few buildings that just about survive as farm storage, most of the dozens of prefabricated concrete, brick and asbestos constructions have either been demolished or remain as decaying framework. Yet the two ladies with us, who lived in the camp as children, could still identify where they and their friends had once lived.

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I am collaborating with Ela, a fine artist studying for an MA at MIRIAD, to create a project that will look at Blackshaw Moor camp through two different lenses, hers as a visual artist and mine as a historical archaeologist. This was my first visit to the site. More will follow.

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Hearts of stone

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In this rocky area of Portugal, stone is an obvious choice in which to begin looking at material culture.

Stone is a paradox. It has existed for millions of years and will continue to do so for millions more. We experience stone for a minuscule fraction of its time line. Yet we do affect stone. We quarry it, chisel it into shape, build with it, live with its coolness and warmth. We scratch graffiti on it. It provides an illusion of permanence. It is immobile for long enough for lichens and mosses to etch its surface, and for generations of plants to cling to it. Its weight pushes against gravity. In Monsanto, people live beneath huge granite boulders.

But as soon as humans have finished with stones, they soon begin to forget. Plaster and render peel off. Mortar crumbles. Drystone walls are nudged by animals and weather.  Blocks are levered out and reused, and buildings become quarries, completing a natural circle. Tumbling walls bury themselves, and vegetation blankets them. Soon, all that is left are stone memories.

Each stone is the memory of an effort, of a choosing, a lifting, a judging, a placing, an adjustment and a final standing back – an acceptance and appreciation. Each stone is a point on a continuum of time to which we are witnesses. It is a tiny memory of the waller’s life – his eyes saw the stone, his muscles lifted it, his experience judged its fit.  We will never know whether the day was hot or cold, whether the Waller was alone or had companions, whether they were young or old, straight or bent after years of heavy labour. Nevertheless the stones are probably his only memorial. Although I hate to see a stone wall uncared-for, even its eventual collapse and transformation into a turf-covered mound memorialises the waller’s part in the creation of landscape, with its constant cycles of growth and decay, construction and abandonment, life and death.

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Here a beautifully-constructed stone wall rises almost seamlessly from the bedrock, which it almost appears to caress with a primal intimacy, stone on stone.

Of ends and beginnings

When a place is abandoned it is at the same time an end and a beginning.

Whilst on the one hand the place retreats into the memories of those who have left, on the other it begins a new existence as a tangible but equally fragile assemblage of material memories. Buildings decay, are vandalized, are temporarily inhabited by peripatetic humans and animals, are quarried for building materials and scrap, accumulate human discards and are buried beneath vegetation. While they are still alive the place acts as a catalyst for the memories of those who lived there, but it also inspires new thought, as a unsightly or romantic ruin, depending on your viewpoint, a place of melancholy or aesthetic inspiration, an eyesore or a tourist hotspot.

The material remains of the recent past, and the memories attached to them, are often undervalued. My project is going to look at the material memories of places no longer lived in, no longer dwellings or workplaces, and yet which are still “alive.” They are demonstrating their agency, if by nothing else, by creating my memories!

I’ll be recording and sharing what I find in order both to connect with those who once lived there, but also to demonstrate the wealth of interest a seemingly “dead” place can have in the present and future.

Material musings

This blog is about a combination of  things we can see – objects – and things we cannot see but nevertheless experience – memories.

Of course as well as seeing objects we can touch, taste, smell and hear them. We can feel whether they are hot or cold. Heavy or light. Memories on the other hand are usually regarded as intangible, invisible mental processes. Yet the irony is that we perceive objects via our various senses, which only function because of intangible, invisible mental processes. So objects and memories aren’t all that far apart.

As Proust demonstrated at length, objects can prompt and liberate memories. My research is based on the suggestion that objects are memories.  The exciting thing about objects-as-memories – “material memories” – is that they are visible to anyone who takes the trouble to look for them, unlike the memories in people’s minds. Sadly, those memories, unless they have been fossilised somehow, don’t survive our deaths, and most memories simply vanish, unlike many material memories, which might be buried or eroded or battered or damaged but nevertheless often still survive.

At first we might not be able to make sense (whatever that means) of object memories, but that doesn’t lessen their value. They still exist. And by studying them we might get to understand them a little more, and share them.

I’m going to Portugal in a few weeks’ time to probe the material memories of an inland village that has lost over half its population. I’m also going to be looking at what remains of a Staffordshire WWII army camp that was subsequently used to house displaced Polish families. And I’ll be digging memories out of a 200-year-old Welsh canal. This blog will record those adventures.