The joy of secondhand book archaeology

I buy a steady trickle of secondhand books, from bookshops, from charity shops and occasionally online. It’s  mostly an uneventful activity, as I’m usually buying books that relate somehow to my sphere of research. No chances of coming across rare first editions, even if I was remotely interested in that pursuit. However, people have a habit of leaving stuff between the leaves of books they then forget and discard. Again, my discoveries in this field of archaeology have been limited to pieces of blank paper, a supermarket receipt or two and a single bookmark.

But recently I found this:

Liebig beef concentrate card

It’s a card given away by the Liebig’s Extract of Meat Company, a manufacturer of a beef concentrate,  founded in London in 1865, using cheap South American meat and processing plants, and which  went on to create Oxo and Fray Bentos corned beef. I haven’t been able to date this one yet, but by the look of the image on the reverse it was probably issued in the early 20th century.

Liebig's manufacturing plant

Given away from the second half of the nineteenth century until the 1950s, the cards are of course collected by enthusiasts. Since collectors prefer complete albums, my single card isn’t going to raise much excitement. Yet of course it fascinated me. I had no idea of the existence of either company or cards, and love the contracts between the bucolic image on the front of the card, complete with small child (a recurring theme?) and the industrial scene on the reverse, with its all-male workforce.

As a vegan I’m unlikely ever to sample “Liebig’s Fleisch-Extract” (it’s still made apparently), or even Oxo, but the long-forgotten card linked me, as memories do, to the past, to life a century or so ago, to pots of black gooey stuff that was sold as being good for you, and to rural fantasy and industrial reality in the recent past.

Material memories of holiday fantasies?

“What would be your fantasy holiday?”

I was recently interviewed by E-R C, a PhD student who, as part of her fascinating research, is examining the connections between holidays and fantasy.

My interlocutor managed to disguise her undoubted horror as I burbled, honestly but perhaps unwisely, that my fantasy holiday would be at least two weeks spent somewhere very warm, Mediterranean probably, with much sunshine, a clear sea, many ancient, overgrown ruins, warm stones, lots of hiking paths snaking amongst rocks and venerable trees, lizards, old well-worn towns, shady cafes, a background of strigilating cicadas and grasshoppers, somewhere comfortable to sip cheap beer (with free wi-fi) and the intimate company of a handful of super-attractive, long-legged, sexually-imaginative and highly-brainy young women companions (this is a fantasy, after all). Our days would be spent exploring, reading, taking photographs, hiking, exposing and caressing smooth, tanned flesh and engaging in passionate intellectual debates. What fun!

My tiny and probably worthless contribution to the world of knowledge apart, the exercise got me thinking about holidays, their material memories (which I’m researching) and fantasy.

Holidays are the source of probably our most familiar material memories. Most vacation destinations are crammed with shops supplying just these – things that we acquire, take home with us and display (at least for a while) to remind us of (hopefully) happy times. Some will have been manufactured or crafted locally, but most will have been mass-produced, often in countries far distant from the place in which we bought them.

To me, the range of artefacts associated with the memories of holidays is huge, and interesting. And perhaps fantasy has a big part to play in what we bring home.

For example, holidays seem to bring out the scurrilous in many of us. We buy nudge-nudge wink-wink postcards featuring overweight and underdressed ladies, or large-busted tiny-bikini-clad women in the jocular company of weedy men, or supposedly-amusing nudity of both genders, with an emphasis on breasts and bottoms. We are also (and here I get very interested, given the subject of my PhD research) persuaded to acquire miniature rudeness, in the shape of exaggeratedly priapic satyrs or tiny obese ladies. If not humorously obscene, and some miniatures depict athletic sexual acts to varying degrees of accuracy, these figurines are on the edge. Holidays it seems are times of double entendre.

The objects themselves often have little connection with the location of the holiday. At least plastic satyrs have a Greek ancestry, but other objects are simply stamped with different locations, and you’ll see the same things in Benidorm and Bondi Beach (I’m guessing). So they are material memories of being there and being amused rather than representations of place. “I hade this rude thought in Xxxxx” rather than “This is a miniature plastic view of Xxxxx.”

Perhaps holidays not only allow us, in theory, to let go of the stresses and pressures of everyday life, but also temporarily to abandon respectability, or good taste, or admit to hidden sexualities, if only in fantasy. It is perhaps telling that the risqué objects that amuse us while on vacation rarely grace our mantelpieces for long, as we revert to our more restrained behaviours once we settle back to “normality.” But the material memories are there nevertheless, even if relegated to a shoe box in the attic, persuading us, and to a lesser extent the world, that beneath our boringly respectable exteriors lie bubbling cauldrons of anarchic sexuality that will released by sunshine and sand.

That in reality we are rarely going to expose the entirety of our pale or blotchy sunburnt-red bodies to the equally pale British sunlight doesn’t seem to concern us. That we similarly refrain from undue exposure even when surrounded by leather-brown naked Germans during holidays abroad doesn’t prevent us from indulging in varying levels of vulgarity, as souvenir shops in continental seaside towns attest. We imagine that we are jolly, bawdy, outrageous, devil-may-care. We kick metaphorical sand in the faces of vacationing wimps, even though we are the wimps. We fantasise that we are the subjects of tongue-in-cheek postcards, even though the nearest we get to a thong bikini is FHM.

We recklessly buy T-shirts bearing bold boasts about our sexual performance or proclivities that we subsequently never have the courage to wear in public. We acquire hilarious (or so they seemed at the time) stickers for our car’s rear window (my favourite, usually displayed by podgy, grey-skinned virgins, is Sex Instructor: First Lesson Free). We sport “kiss-me-quick” hats, never expecting (and perhaps dreading) that anyone will actually act on this invitation.

It may be that we want to remember a fantasy slap-and-tickle-flat-cap-rolled-up-trousered-belly-laughing-fun-and-frolicksome-short-shorts holiday when in truth we are sitting in a could-be-anywhere bar staring glumly at passing beer-gutted men, dumpy women and grizzling children who are glumly plodding the streets of whatever resort we are in, seeking fish and chips and the nearest chain store outlet. In Britain it will be raining. On the Continent it will be too hot. A combination of sunburn, insect bites, hangovers, heat, cold, food-poisoning, demanding offspring, disgruntled companions, sand in everything and tedium means that holiday sexuality is fraught with hazards and perhaps mostly imaginary.

This is just one example. If the small disappointments of reality are the most efficient inspirations of fantasies, then holidays are perhaps a potent source of objects that reflect those fantasies. My thanks to E-R for pointing my thinking in a fertile direction!

Back to basements…


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.


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


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…

Memories and meadows


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.


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.


Hearts of stone


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.


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.

Digital Memories

When I was thinking about how to approach my exploration of Material Memories in Portugal, I went onto Google Street View and had a quick look around. In Idanha-a-Vuela I came across this old lady, captured by the all-seeing Google eye in 2010, as she sat on the wall in front of her vegetable patch in the Spring morning sunshine :


When I visited the same spot last week, the old lady had vanished, her vegetable garden was overgrown, and the afternoon shadows were creeping over the wall on which she had sat three years ago:


So now the old lady has been memorialised by Google – she will exist, perhaps for ever, as a digital memory:



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.