Category Archives: Material Culture

‘Sensational’ Archaeologies, ‘Atmosphere’, and the ‘Antiquarian Academy’!

When I’m quiet online, this almost always means that I’m dedicating my time to planning, preparing, or executing research, project work, teaching, and / or other events – as is the case for my recent silence. Because I very much enjoy the majority of my historical activities, I tend to go all-out in preparing content, and this time is no different. Indeed, my current endeavours have perhaps given me the greatest pleasure that I’ve ever had in my field of work – probably because I’m aiming that the intended ‘product’ will be more ‘fun’ and entertaining than my previous educational sessions (though still retaining educational value).

This time I’m developing forms of teaching that my students (and myself) most enjoyed, and for which they and others in my field have provided the most positive feedback. I am preparing more ‘hands-on’ and immersive sessions that make greater use of local historic landscapes, buildings, sites, and monuments; artefacts; and other archive material that should be both more engaging, relevant, and meaningful for those I teach.

Building on experience in Adult and Continuing Education, I intend to adopt more absorbing teaching methods, including ‘Archaeological Storytelling’.[i] This will include (where suitable) costumed presentations and ‘reconstructions’ (of specific historical practices and settings) – in part with comments in mind that I’ve heard and read from visitors disappointed with the ‘lack of atmosphere’ at historic houses open to the public.[ii]

A number of ‘heritage sites’ do use costumed ‘interpreters’, ‘re-enactors’, and ‘Living History’ displays for special events, which are popular, to some extent evoking ambience (and to varying degrees, conveying historical knowledge). The popularity of these displays might be offset by allegations of a small number of visitors that such events merely (to paraphrase) ‘pander to the lowest common denominator’, and represent ‘disneyfication’.[iii] I take into account these approaches and attitudes in developing my own educational sessions – which in comparison to most ‘Living History’ and re-enactment displays will on the whole have different aims and objectives; format and content; and methodologies.

The original research that I’ll integrate within sessions applies theoretical frameworks that allow archaeologists to tackle questions previously thought as beyond their scope,[iv] including the perceptions, sensations, emotions, identities, ideologies, and beliefs of previous generations, as well economy, technology, and subsistence – which I’ve been examining for some time.[v] These approaches also allow greater awareness of (and therefore limits) the impositions of supposed ‘common sense’ and ‘rational’ solutions that derive from and result in projection of modern ideals, viewpoints, and practices upon the past, and uncritical acceptance of written and other sources.

I have also found analysis and comparisons of material of various over quite long periods of time, and wide areas most effective. Such an approach not only reveals details that might otherwise go unnoticed, but demonstrates that people did (and do) not always behave as they say – or as they ‘should’, conforming to expectations, conventional patterns, rules, or restrictions; nor take what might be seen today as the easiest and quickest course of action.

Through my previous work, I’m aware that employment of these approaches will likely always contain an element of experimentation (which should be made clear to recipients of information – however we might yearn for neat conclusions). It is through systematic testing, and retesting (applying scientific techniques, where appropriate) that we might find more effective ways of approaching archaeological remains and material culture, to better understand past actions and attitudes; and of communicating discoveries (and the frequently complex concepts that facilitate historical inquiry).

But back to the ‘fun’ side of this work. My new venture pulls together these approaches in the form of a (fictional) historical character: a Georgian lady antiquarian, ‘Mrs. Leach’, through an ‘educational establishment’ (her ‘Antiquarian Academy’ – inspired by education and intellectual environments of the 18th and early 19th centuries), which allows interrogation of the evidence in more informal and entertaining – but still informative and interesting –ways. (See the ‘Academy’ website for more information.)

I’m ‘launching’ this enterprise in a couple of weeks with a free ‘pop up’ exhibition (Saturday 15th July, 2-4pm), as part of the 2017 CBA Festival of Archaeology. This event commemorates the bicentenary of Jane Austen’s death by drawing upon her novels, letters, and early biographies to explore the material worlds of the late Georgian and Regency periods. Displays will highlight what might be learnt through archaeological studies of the era, and introduce the topics that I intend to approach through a series of educational sessions: ‘Archaeology of the Austen Age’, which integrate local sources to take a Derbyshire, and particularly Derby,  perspective.

I hope to find time to ‘interview’ Mrs. Leach, either before or just after she officially opens her doors to the public. In the meantime, I’m busily setting the scenes, sewing the costumes, and adding to my teaching collection; finishing archaeological illustrations and tying up research; and absorbing myself in all things Austen!

Follow ‘Mrs. Leach’ on Twitter, or subscribe to the Academy website, for updates and developments.


[i] There is a significant body of academic and practical work on archaeological storytelling; for a general introduction, see the collection Adrian Praetzellis and Mary Praetzellis (eds.) 1998 Historical Archaeology: Archaeologists as Storytellers 32(1); the papers on storytelling in Historical Archaeology, 2000, 34(2); and e.g. Mary C. Beaudry 2005 ‘Stories That Matter: Material Lives in 19th Century Lowell and Boston, Massachusetts, U.S.’, Adrian Green and Roger Leech (eds.) Cities in the World 1500–2000: Papers given at the Conference of the Society for Post-Medieval Archaeology, April 2002, pp. 249–268. Also my own crude attempts – a series on a building considered as part of a community archaeology project – begin here.

[ii] This issue is has been approached within the field of Heritage Studies (a good introduction being Laurajane Smith and Gary Campbell 2015 ‘The Elephant in the Room: Heritage, Affect, and Emotion’, A Companion to Heritage Studies, ed. William Logan, Máiréad Nic Craith, Ullrich Kockel, pp.443-60), which have highlighted how the ‘Authoritative Heritage Discourse’ rejects emotional engagements as ‘subjective’ and ‘unreliable’. However, this work it does not seem to acknowledge sufficiently the archaeological work that directly and indirectly explores emotions, memory, and public engagement, critically appraising dominant discourse and community archaeologies. The body of research on this topic is too large to list here, but for interesting introductions and practical applications, see e.g. Alan Mayne and Susan Lawrence 1999 ‘Ethnographies of place: a new urban research agenda’, Urban History 26 (3); Yannis Hamilakis and Aris Anagnostopoulos 2009 ‘What is Archaeological Ethnography?’, Public Archaeology: Archaeological Ethnographies, 8 (2–3), pp. 65–87.

[iii] That is not to disparage the often extensive experience and knowledge of Re-enactors – whether or not professionally trained in archaeology; merely to denote how my approach is likely to differ. With regard to ‘interpretation’, I present my own research – subjected to peer review by publishing and publicising publicly and academically – rather than presenting ‘scripts’ and other secondary sources produced by professionals, such as museum education officers and historical consultants.

My research draws heavily upon primary sources; incorporates scientific analysis and techniques; and is informed by archaeological theories (see n. 4); that enable me to build upon (and critique) previous historical and archaeological research.

While display is an important aspect of my sessions, I use my teaching experience to integrate artefacts, dress, and historic environments within structured educational sessions, adopting and adapting established pedagogical methods, and developing my own resources through a variety of media. I use a handling collection, ‘reconstructions’, and a costumed ‘character’ to enable active engagement with historic material as part of the educational process, as well as devices to stimulate and inform discussion and learning – and provide atmosphere.

[iv] ‘Theoretical Archaeology’ adapt ideas and approaches from other academic disciplines, including philosophy, psychology, anthropology, geography, and sociology, and now widely informs the approaches and methods adopted within academic studies, and, increasingly, professional practice.

[v] I began by studying ritual, religion, and mythology in studying Anthropology as a minor subject during my Masters studies in 1997, which I found very useful when conducting detailed research on a large archaeological site at the same time (and for many years after); I also found historical literature studies  useful during my BA (1993-5, again as supplementary subjects). But I really cut my theoretical archaeology teeth during and after my Doctoral studies, which examined ethnic, social, and cultural identities. This work can be found here.