How do we connect with the past? Do we try to identify common elements, concerns; empathize with the people through their remaining traces; analyse evidence and construct theories?
In their 1987 volume Re-Constructing Archaeology Michael Shanks and Christopher Tilley made the challenging argument that archaeology operates as a “historically situated practice”. “We do not begin with the truth of the past, produced by the people in the past, and end with that truth revealed by the archaeologist in the archaeological text. We find our affinity with the past through our difference to it, through practice which links past and present. Truth is delivered by the interpreting archaeologist on a detour away from the past, a detour to truth.” (as quoted by Sebastian Becker writing at http://bronzeage-and-ironage-birds.org/2011/08/22/flying-on-the-wings-of-epistemology-bird-symbolism-and-the-nature-of-archaeological-interpretation/)
Shanks and Tilley were arguing against there being a single interpretation of the past and for the possibility of using physical and emotional responses to interpret the past as well as the purely intellectual. A recent exhibition Creativity in the Bronze Age: A Response currently showing at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge (10 April – 30 June 2012), then Wiltshire Museum in Devizes (6 July – 1 September 2013) illustrates one approach to interpreting the past. The exhibition “allows the artists to display their works alongside Bronze Age objects, opening up a direct dialogue between the contemporary and the prehistoric. By presenting their work in contexts more usually associated with heritage and the past, the display offers the viewer an alternative, object related and visual interpretation on Bronze Age craft. It proposes new roles for craft and making in understanding and reconsidering the qualities and values inherent in our material culture.”
It is one end product of a European funded collaboration Creativity and Craft Production in Middle and Late Bronze Age Europe (CinBA) which brings together partners from the Universities of Southampton, Cambridge and Trondheim, the National Museum of Denmark, the Natural History Museum of Vienna, Zagreb Archaeological Museum, Lejre Archaeological Park (Sagnlandet) and the Crafts Council.
Seven craftspeople were selected to work on The Maker Engagement Project, which has been facilitated by Dr Jo Sofaer, University of Southampton, project leader of CinBA, and Rachel Brockhurst, representing the Crafts Council, a non-academic partner in CinBA. Over 18 months the artists have visited project partners at excavations in Szazhalombatta, Hungary, explored collections at the National Museet in Denmark, and accompanied archaeologists on visits to Bronze Age collections and monuments across the UK, including the Wiltshire Museum and Stonehenge.
Inevitably they all approached the work very differently, some developing completely new directions, some developing or refining long-standing interests and ideas. Presumably they were selected from those who expressed interest on a basis of a relevant approach or ideas. Some were more interested in techniques and processes, some more in ritual or purpose.
Susan Kinley works with glass, mixed media and textiles. Her pieces were those most related to landscape and were inspired by the Salisbury Plain landscape and the Stonehenge area, as she saw it by walking or through a car window, as well as the form of Bronze Age razors in the museum in Devizes. “I am fascinated by the ways in which changing perspectives can reveal places in the landscape in a new light, layering aerial photography with surface detail and distant views.” Although having a representational element these pieces do seem very contemporary. We probably have a different conception of landscape from that of Bronze Age people.
Jewellers Gary Wright and Sheila Teague say “This body of work is a metaphor for memory, both that embedded in objects and in the mind; our most precious asset. It is a diary of the journey, becoming an amulet. It relates time and place, pre-history with the present to show mans’ continuing search for connection with the wider world.” Another journey then, in fact an imagined Odyssey across a Bronze Age world, staff in hand a reminder of home and smell as a memento of places visited and people met – the vessels hold wax impregnated with amber, pine, frankincense, fig, myrrh and iris. This truly encompasses Shanks and Tilley’s phenomenological ideal. I like the appearance of a procession in the display, but the glass cases inhibit the sensory experience!
Metalsmith Syann van Niftrik writes “Archaeological finds, endlessly intriguing, seem to hold embedded within them the mystery and wisdom of the time in which they were made and the creative explosion due to technical innovations in the Bronze Age embodies it all. The plasticity and permanence of the techniques used by them have given us a feeling of direct connection with their creators as makers and as fellow human beings.” Looking at the pieces in the Danish museum she was interested in how people have seen and thought about the sun over the millennia with the progression from paganism to Christianity and the changes brought through astronomy, lenses and microscopes. A feeling of ongoing experimentation is evident in her work, as well as an uncertainty about what is old and what is new. This was encouraged by the exhibition display as a whole with little direct labelling to distinguish Bronze Age from contemporary artefacts.
Assumed Bronze Age objects
“Resonant objects, having ritual and or domestic importance relate to human understanding and activity” for Helen Marton. She incorporates Gabbroic clay, only found at the Lizard Peninsula and used since the Neolithic period, in her distinctly slightly quirky but enigmatically ritualistic series of forms. Her Ceremonial Blush axe head though is a to me unsettling mix of ancient and modern. Is this because of its almost mechanical seeming perfection? Or is it just the colour?
Julian Stair’s pieces are very much part of his concerns with the funerary. He has a current exhibition called Quietus: The Vessel, Death and the Human Body. As he says “there is something elemental about clay; taking that material which symbolizes our origins and making vessels to house the body to return it to the ground creates a wonderful kind of circularity.” Cremation came into use during the Bronze Age, although burial (often in barrows or tumuli) was characteristic of the early Bronze Age. Always interested in Bronze Age ceramics in his view “Bronze Age potters seemed to have a superb sense of design and a refreshing directness in handling clay.” This is certainly evident in his own work too.
“The objects that appeal to me the most from the Bronze Age relate to those I already knew and found fascinating: the fish trap funnel form, the spiral decoration, the bags and nets and buried boxes full of small treasures. My own visits to special places result in beach findings, tickets, stones, sections of plants, which I keep together as reminders of mood and emotion and a sense of place. Bronze Age folk seem to have the same instincts. Such artistic themes and obsessions remain with me, particular forms and systems giving me the necessary pleasure in the physical process of making.” Mary Butcher uses basketry techniques and forms found in Bronze Age pieces which are often still in use today. She collected materials in Denmark to use in her pieces, giving an added European reference. It would be difficult to tell at a glance if these works were ancient or modern.
Downstairs in the museum local archaeological finds give some context and also link us with 19th century interpretations of the past. The auroch (an extinct form of giant cattle) remains connect me with the current focus on ‘rewilding’, and the ideas of George Monbiot in his book Feral, searching for enchantment on the frontiers of rewilding which I am reading at present. He discusses the role of large mammals which were at the top of the food chain in Britain in the past, including the prehistoric period.
A visit to nearby Kettle’s Yard brings me closer to the present but again connections are there. The collections of the late Jim Ede are displayed very much as they were when he lived here in the mid 20th century.
An article in the Journal of Material Culture (Vol 1, No 2, July 1996) on ‘Contemporary Artists and Anthropology’, by Arnd Schneider, can have the final say
“Artists transform material objects of other historical periods (or more generally, objects that are not of their own authorship) into something else.”
- Treasure trove of Bronze Age artefacts discovered by metal detectors in Vale of Glamorgan (walesonline.co.uk)
- Eight prehistoric boats surface at Fens creek in record bronze age find (guardian.co.uk)
- Archaeologists excited by discovery of eight ‘startlingly well-preserved’ Bronze Age boats (syndicatednewsservices.com)
- Britain was a nation of immigrants even in the Bronze Age (telegraph.co.uk)