Thursday, 12 May 2016

Spontaneous Estate Excavations

Has anyone done an archaeological dig of a postwar council estate before? 

I don't think so but tomorrow and Saturday, I'll be on the Middlefield Lane estate with Carenza Lewis doing just that. We'll be aided by residents, Cubs and Beavers, and a team of archaeologists in doing several small test pits in people's gardens, and on the open, communal green areas on this Radburn-influenced estate. 

I have no idea what we will find but it'll be fun doing it. We've caught wind of a late nineteenth century amateur archaeologist-cleric claiming that there was evidence of an Anglo-Saxon burial on what is now the edge of the estate - so we're going to carry out some excavations around there for a start. You never know! 

Channelling the Anglo-Saxon spirit at Middlefield

We will also be doing a test pit near where the Precinct shops used to be, so I'm hoping to find bits of an old plastic cap-gun I lost there in the late 1960s. On the 27 and 28 May, we'll be on my old home turf, Dunstall Walk, so goodness knows what we'll find there, particularly as I had a reputation for digging fox-holes for my Action Men in other people's gardens - maybe the odd miniature Luger or two. If nothing else then, what we might recover is compelling archaeological evidence for the gun fetishes of a generation of postwar boys.

All of this is what Richard Gould and Michael Schiffer, in 1981, called 'the archaeology of us' - put simply, an investigation of the material culture of the postwar world. More recently, in 2009, Rodney Harrison embarked on an 'archaeology of the welfare state'. Harrison was interested in the effects of postwar reconstruction on the physical landscape of Britain, arguing quite rightly that there has been relatively little work done on the ‘material worlds’ of the welfare state. He too focussed on council housing, noting that the development of council estates in the postwar period was part of a 'brave utopian socialist experiment' that reached 'its zenith in the mid 1970s', by which time the state had supplied almost a third of the nation’s housing. 

Harrison didn't carry out excavations as such - instead he concentrated on the material changes made by residents to their council houses in the post-deregulation, right to buy period of the 1990s. Our more archaeologically-centred project is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, under their 2016 Connected Communities: Community Futures and Utopias theme, and so our primary aim is to engage the Middlefield community in physically exploring the nature of where they live, which was designed and planned on a quasi-utopian 'garden city plus motorcar' model. Personally, I have considerable qualms about the ways in which the word 'utopian' is constantly applied to council estates, mostly because it tends to be used as a stick with which to beat these places as products of doomed-to-fail, pie-in-the-sky ideas and dreams. On the contrary, I believe that local authorities, their architects and planners were merely trying to build good, modern homes for everyone, which were intended to provide for the more prosaic, everyday needs of sociability, contentment, and well-being. 

From the Gainsborough Evening News, 4 February 1964

I think estates like Middlefield still manage to do that today - and that is why we will be there over the next couple of days - to help sustain that sense of sociability and well-being amongst the residents there. At the very least, I hope that we will have a good time because the rest, as Arthur Seaton put it in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, is surely just propaganda.

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