Spencer Carter

A Yorkshire Desert Island: Ten Books that Entrenched a Northern Teen

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I don’t do sea very well. I fare better in the air with a rather large Baileys on the rocks. If you wanted to save on dolphin pods or air fare, or rather the air duty that lets me embark to the left, then the closest sandy island I’d be more than happy to drag my tome-filled trunk to would be Lindisfarne — or the Farnes off the Northumberland coast. Yorkshire doesn’t have an island. It is one, a delightful one, in a virtual sea of strange folk with strange accents and rather odd habits. Nowt so queer.

My thinking tree forty years on, our carved initials now archaeology in its bark

My thinking tree forty years on, our carved initials now archaeology in its bark

My ten books take me back to my pre- and early-teen years in the 1970s in north-east England—when we had coal mines, power cuts and manufacturing—and when I myself was ever so strange. Beyond supplementing my MERIT® chemistry set with, frankly, frightening substances that one could then buy at the local chemist or hardware store, my circle of friends were largely over retirement age. The exception was my pyromaniac best friend— partner in chemistry experiments, elderberry wine making (which went very wrong), den-building, treehouse construction, electric fence dares and recording our equivalent of Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy with the most hideous sound effects on an old magnetic tape recorder the size of a fridge. Chopping cabbages to replicate the effects of head (or brain) removal was my favourite. We stopped short of trepanation. But HHGTTG is not one of my books. It’s much better left on radio, preferably BBC Radio 4.

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In circumstances I cannot entirely remember, a patronal friendship developed with a retired dentist (and genealogist), a Mr T. H. Brown (LDS) who was on the Council of the Yorkshire Archaeological Society. By the age of nine or ten, I was already determined to become an archaeologist, having identified all my fossils from the Yorkshire coast in the Observer’s book of the aforementioned (also not one of my ten), and having found a Mesolithic microlith—the tiny one in this picture above—during one of my frequent, solitary rambles over the North York Moors, a time before ticks and Lyme disease.

5I would visit Mr Brown each weekend to be treated to a slide show of his many travels across Europe and North Africa during the 1950-60s, each replete with breath-taking ruins of ancient cities, mosaic-festooned museums and places now generally off-limits. As a gift, he gave me [1] Jacquetta Hawkes’ Atlas of Ancient Archaeology (1974). That sealed the fate of my move—be off with you damned fossil ferns and belemnites—from palaeontology to archaeology. If that wasn’t enough, he also gave me some of his duplicate copies of the Yorkshire Archaeological Journal (YAJ). While most pre-teenagers were swinging from trees (I preferred sitting in deep holes) or smoking a cheeky cheroot in the woods (I used a clay pipe), I enjoyed nothing better than eating toast and marmite in bed while leafing through the journals—with their enticing ‘old world’ aroma—and fawning over Ordnance Survey Maps.

Book [2] is YAJ volume 42 part 167 (1969) and specifically an article by Jeff Radley ‘The Mesolithic Period in North-East Yorkshire’. Jeff was tragically killed in York (1970) when a trench collapsed in on him during the excavations of the Roman wall and Anglian tower between the public library and Yorkshire Museum.

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While my formative archaeological interests were still broad, a second article, in my Book [3] precipitated a particular fascination with the Mesolithic and hunter-gatherers. The article by the late (but then alive) Don Spratt and colleagues in YAJ volume 48 (1976) ‘Mesolithic Settlement Sites at Upleatham, Cleveland’ truly captured my imagination. There also began my life-long affair with the Yorkshire Archaeological Society and British Rail train journeys to its headquarters in Leeds—the venerable Claremont—where I’d browse case upon case of ancient volumes and make squeaking noises on the wooden floors.

Another favourite read was [4] R. G. Collingwood’s The Archaeology of Roman Britain (First Edition 1930). I can’t remember how many times I borrowed a copy—actually Ian Richmond’s updated version—from the local library. If it still exists (the library doesn’t) then most of the date stamps were for me. In York I managed to find a first edition that belonged to R. C. Bosanquet, an early excavator at Housesteads Roman fort, with his review of it glued to the inside cover and fascinating margin comments (and a few corrections). Adding fuel to a fire and passion were [5] Vindolanda – A Roman frontier post on Hadrian’s Wall (1977) by Robin Birley that included the then 122 writing tablets discovered in 1973. Could archaeology get any better (or controversial)? I still love looking at the colour plates. While we might justifiably question some of Alan Sorrell’s (1904-74) reconstructions and visualisations, the book [6] Reconstructing the Past (1981) edited by his son, Mark Sorrell, still inspires awe both for the artist and our archaeology. Many of his illustrations added spice to the rather dry, blue-covered, pre-English Heritage Department of the Environment site guidebooks.

Frank Elgee

Frank Elgee

Having entered Secondary School in 1978, I think—I’m a summer child and was always a year younger than my peers—I faced the scorn of teachers who would admonish “archaeology? Don’t be so stupid, do something sensible like engineering” and general bullying (including being beaten up) for having odd interests and, I suspect, being gay, not that I would come to terms with this for another 15 or more years. Heavens, did that make me even more determined! On the book front, I sought solace in the then most current (and oh so antiquarian) rendition of the region’s archaeology, choice [7] Early Man in North-East Yorkshire (1930) by Frank Elgee, founding curator of the Dorman Museum in Middlesbrough and ‘man of the moors’. Mum’s friends would remember him traveling to work by steam train on the wonderful Esk Valley railway. I still love the juxtaposition of concepts like Pygmy flint folk and Urn folk with what was then emerging in the more recent fieldwork (and the short life of County Cleveland and my local borough, the Wapentake of Langbaurgh, now Redcar & Cleveland—try putting the former on a self-addressed envelope?).

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Don Spratt (Northern Echo).

It wasn’t until 1982, as I was studying A Levels, that Don Spratt’s BAR report [8] The Prehistoric and Roman Archaeology of North-East Yorkshire emerged (subsequently updated and republished as CBA Research Report 87, 1993, downloadable via ADS). This truly put north-east England, at least south of the River Tees, onto the national map. Under the auspices of Blaise Vyner’s Cleveland County Archaeology section, subsequent discoveries were to add an even richer context to the often unique, certainly unexpected, heritage of the north-east. What had been a rural-cum-industrial backwater now demonstrated a wealth of evidence from the earliest post-glacial to WWII. We even have Roman villas and marching camps, bejewelled Saxon princesses buried in beds…who would have reckoned? Ironically, two of the four post-County borough councils no longer fund the shared archaeology service (Tees Archaeology)—a debacle if not a scandal of our times.

My old haunt, the Bill Bryson Library, University of Durham.

My old haunt, the Bill Bryson Library, University of Durham.

Well, dear reader, I did achieve the A level grades (chemistry, history and Latin) to get to my first choice, Durham University, to study archaeology 1984–87 under the professorship of the wonderful Dame Rosemary Cramp and at a time where considerable fieldwork was required as part of the degree course. My penultimate book choice [9] for the Island of Dreams (cf. Dusty Springfield) conjures up incredible memories of digging at Seamer Carr and Star Carr in the Schadla-Hall years (1985-6) in the Vale of Pickering, amongst many other places. Despite decades of debate and reinterpretation, and likely more to come (because we really don’t understand Star Carr in its regional context), Excavations at Star Carr: An Early Mesolithic Site at Seamer near Scarborough, Yorkshire (1954) by J. G. D. Clark is as remarkable for its speed-to-press as it is for the nature of the evidence itself.

The old department of Archaeology on Saddler Street is now The Varsity pub, my old drawing office an outside bar.

The old department of Archaeology on Saddler Street is now The Varsity pub, my old drawing office an outside bar.

The last layer in this peatbog sandwich is a book [10] The Mesolithic in Europe: Papers presented at the Third International Symposium (1989 and 1993), edited by Clive Bonsall, that is in my island trunk because the time of its first publication coincided with my move away from the north-east (with a suitcase full of books, ironed underwear, the wails of a crying mother and a hand-shake from dad as I stepped onto an InterCity 125 at Eaglescliffe station, destination London) and the beginnings of a twenty-five year career outside archaeology.

The Mesolithic fire continued to smoulder and now, some years later, I find myself back in the warm glow of its mystery, materiality (and tangible lithics). My, how the Mesolithic has come along—in many senses, but not so much in others? In my rejuvenated life I am now producing paper as editor for Council for British Archaeology Yorkshire and e-publishing virtual paper as Chair of the Teesside Archaeological Society, on the cusp, with the latter, between paper and ethereality.

Spencer Carter, Mesolithic miscreant, sondage digger and researcher

@microburin | Mesolithic blog
Field Archaeologist and Lithics Specialist | TimeVista Archaeology
Honorary Research Fellow | Department of Archaeology and Hatfield College Senior Common Room, Durham University

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3 thoughts on “Spencer Carter

  1. Pingback: Just a little bit of fame | Desert Island mesolithic | microburin

  2. Pingback: Bits & Pieces: Open Research, Buried, Sulawese Art, & Desert Island Archaeologies | These Bones Of Mine

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