Chris Constable

It is always good to come home from a day of archaeology at work but if I am about to be stranded, with no way to charge a Kindle I need to pack the books! In the words of Nennius ‘I have therefore made a heap of all that I have found, both from the Annals of the Romans and from the Chronicles of the Holy Fathers, and from the writings of the Irish and the English, and out of the tradition of our elders.’ and filled my regulation-size Easyjet hand luggage bag.

I spent many years at Durham trying to finish my PhD before running to the relative freedom of working full time and writing up in the evenings in Chester, but Durham holds a fascination in almost every aspect of the city, county or diocese for anyone with an interest in medieval archaeology. David Rollason published a translation of the chronicle known as ‘Symeon of Durham’. You can tour Northumbria with Symeon in your hand the same way architecture anoraks can walk around with a Pevsner. You can see the churches, villages and Anglo-Saxon sculpture that frame and document the events and legends detailed in this book. At this point I will pick a hole in the lining of the bag and slip a copy of Rollason’s ‘Northumbria, 500-1000’ and Max Adam’s excellent, Game of Thrones inspired, if only the title, ‘The King in the North’ about Oswald, the 7th century king of Northumbria.

I appreciate nearly everyone chooses Jaquetta Hawkes’s biography of Wheeler but I’m not going to. I finished, yet another, degree at the Ironbridge Institute taught by Harriet Devlin, formerly Harriet Geddes, to quote Hawkes in the acknowledgements of her Wheeler biography, ‘…Harriet Geddes, a rarely intelligent and capable research worker…’ Whilst I enjoyed this book knowing some elements of what did not go in this knowledge has spoiled it for me in a curious way. In its place I am going to choose Glyn Daniel’s Writing for Antiquity. This is a collection of the editorials written by Daniel. His humour, intelligence and warmth shine through, and you can sit down, open the book and dive in. One editorial in particular was written after Wheeler’s death. This is a report of Daniel walking through Pall Mall and Piccadilly, on a route frequently walked by Wheeler, after a bottle of claret and two dry martinis, with posters advertising the Evening Standard reporting the news of Wheeler’s death.

I grew up in a village that at its heart, in a large park, near to the church, still is a massive Victorian mansion, built by the husband of Ada Lovelace. Whilst I was young the Central Electricity Generating Board owned the park and house, and all my attempts to break in and explore were thwarted. I’ve never worked out whether the park was massively secure with many patrolling security officers or I was staggering inept and obvious in my efforts to get in. Anyway I’ve never seen the house in its brick or flint, so to speak. Excavating the site of a Victorian mansion in the Chester countryside lead me to read J. Mordaunt Crook’s ‘The Rise of the Nouveaux Riches’. This volume looks at the planning of new country houses built by industrialists and the efforts to create an efficient house where the servants could get around the building without being seen. It helped to make so much more sense of this gigantic underground passage that ran down the spine of the house near Chester.

In the second term of my undergraduate degree I went to see Martin Carver, the head of department at York, to tell him that I was having doubts about the archaeology course. Prof Carver handed me two books, told me to read them then come and see him again to discuss any lurking doubts. The two books were Colin Renfrew’s ‘Archaeology and Language’ and V.G. Childe’s ‘What Happened in History’. If I had just been given ‘Archaeology and Language’ I’d be a historian so I would be taking Childe to the desert island with me. Simply it is the scale, ambition and completeness of Childe’s vision that makes the volume so compelling and worth re-reading. You can only imagine what he would have written with precise carbon dating and all the hard statistics people do with the dates now.

During my second year at York we had the bizarrely named ‘mortuary behaviour’ course. In the third week of this course my grandfather died. I remember having the strange experience of bringing reading for the course with me on the train to London to help arrange the funeral. Whilst Julian Litton’s ‘The English Way of Death’ is a fabulous survey, Jessica Mitford’s ‘The American Way of Death’ stuck in my mind whilst arranging a funeral in the Brixton branch of the Co-op undertaker in 1993. It was all happening in front of me, open coffins and every other effort to try and sell me everything beyond a simple Church of England service and cremation as requested.

Angus Wilson’s ‘Anglo-Saxon Attitudes’ is my satisfying volume of archaeological fiction. Wilson worked at the British Museum from 1937 until his escape in 1955. He must have been in the know about Sutton Hoo. Rather than the grave of an Anglo-Saxon king, the excavation of a burial of a pagan who was subsequently converted, and became a Bishop is the basis of the story. Whether a pagan wooden idol found in the grave was placed there by someone working on the excavation or represented the bishop keeping his options open presents some attitudes others are the problems of an extended family.

For longer than I care to mention I’ve work in London. One book in particular that brings the spaces and landscape of, what was, queer London and, now probably gay or LQBTQ+ London to life is Matt Houlbrook’s ‘Queer London‘. The book was published in 2006, and the bookmark tells me I bought it from the amazing Gay’s the Word, a fabulous bookshop. I remember checking through the various sites in Southwark, making a list, and marking up a photocopy of the A-Z (yes that long ago!) and finding a combination of new buildings, bombsites (there are still loads) and pocket parks. In some ways a depressing experience, in others, an example of how ephemeral life can be. How would we excavate the encounters within 126 cubicles with slipper baths in Grange Road, Bermondsey?

For the end I’m going to return to ‘The Rows of Chester: The Chester Rows Research Project‘ by Andrew Brown. This volume shows the massive value that can be obtained by throwing an amazingly skilled team at a town to examine a problem, but following a massive fire in the town, behind, what looked like a 1950s buildings was an amazing later 17th century timber frame! Always look behind the 1950s brickwork kids!

Dr Chris Constable has worked for a variety of archaeological organisations and currently works in the London office of Amec Foster Wheeler Environment & Infrastructure, an engineering and environmental consultancy. He works in both archaeology and historic buildings . His research interests originally focused upon 12th century architecture and archaeology in the north of England, but have shifted in time and space around with him as he has moved within the UK. Chris is a trustee of the Rose Theatre Trust and sits on the council of the London and Middlesex Archaeological Society. He is also the president of the Southwark and Lambeth Archaeological Society.

He can be found on Twitter at @drcconstable, he also contributes for LAMAS @LonMidArchSoc.

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