Friday, 30 November 2012

Place: Home

As you might have spotted in my last blog post, I recently spent 10 days in Italy working. I was originally going to blog straight away about what a great time I had, the lovely friends I saw and the brilliant people I met, and had all sorts of cool photos ready to go. Then I came home. Do you ever get a rush of happiness just arriving at a familiar place? I've never really felt that about anywhere I lived until now, but coming back from Rome after a 2 hour journey from Bristol airport through rising floodwaters, I went through my own front door and was overtaken by joy at being home. I am still feeling the ripples of that original swelling of emotion as I write this. So, rather than write about Rome, and San Giovenale, and the fun of being abroad, I thought I'd settle down by the fire and blog about home.

The glories of Rome- peeking out through the columns of the BSR.

 The funny thing is, I've only lived here about 6 weeks. The house is old- built at some point in the 17th century- and has funny beams, crazy hidey holes and a living room that used to be a piggery. One of our neighbours was born in the end bedroom and told us her parents kept turkeys in the room below. She's our nearest neighbour, about 200 yards up the lane (and she's lovely). Other than that, to get to a neighbour you have to cross the ford or go over the hill to the village. You'd have thought that with the weather we had last week, I'd be dying to get back to Rome, or anywhere where the only way out wasn't through a raging stream of waist-high water (the photo here is after the ford had died down for 24 hours). Somewhere warm, surrounded by delightful people, not alone in a rain soaked valley in a creaking old house moaning with the wind.

Instead, I loved the storm. I loved the grumpy moany house. I loved the streams of water rushing through our garden to reach the muddy torrent preventing me from leaving to get to the shops or elsewhere (honestly, there was half a telegraph pole stuck in the bridge, it was MAD). I dashed to the woodshed to replenish our fuel, made an enormous chilli con carne and basked in the satisfaction of being in a place which makes me so simply and utterly happy.

THEN I got thinking about homes in the past. This was not entirely unconnected to a lecture I gave to first-year students this week on place and space. It's a lecture I relish- two fantastically interesting anthropological case studies*, and a chance to really challenge some of the top-down viewpoints you can get in archaeology. What makes a space a place? The same thing that makes a house a home- the individual people who live there, go there, use the space, mark it out, stamp around, love it, hate it, sleep in it, get drunk in it, have sex in it, go to the toilet in it, cook in it, meet people in it, and feel in it. It's easy for us as archaeologists to provide a functional explanation for space- this was a house, this was a grain store. Sometimes it's more difficult- a problem most obvious in interpretations of big flashy monuments that get gently categorised as "ritual" spaces alone. But I think we should challenge ourselves to do more, push further- what are the things that people actually do in a space, and how can we reconstruct their relationships with a building or a landscape?

The work of Penelope Allison on Roman houses is inspirational in this sense- using small finds to really interrogate how people used buildings**. She is, of course, not the only archaeologist to think about space on a human, personal scale- while there's a certain Marmite effect, phenomenological philosophy has really opened up new ways of considering the experience of place in the past. Chris Tilley's "A Phenomenology of Landscape" was a book I read as an undergraduate and marvelled at- I still think it's bold and brilliant. For me, the key message of this book is the realisation of just how patronising it is to treat people in the past as automata, to refuse to see them as complex, feeling, living humans just like us. It's an almost post-colonial message: the past may be "a foreign country" where people do things differently, but that's no reason to reduce the inhabitants of this foreign space to dehumanised natives, living in a land which is totally alien to the civilised country we ourselves inhabit.

Stockland Great Castle bank'n'ditch

So, as I revel in the beautiful view, the sturdy walls and the feelings that my new home gives me, I wonder about the people who lived here before. Not just in my house, but in the whole valley. There are two Iron Age hillforts just across the river from me- I can see one from the bathroom window (it makes cleaning your teeth much more interesting) and one, which still has a lovely bank and ditch preserved, just out of sight. I can never know how the people who lived there felt about their landscape, about their homes, about their place in the world, or whether they would even characterise these things as important. But in the remnants of the hours of work they put in to defining their world, marking out their space and making a presence for themselves here, I suspect that the connections between this place and its inhabitants were forged as strongly as those I've built over my short time here, even if I can never know exactly what those links were.

What do you think? What do you feel when you go home, or away?

Sunshine and sheep after the storm...

* The first one is a real classic that I love using for teaching- Pierre Boudieu's structural analysis of the Kabyle house. The key point of the case study is that houses may look simple, but are actually really carefully curated and structured. You can read about it in "The Algerians" or in "Outline of a Theory of Practice". The other case study looks at space on a wider scale and how it plays a part in the creation of rituals- I wanted to introduce students to the concept of liminality without dressing it up in an ooooh-how-mysterious way. Victor Turner's "The Forest of Symbols" presents the Ndembu ritual of Mukanda (circumcision) in a fantastically coherent way- he demonstrates how space demarcates each stage of the rite, and each stage of being for the initiates.

**Have a look at her "The Archaeology of Household Activities" or see her online work on Pompeii at


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What do you think? I'd love to hear what's in your head.