On the foreshore walk we were told that the random bits of pottery, metal and other things casually thrown into the Thames, have not moved up and down the river, over time. Instead they stay where they entered, sinking down into the mud and are revealed, returned to the surface by the tide “like a washing machine”. I was completely surprised to see just how much material was lying there, ready to be picked over and investigated, things almost a thousand years old next to last night’s shattered pint glass. This is not how things are in archaeology. The oldest stuff is at the bottom. Unless it’s been disturbed or dug up before, and things may have been dragged up, dredged up, scattering time through later layers, confusing things somewhat. I have often thought of the archaeology analogy as apposite for the the way the mind works, how our experiences form us. That we build on previous events, places, conversations, and they provide the foundation and underpinning for how we respond and react to the world right now. But perhaps this analogy is flawed. [That’s not to say that the history of our lives doesn’t build up, layer by layer, providing a unique strata fingerprint, but I’m not sure that we go digging for memories, or that we have to peel back all the layers above to get at that moment beneath.] I am beginning to believe in the washing machine model. Everything is there, in one place, but the tides churn it up, bringing some things to the shore, while others hide in the mud. It explains why my mind returns again and again to certain things, to specific remembrances, without revisiting all that occurred before or since. A chance encounter, a muddled state during a migraine, a trip back to my childhood home – these things prompt some memories more than others. To the point that I can almost predict what I will recall. What does this mean for the infinite moments that we have experienced that never leave the mud? They are there, an amalgamation of everything, part of everything, but anonymous and forgotten. For some reason not important to my mind, now. Remove them and I would be changed, but imperceptibly to my subconscious mind. Who is deciding what is important for me to remember? Why are some things always there, why are others long gone?
It was all just lying there. All I had to do was choose which piece to pick up and place in my thick plastic bag. No digging allowed, not legally anyway. But who needs to dig when it’s all just there. On some digs you can cut through hundreds of years in a few centimetres. On others I’ve been down a very large hole. Geology plays its part, and weather, bringing material from higher ground, washing some things away. Humans use the land in different ways, and ancient fields, unchanged from century to century, may yield their past easily, and directly, whereas urban spaces can be one giant midden, muddled, changes happening so quickly. What is the ex-archaeologist to do, when freed of context? When there is no way to know where the objects originally entered the water, with what, when. You have to learn to let go, to embrace the chaos, to accept that these things are not for recording or preserving. They are not necessarily going to go into a box, on a shelf, as part of the history of that place. They are going into your bag and home with you. You get to keep this stuff. And that feels odd.
I sometimes wonder what it would be like to be on a dig now, with fifteen years of pick’n’mix experience under my belt. How would I see things, how would I understand them? Would my improved drawing mean that I am less conscientious drawing plans and finds? I needed it to be so accurate, then, but always worried my line drawings weren’t good enough. Perhaps that anxiety kept me focused, kept my eyes on every detail. Would my experience handling objects and using them with people mean that I ask better questions, needing to answer more than just ‘what is it?’. Would my writing creep in, blurring the edges between science and art, imbuing the record with a personal reading of the events and finds? Distance is one thing, but to allow the possibility of connections and wanderings is exciting and enriches the process of contemplation. Would it be allowed, or would I have to keep that to myself? Whereas some experiences might actually get in the way of the established methods of working, one thing I am sure I would benefit from, is my experience making objects. The skills I’ve learnt, the awareness of materials I’ve gained, have changed the way I look at objects, how I approach them.