The voice of archaeology in Britain and beyond

Cover of British Archaeology 113

Issue 113

July / Aug 2010


THE BIG DIG: Links of Noltland

Eroding sand dunes are revealing an ancient landscape on a windswept and remote Scottish island.

MAIN FEATURE: Digging for (Invisible) People

Eroding sand dunes are revealing an ancient landscape on a windswept and remote Scottish island.

Dig for Shakespeare

Literary critics may wonder if Shakespeare wrote all those plays, but archaeologists know where to find him.

The Varmints Show

An occasional series specifically for the website, showcasing pop music inspired by archaeology or heritage. The first of the series features Air-Raid Shelter (Pillbox) by The Human Cabbages.

More online features to follow


All the latest archaeology news from around the country

on the web

Caroline Wickham-Jones investigates real and reconstructed worlds, and Andy Burnham highlights ancient sites viewable from the roadside, including extra content.


Your views and responses


ISSN 1357-4442

Editor Mike Pitts


MAIN FEATURE: Digging for (Invisible) People

Rachael Kiddey and John Schofield took archaeological survey and excavation into a transient area of Bristol. The biggest surprises were the distinctive characteristics of homeless places and the interest in heritage expressed by homeless people.

Stokes Croft is a road leading north out of Bristol, the city's traditional gateway. It is also a place of nonconformity. Eighteenth century circuses and dissenting schools have their modern counterparts in the selfstyled Peoples Republic of Stokes Croft, a Banksy mural and recent squatters protesting against a planned Tesco Express store (the street's building history is well depicted. It has long been a place of taverns, transience and travellers. Drunks and misfits were routinely thrown out of Bristol onto Stokes Croft, and people with alcohol and drug dependencies and mental health problems continue to be housed in the area today. Stokes Croft is also a focal point for the city's homeless community.

Archaeologists chart the way people and landscapes change together over time, sometimes bringing that understanding to the very recent past. We wondered what archaeology might have to say about contemporary homelessness. Rachael Kiddey, archaeologist and activist, developed an interest in homelessness partly through wandering about Stokes Croft. She came to know homeless people and engage with the places and journeys they make regularly through the city. Working with John Schofield and a team of homeless and recently exhomeless people, and with the support of the Council for British Archaeology and English Heritage, she established a project to explore archaeology and contemporary homelessness.

The involvement of homeless people in fieldwork and in the presentation of our findings, acting as archaeologists, is unique. We particularly wanted them to participate in this "archaeology of themselves", by describing and mapping their places and interpreting their material remains. What, for example, did they make of their local environment and what was happening to it? Specifically we also wanted to explore connections between homeless people and cultural heritage.

Bear Pit

We arranged a first week of fieldwork in June 2009. Our aim was to meet a different homeless person each day and map their routine in as much detail as they were prepared to share. This included the journey, places along the way, people we met, items picked up and discarded and conversations between us and with others. Each day we started on Turbo Island, a tract of private land on Stokes Croft, now occupied by an advertising hoarding and identified by homeless people as a "social place". Our equipment included maps, digital camera, audio recording kit, paper and pens.

The routes we followed varied considerably, but by the end of the week, patterns and regular sites began to emerge within these different personal landscapes. Another site that featured as part of everyone's homeless landscape was a series of underpasses beneath a city centre roundabout, known colloquially as the Bear Pit. It is a familiar 1960s construction of grey, grimy pedestrian subways with shrubs, wild flowers and a few trees in the middle. It is an inherently public place and renowned citywide for looking dishevelled (see feature by James Dixon, #105 Mar/Apr 2009).

On our first day in the Bear Pit, we met two homeless people who had constructed a shelter in which they had slept the night before. The shelter, in common with several sleeping places we were shown, was elevated and under a tree that felt roof-like. It was a neat construction of four placard sticks and layers of woollen blankets and duvets. Foliage was loosely strewn on top for camouflage, which screened the shelter from a nearby security camera. Sleeping places are often sited within the sweep of these cameras, as homeless people are less likely to be attacked at night if a camera is close by.

Sleeping places are also often elevated, with views out, and enclosed or demarcated, by a fence for example. The occupants of this shelter described how it was constructed and designed to be easily transportable. They explained how they could dismantle the shelter and fit it into a rucksack if asked to move on. We asked how long they expected to stay here and were told it could be minutes or days. On the fourth morning of fieldwork, the shelter had gone. We photographed the traces left behind. Half a placard stick protruded from the ground. It was snapped and suggested the people had left in haste. There were three postholes where the other sticks had been. Artefacts and the foliage that had been used to cover the shelter were strewn around.

This was one of many "skippers" we looked at, the term used by homeless people to describe rough sleeping places and also the act of rough sleeping – "a skipper", "to skipper". The term has historic roots and features with the same meaning in George Orwell's Down & Out in Paris & London (1933). It is interesting how some elements of language of the streets have persisted as a form of intangible heritage.

Nice places

Throughout fieldwork certain artefacts began to emerge as signs of homelessness: ring pulls, particularly from cans where they are designed to be non-detachable (removed by homeless people so they can see more easily if someone attempts to spike their drink); lighters with rubber bands around them; condoms and condom wrappers; blue plastic White Ace cider bottle-tops and soft black metal Abbey Royal sherry bottle-tops; and needles, syringes and their packaging, along with orange safety caps supplied with clean needles, tin foil and blue and "white" clingfilm for wrapping different types of drug.

Little Tom explained during our journey with him how blue clingfilm "contains your blue, your B, your brown" (heroin), and clear film, "that contains your white, your powder, your crack" (crack cocaine). He showed us the large number of cigarette ends on the floor of a phone box in St Paul's, and explained how these, along with screwed up pieces of "white" clingfilm, told him that crack cocaine was regularly consumed there.

Heritage and historic fabric, to our surprise, featured heavily in the homeless experience. Frequently we were introduced to places used for rough sleeping or just relaxing, or for drinking and drug-taking, which are historic and identified as such by homeless people. Historic buildings were variously described as "nice places", or places where people felt more comfortable, or even safer, though there is no evidence to suggest these places are in fact safer, especially given the lack of cameras at most of them.

One such site is Castle Park, in amongst the ruins of St Mary le Port, a church excavated by archaeologist Philip Rahtz in the 1950s. Here the ruins, under tree cover, elevated and with good outward views to the river, are a focus for activities associated with homelessness: rough sleeping, drinking, drug-taking and also – it would appear – prostitution. Visiting this site with Smiler, a former occupant, we were told how he had slept in the vaults which were accessed by lifting and then lowering and locking a metal grill. This is now welded into position making the site inaccessible. Other such heritage sites visited on our journey included the Pilkington glass factory, and Temple church.

We were struck by how much homeless people spoke of history and heritage. During our walks buildings were identified to us as "listed", while historic sites, often related to the Civil War, were noted and described. On questioning, it seems this knowledge is gained both by word of mouth, and from the library, where some homeless people spend much of their time in winter months. Whatever the reason, homeless people know about history and heritage. And they have clear and strongly held opinions about both.

On one journey we stopped, with Little Tom, Punk Paul and Smiler, by a signpost in the city centre. On the pole supporting the sign was a memorial to Tibor Tarr, a Big Issue seller who had died the previous winter (2008/09) – killed by a bus on his pitch, some people said. The memorial was small, and gave his name and a photograph. We talked about this and photographed it.

It provoked a conversation about how homeless people are invisible when they are alive, but even more so when they die: when there is no trace whatsoever, no records and perhaps in some cases virtually no memory. We were struck how, in this case, there was a tangible witness to someone who had meant a great deal to the homeless man responsible for the memorial. As we walked through the town we asked Smiler to use the places we passed to recall the homeless people who had died or vanished and who he associated with these places. These places came thick and fast. On returning through town we were shocked and saddened to find the memorial gone from the pole. There was no explanation, and nor have we been able to find one. But we cannot help thinking that our attention caused its removal.

Turbo Island

Turbo Island featured in the daily lives of almost every homeless person we spoke with, either as a meeting place or somewhere to drink. All of our journeys began and ended there. It was not clear whether we non-homeless were guided back to it as a familiar place, or whether that is simply where other homeless people gather in the late afternoon. Each day, we were invited to sit a while. It was during these periods that we became truly aware of the significance of Turbo Island to the homeless community in Bristol.

We were told variously that the island had been a "place where pirates were hanged" (Clifford), it was "a kind of Speaker's Corner" (Punk Paul), and that beneath it there was a "vault or passageway that leads to the biggest crack den in Bristol" (Smiler). Several people told us there had "always been homeless people here", and that it has "always been a place where you don't get told to move on" (Jane, Muggy, Gary, Ratty). On one occasion the discussion about the history of the site became quite animated. We suggested that one way to learn more about its past was to excavate it – together, as archaeologists. This suggestion was met with enthusiasm, and that is how we came to arrange an archaeological dig on Turbo Island in December.

Enlisting the help of University of Bristol students and Cassie Newland as field director, we arranged to run the dig for three days. We wanted to involve homeless people in the excavation, but we had failed to understand one important thing: they have nowhere to clean up, and so are less likely to want to get covered in mud and soaking wet. This meant fewer homeless people took part in the physical side of the excavation than we had hoped. Some homeless people rolled up their sleeves and got muddy, but more watched the digging, commented on finds and hung around for the duration.

With homeless diggers, students and local police, we conducted surface collection followed by the excavation of three trenches, the location for the first of which was chosen by Smiler. Finds from the surface and the dig included bottle glass, blue plastic tops from White Ace bottles, money, pharmaceutical drug packaging, ring pulls, sherry bottle lids, lighters, bits of mobile phones and sunglasses, sweet wrappers and tobacco and smoking paraphernalia.

Without homeless people, much of the meaning behind these finds would have escaped the rest of us. For example, a cigarette lighter with a rubber band secured around one end became more interesting after we found another exactly the same (to add to the ones we had found at skippers). It was explained that this probably belonged to a crack cocaine user. They need a rubber band when making a crack pipe and tend to keep one around their lighter so they know where it is. We also found a stericup, a disposable spoon for preparing drugs for injection. These are issued to drug users as "cooking tins" for heroine – but not in Bristol. This is evidence therefore for the transience of homeless drug users. A full study of finds is now underway.

This project allows us to map places and culture which are traditionally ignored and overlooked. In most interpretations of Stokes Croft, Turbo Island is described as a "gap site" – a non-place where "nothing" exists. Through this excavation and working in partnership with socially excluded, marginalised people we are learning about rituals and patterns of behaviour of which we previously knew very little or nothing. The process of archaeological excavation uniquely affords the opportunity to explore nonconformist culture, and to understand the perspectives and rituals of homeless people, through collaboration and partnership and – crucially – without judgment. We are contributing to understanding a community felt by many to be "unreachable". It was also an experience which our homeless coworkers greatly enjoyed and appreciated.

During filming of the Turbo Island dig by BBC West, Rich was asked whether this made him an archaeologist. "Yeah", he said (raising his clenched fist), "I'm a homeless archaeologist". Punk Paul has described the wider project as "hopefully constructing an insightful view on things and implementing change in society, making order of our modern times, seeing us as no different from the Egyptians or the Romans". "I love you for being interested", he concluded. "The truth is if you dig deep enough you uncover the truth... The week we spent together was power, truth and hope. You have this big heart in a bigger community and it was good to think that we might actually change the world we live in. Inshallah." That is hy we are doing this project, and why it will continue.

John Schofield works for English Heritage; he moves to the University of York in July 2010. Rachael Kiddey is an urban archaeologist and freelance radio producer now studying for a PhD at the University of York. Smiler, Punk Paul, Rich, Liam, Clifford, Ratty, Gary, Jane, Muggy and Little Tom all live in Bristol. A BBC Inside Out West television film about the dig can be viewed online.

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