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Cover of British Archaeology 115

Issue 115

Nov / Dec 2010


All the latest archaeology news from around the country


On the Trail of Viking Women

Jane Kershaw reports on an astounding quantity of Viking-style jewellery found in England

THE BIG DIG: Bestwall Quarry

At this large site in Dorset local, largely unfunded amateurs were nominated to manage the archaeology with fascinating results

Life Between the Nations

The wartime correspondence of German refugee archaeologist Paul Jacobsthal

Excavating the Living Dead

Alistair Barclay examines the stories of the many people who were buried on Boscombe Down, Wiltshire

The Human Remains Crisis

Change is promised, but fieldwork continues under conditions that many are unhappy with

The Little House by the Shore

The directors of the Star Carr excavation update readers on the endangered organic remains

The Varmints Show

In the Varmints' third exploration, we introduce Great Excavations – The Musical

on the web

Neolithic excavations online and the Cranbourne Chase gets an overhaul

CBA Correspondent

From CBA Director, Mike Heyworth on academia


Your views and responses


ISSN 1357-4442

Editor Mike Pitts

My Archaeology

Always constant, always changing

In 2007 English Heritage re-opened an old archaeological tunnel into Silbury Hill, now permanently backfilled. Artist David Inshaw was there.

In the 1960s I was teaching at the art school in Bristol, and I was sharing a wonderful flat in Clifton overlooking the gorge with a painter called Alfred Stockham. We'd just left college (I was at the Royal Academy). I was interested in Thomas Hardy, and we used to go down to Dorset a lot. We were searching for a way of dealing with our feelings for landscape and what it meant to us – we both had this strong romantic streak.

The thing about Hardy that fascinated me was the way he used landscape as a metaphor for human emotion. That was the key: going out and working from the landscape isn't necessary, you absorb it and then bring it back to the studio, and use what you want – you create your own kind of metaphors.

I suppose the two most important themes in my painting are landscape and women, and I've always seen landscape as a sexual thing in a strange way. It's life enhancing, a life force. It surrounds you, it's part of you, you're part of it. You're aware of sensuality when you look at my paintings, I think: that's an ingredient I try and put in, and it's an ingredient I find in the landscape around here. You can always say the shapes of chalk have got a feminine aspect to them, but it's not really that,i t's much more primeval than that. It goes deep within one's being. It's a feeling I've had ever since I was a child.

I used to own a really wonderful painting by Stanley Spencer – a strange painting, but it seemed to sum up the whole sensuous thing, the female, you know, the need for that and the need to paint and how you reconcile the two things, relationships, all that sort of stuff. The whole thing was in this painting.

I came to live in Devizes [Wiltshire] in 1971. It was way off the beaten track in those days, and I liked that. I didn't know a soul. And then gradually I got to know the landscape better and walked all over it, and here I still am (but I've come and gone: I went to Cambridge for four years, then I got married and went to Wales, but I couldn't deal with the landscape there).

I used to go out and draw all day. I remember going to Avebury and sitting down in front of those beech trees. You could go there virtually any time of the day or night, and nobody would be there. Whereas now, of course... They're turning Avebury into suburbia, putting kerbstones in. I can see why, the weight of people tends to destroy what's there. I don't know what you do about it, but I'm glad people can't go up Silbury Hill anymore.

I gradually got more and more interested in photography, and the way photography can capture a moment. Just working from a photograph on its own doesn't do you any good at all, but photography's all right if you're aware of all the other moments and your knowledge is complete.

So I don't see any point in going to Silbury to sit to try and paint it. It's always that same kind of big pudding shape, but every day it's different, with the light falling on it, the way the seasons change it. But it's always constant and I love that, the same, but never the same. And that fascinates me about everything, you know, the moment passing, the transience of it all... and yet, the permanence of it. I want to have that sense that when you look at a painting of mine, you're aware of before and after. It's almost like a clip from a movie in your head. Silbury is part of time, and it's now and it's then and it's forever. I find that quite easy really.

Going into Silbury was very exciting. To see the way it had all collapsed was extraordinary: it was really in a bad way, great roof falls, and all the twisted metal of the pit props [archaeologists] had left behind. It has always fascinated me. No-one's ever discovered why it's there. I think that's wonderful: now they've backfilled the tunnel they're never going to find out, and I think it should remain a mystery. Obviously, the people who did it had a very strong purpose – you don't build a thing like that without some kind of intention, whether it's religious or whatever. But there it is.

Interview Mike Pitts

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