ISSN 1357-4442Editor: Simon Denison

Issue no 51, February 2000


In an amazing scene in the recent film The Haunting, one of the girls lured to Hollywood's conception of an ancient house - ie, a 19th century Gothic revival affair - mounts the staircase to a sticky end in one of the four-posters upstairs. As she passes, the carved birds on the staircase newel post turn unseen and stretch their wings to implore her return to the safety of the ground floor. It's a hair raiser.

It also underlines what I learnt years ago - never ever go upstairs in a strange house but always stay on the ground floor, if possible within sight of the front door. This prohibition can be added to. Never open a closed door, never go to the window to shut it because the wind is getting up and the long drapes are fluttering, never go down to the cellars, and, of course, never since Psycho even think about personal cleanliness. As to going out on the roof, or poking around in that space under the stairs, or lifting a floorboard - well all that goes without saying.

Yet some archaeologists are never happier than when doing a bit of recording up in the roof space, or prising open long-jammed trapdoors, or even working alone in the cathedral sanctuary on a winter's evening. They can emerge from upstairs making one last record in their notebooks - brushing away some enormous spider to do so - and suggest that it's early 17th century up there, rather than gabbling something about how it all went cold, and staring unseeingly around.

Perhaps these people really are convinced that a building is just its plan, its outside elevation, and a few cross sections. Just read their building descriptions about two-centred openings with a rerearch dying into the jambs . . . when surely the only thing likely to die in the jambs is the poor archaeological intruder dragged off by demons to a serious roasting.

Or perhaps it's a matter of practice. That creaking door has you panting in the churchyard faster than you can say Hitchcock the first time, but unconcerned the one hundredth. Well, it's a false security. Buildings are out to get you. They are full of their previous inhabitants - all malignly wondering who this intruder thinks he or she is. My archaeological advice, for what it's worth, is stick to outdoor work where the ghosts of the past can't get you.

A spate of these millennial films has seen merry groups of teenagers setting off to have fun in forests, old houses, and disused industrial workings. They always switch from dismissive laughter to submissive tears at the end. This genre flaunts a cosmology that would have been entirely understood by anyone from the late Middle Ages.

Then, the Devil and the dead were hard at work, and were only held at bay by hard sacramental work by the church, lots of festivals and amulets.

Do the movie-makers realise that they have entered a temporal black hole? Each day they no doubt set off to find out what everyone else is talking about in Hollywood. And since everyone is talking about warding off evil (eg, illness and death) by homeopathy, reflexology, aromatherapy, shamanism, and crystals, and is weighed down with icons and amulets, it's more or less the same as taking a stroll through Montaillou in the 15th century. Hence the films. Well, it's a theory.

Anyway, whatever goes on in films, in real life archaeologists seem to lead a charmed existence - breezing around in the loft taking measurements, or cleaning out the eye orbit of some former inhabitant of the planet. Even the present world leaves us alone. Once I followed a gloomy, bearded colleague up the motorway and noted that his car was filled with boxes labelled 'human bone' in a particularly runny red felt-tip pen.

No sirens sounded, no film crews gathered. 'Just another archaeologist going about his business,' the world must have said as they hurried home to watch that blood-curdling video.

Peter Ellis is a consultant archaeologist. He is not available for standing building recording.

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