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The Varmint Show

making tracks

November sees the publication of John Varmints' Great Excavations (Oxbow Books, 2010), which reveals how some stupendous and significant excavation projects shaped the profession we have today. And to mark this publication, British Archaeology has run a feature on the book and some of the projects described. In the third of our series Making Tracks, we do our bit to remember and to celebrate great excavations of the past. The Varmints bring you... 'Great Excavations – The Musical'.

Great Excavations (ed John Schofield, Oxbow Books) contains 21 chapters, which together describe the social history, circumstances, and the legacy of some of Britain's great excavations. As the book went to press in early 2010 John Varmint had an idea. We often associate places and events with particular pieces of music. So, in that vein he wondered, what was the soundtrack to these great excavations? What were people listening to as they dug, or as they relaxed after a hard day? Contributors to Great Excavations were asked this very question, and the answers came flooding in. There were far too many to include them all, so we Varmints have filtered them to produce, for our readers, a soundtrack to accompany readings of 'Great Excavations', or to fill the gaps between readings, or just for your interest and enjoyment. Either way, it is a mix which, as we say, 'transcends eclectic'.

John Collis (University of Sheffield, and excavator at Winchester and Owslebury in the 1950s and 60s) made some interesting comments:

'Of course in the 1950s and 60s we made most of our own music, mainly unaccompanied singing in the pub or round camp fires, etc – certainly a tradition which we had at Verulamium, Winchester and Owslebury. Martin Biddle claims to have a tape of various of us singing at Winchester. Things like 'The Mallard', 'Blow the Candle Out', 'Old Farmer Buck', 'Goliath of Gath', various versions of the 'Barley Mow', and the way we sang 'Foggy Foggy Dew' was not quite Peter Pears.

But during the day at Owslebury we would often have the radio on, and in 1969 we took a couple of days off to go to the Isle of Wight festival to hear Dylan, The Band, etc. We went through the Beatles ('Yellow Submarine', 'Eleanor Rigby') and the Rolling Stones, etc, and each year is associated with whatever was popular that particular summer (I never knew the winter hits). The hits of September 1966 are especially poignant as I went down every few hours to the nearby farm to phone up the hospital to see if I had become a father – Chris Montez, 'There Will Never Be Another You'. But one that was especially good for clearing often impacted soil after the mechanical excavator had taken off the topsoil was Thunderclap Newman's 'Something in the Air', especially the instrumental bit at the end.'

Interesting that only the summer hits were known, and one wonders how many other archaeologists (or archaeologists to be) attended the 1969 Isle of Wight Festival?

Download the Archaeology Song (MP3 0.5MB)

Down the Jetty

'Down by the Jetty': Drinking, smoking and making music at Dublin's Smithfield excavations, c2002. The song being performed was Dr Feelgood's 'Down by the Jetty' (Photo © Franc Myles)

Chris Evans (who writes in the book about Haddenham) explains how, 'we often had Nick Merriman (now Director, Manchester Museum) to run both the projects and discos. A very cool character with great musical taste, both Desmond Decker and The Aces' 'Israelites' and Nina Simone's 'My Baby Just Cares For Me' always featured. Otherwise, the project's hit-list would have to include the ultimate academic love song, Elvis Costello's 'Everyday I Write the Book' (1983). A work of singular genius, over the years it has been an apt source of excavation-metaphor: 'what do we do when we dig' – everyday we write the...

It is music from Wroxeter that Paul Everill remembers. As he says, 'most of the music I was listening to then (at the age of 16) was either angst-ridden ('Who Wants to Live Forever' by Queen); chart ('Ride on Time' by Black Box); or hideous prog rock/soft metal that I have spent the last 21 years trying to erase from my memory. I do have a very clear memory of standing on top of Phil Barker's photographic tower at the end of the dig, waiting to be picked up by my Dad, listening to 'We will Rock You' by Queen on my walkman and feeling mean and moody about having had to say goodbye to my first love. Another Wroxeter connection is Blondie's 'Heart of Glass', which Roger White remembers the great Phil Barker bopping away to at the annual disco. As for Maiden Castle, Niall Sharples recounts a particular liking for the Pogues' 'Sally MacLennane' and Los Lobos' 'Don't Worry Baby'. At Danebury, 'Bridge over Troubled Water' struck a chord with Barry Cunliffe and the team.

From Howe (Orkney) Beverley Ballin Smith recalls Bruce Springsteen's 'Badlands' from 'Darkness on the Edge of Town' and Camel's 'First Light' from 'Rain Dances', while some of those working with her on the excavations listed some of their Howe memories as including: Bob Seger's 'Against the Wind'; Tom Petty – 'Refugee'; Joy Division – 'Love will Tear us Apart'; Patti Smith – 'Because the Night' and Vaughn Williams' 'The Lark Ascending'. Perhaps the remoteness of Howe, and its bleak otherworldliness (at least in the minds of volunteers, for most of whom this was a first trip to Orkney) influenced the music they listened to. 'Against the Wind' – indeed!

Wharram Percy it seems had no soundtrack, or at least that is how Paul Stamper remembers it. He recalls: 'There was no electricity at Wharram until the mid-1980s (so no amplified raves) and trannies (radios that is, not cross-dressers) were always frowned upon as they spoiled the peace and quiet produced by 100 people hacking at the chalk and gossiping like mad. And people went off site to the boozer rather than sit around the bonfire doing bad Bob Dylan impersonations. Nor were there (to my knowledge) dig songs, unlike elsewhere – Bob (occasional Varmint) Croft does a mean version of 'Down Lyveden Way' and 'Lyveden Blues' [legendary digging songs, associated particularly with medieval archaeology of the 1960s.] The principal radio contact with the outside world was the 7.55 am BBC weather forecast which John Hurst used to recount at the morning mass meeting, with his particular pessimistic gloss ('The BBC says fine, but it's bound to rain' [cue laughter all round]). In fact the only musical memory associated with WP is coming back down the A1 at the end of the dig circa 1975 in John's (or the Min's) dark green Bedford van with his daughters, Dan Smith and a load of boxes of bones (which we were lying on top of) when I distinctly remember Derek and the Dominos' 'Layla' (memory says the full version) playing on the radio – in the days when you had to listen for hours to hear anything decent between chirpy ditties from Middle of the Road and Brotherhood of Man.' Bob Croft adds that 'life at WP was different from some other excavation projects I worked on due to the social dynamic of living in and around a residential/office based cottage with various professors and others asleep upstairs. This put a bit of a damper on 'The Wild Rover' if it got too loud!'

As on many great excavations (but not it seems WP), we end with a sing-song. Martin Carver has worked on many archaeological projects, but is arguably best known for his association with Sutton Hoo. Martin recently presented the Rhind lectures which began with a song, partly because it reminded him of life on archaeological excavations, where he has spent some of his happiest days. The reaction: 'the audience shifted in its chairs, refrained from humming along and located itself somewhere between respectful, embarrassed and baffled. The words of the song, belted out to the tune of 'The Battle Hymn of the Republic' are: 'He dug a hole a mile deep without a context plan' (three times) 'and he ain¹t going to dig no more', followed by the chorus, 'archaeology is an art it's not a science'. The misdemeanours of this villain are recounted in numerous verses ('he drunk a bottle of whisky and interpreted the site'), and the words 'art' and 'science' are swapped around each time culminating in a shouting match in which little can be distinguished.'

'The song, dating back many decades, no doubt originated in some Marxist trench, and was meant to signal the arrival of a new generation of professionals and practices. The old ways, with their air-headed volunteers and self-serving professor were gone forever; there was to be a new dawn for historical science spearheaded by the stratigraphic unit. As with all revolutions, something got lost.'

(The above paraphrased from Carver's Making Archaeology Happen, Left Coast Press, due 2011, based on his Rhind lectures which can be viewed/heard via the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland.


Digging Songs? If any readers have memories of digging songs, and can supply lyrics, or have recordings, or even photographs of singing or musical activity on excavation projects, John Varmint (aka Schofield) would like to hear from you

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