This weeks ‘Themes in British Prehistory’ module was focused upon the notion of structured deposition. Because on module feedback forms the students have emphasised how they find activities useful, this week they got to do some structured deposition of their own. We were using the activity to explore three concepts: firstly, the possibility of using objects as a local language to express ideas; secondly, how by depositing these objects within a landscape, that landscape can then hold that meaning and experience; thirdly, how subsequent visits to the depositional site can trigger within the participant a memory of the experience and the ideas associated with the deposited objects. Perhaps by making some structured depositions ourselves in the present it might alert us to some of the patterns that may be recognisable within past prehistoric contexts.
So first of all how did we explore the idea of using objects to express a local language? I harvested from our various piles of stuff at Manchester, some raffia cordage, flint flakes, sheep vertebrae and some broken pot. I also have three colleagues at Chester who teach the same students and each has a different specialist area. Amy is a bones specialist, Barry does plant materials and experimental archaeology, Caroline was more difficult to pigeon hole. She is an Iron Age specialist but I didn’t have any metalworking debris. However, because her name began with C she would be third on the list and so have to be have to be the pottery. Sorted.
At the start of the lecture I explained the concept and then showed the students the materials. I asked them as a cohort to choose the material or materials that best expressed the idea of Amy Gray Jones. Their immediate response was “It has to be the bone“. Correct answer! Then the material or materials that best expressed the idea of Barry Taylor. The slightly slower consensus was raffia cordage and flint blades. It was all going to plan. Finally the material or materials that best expressed the idea of Caroline Pudney. As they only had the pot shards left they all chose the correct material. Onto the deposition.
We were going to dig three pits and make three deposits. I had arranged it with Dan the gardener the week before, and we were using the green space directly outside the lecture theatre. I had plotted in the direction and approximate spacing using Digimap so that all three pits created a directional line towards the Binks Building (top left) where Amy, Barry and Caroline’s offices are. Before setting out we had one one more task. To avoid any future archaeological confusion all flint, pot, and bone was initialled so that it was clear that should they be found, these were modern twenty first century Neolithic pits.
And then we were outside in the lovely sunshine. First of all we used a compass to set our bearing and then lay out the tape in the direction of Binks Building (approximately north west of where we were).
After laying out the tape out along our official north west bearing the mulch could start to be cleared and the ground surface exposed. This was my agreement with Dan so that the mulch would not be contaminated with soil bound weeds.
This mulch clearing process revealed the hidden land surface we were going to be digging and depositing into.
Once the north west bearing has been cleared of mulch the future pit locations were marked (from top to bottom) by a twig, a pencil and an orange peg. This in itself was a materials based critique of how funding cuts have affected archaeology departments.
Then the structured deposition process could begin. This involved digging three shallow Neolithic style pits to a depth of fifteen centimetres.
Once the pits were ready Amy Gray Jones was deposited first. Coincidentally, she walked past just prior to being deposited! A large part of the idea of structured deposition is that development of the alphabet has created a distance between our modern selves and objects. This in turn inhibits our consideration of being able to express our ideas through objects. Consequently we may not consider this kind of material communication within evidence from prehistory. In spite of this conceptual insight we still deposited the objects in alphabetical order. that’s what happens in the twenty first century Neolithic.
We didn’t get a photo of the Barry Taylor deposit, however here is one of Caroline Pudney going in.
Once all three depositions had been made we marked each one with a twig, spread out the mulch and then said goodbye to the sunshine and hello again to the lecture theatre. We covered a lot of ground in this exercise (pardon the pun), and I think it did explain in practical terms how depositing objects / ideas within the landscape means that the landscape can then hold that meaning and experience. We also talked about how we now cannot un-experience that experience and so that location can now trigger the memory of depositing the objects and the ideas associated with the deposited objects within all of us as a group. The whole process took about an hour, and it may be interesting to excavate these Neolithic pits next year. We can then try and work out why they form a line pointing towards Binks Building, why they are all 15cms deep, and why one contains some pot shards in the form of a smiley face.
For more on the concept of structured deposition see: Thomas, J. 1999. Understanding the Neolithic. London. Routledge.
Photos courtesy of Jade Foxall