Flag Fen: a Concise Archæoguide by Francis Pryor

FF cover

This post was originally published on Francis Pryor – In the Long Run, and is reposted here by kind permission of my uncle, Francis Pryor.

Francis Pryor’s new ebook, Flag Fen: a Concise Archæoguide, is an engaging and informative look into the archaeology of this fascinating site. Having visited Flag Fen shortly after the opening of its new visitor centre in 2001, when I must have been nine or ten, my memories of the site are somewhat hazy – they feature mainly as snapshots of the things that obviously captured my imagination at the time. I therefore clearly remember the Preservation Hall, where you could view prehistoric timbers in situ, and the replica Bronze Age round-house – but not much else. With my limited memories of Flag Fen, I can confirm that the Archæoguide is of interest both to those with no knowledge of the site and also those familiar with it.

The concise book covers a great deal of information, from the Fens in general, through the discovery of Flag Fen and its archaeological repercussions, to the opening of the site to the public and finally the threats to the archaeology at the site and Flag Fen’s naming as a Scheduled Ancient Monument. While the guide gives details on subjects such as the post alignments and the platform, it also gives an easily accessible overview of current interpretations of the site. It ends with a look at Flag Fen as a site of public interest, and the short chapter on ‘Flag Fen and the Public’ focuses on the importance of making archaeology accessible to the public, and the interest that Flag Fen has generated over the years. The site has now been handed over to Vivacity, a Charitable Trust set up by Peterborough City Council. Recently launched is the web-based subscription dig, ‘DigVentures’; this is Europe’s first crowd-funded and crowd-sourced archaeological excavation.

Francis in no way suggests that everybody should become experts in archaeology, but rather that archaeology should be made accessible to everyone. Very few people have the patience to spend week after week in the rain in a trench looking for something that may not even be there. Or to become so knowledgeable about their specialism that they can estimate the age and sex of an individual from a small piece of bone or how old a piece of pot is just from looking at it. But I think that it’s incredibly important that there are people who do and can, and when they have I find what they can tell us about the past fascinating. I don’t know anyone who didn’t enjoy studying the Romans, or the Greeks, or Egyptians at primary school, and anyone can appreciate how amazing it is to look at an artefact that’s thousands of years old and know that this bowl, or sword, or whatever once belonged to a real living, breathing human just like us. Not only that, but it has survived and been preserved over all that time and then been found by someone with the ability to excavate it safely (and someone has been able to tell us how old it is, and what it was for). Francis’ anecdote about his venture into splitting timber (as experimental research into ancient carpentry techniques) demonstrates both how skilled and knowledgeable ancient people were but also how important it is to cast attention on how these people thought as well as what they did.

oak splitting screenshot

While I recently graduated with a degree in History, in one module on Anglo-Saxon culture I relied quite heavily on archaeological reports and academic writing – in particular regarding the burial site at Sutton Hoo. As someone with no archaeological expertise some of these were quite heavy-going, yet the information that they could offer was fascinating. Francis’ books (both this Archæoguide and his other works which cover British archaeology from Britain BC: life in Britain and Ireland before the Romans to The Birth of Modern Britain: A Journey into Britain’s Archaeological Past: 1550 to the Present) take the expertise that he has accumulated over a long and varied career and distils it into a format accessible to the masses. While the Archæoguide doesn’t stint on detail it is a very readable work giving a useful overview of the archaeology and importance of this site.

Flag Fen: a Concise Archæoguide is published by High-Res History who are on Facebook and Twitter. It is available from the Kindle store at Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com.

Francis adds:

‘The ebook was something new to me. I’m used to Kindle versions being made of my conventional, printed books, but doing it digital from the word go was great. There was so much flexibility. I also suspect we’re just at the start of a very long process of re-inventing the written word and I’m so glad to have been there, right at the start. I really enjoyed the informality of the project. Far too often printed books are an exercise in academic humourless stodge and stodginess: I can remember once an editor insisted that I style myself F.M.M. Pryor on the title page, rather than Francis Pryor. Damn and Hell! If you can’t insist on how your own name appears in print, it’s a pretty grim outlook. I suspect if I’d wanted to style myself ‘Francis Flaggers Pryor’ Tom Vivian (my editor) would have let me. That’s what I like about the new format: it’s more immediate and informal – just what archaeological publication needs. The future looks very exciting.’

post alignment page screenshot

An impression of the post alignment by Rob Fuller

A selection of the bronze weaponry

Screenshot showing the use of the dictionary on an iPad.

Calke Abbey: Britain’s ‘Un-stately’ Home

Calke Abbey is a rather unusual National Trust property. As you start the tour of the house all seems normal; your standard stately home décor (albeit with a rather large amount of clutter including an unusual amount of taxidermy). Many of the rooms are beautifully decorated and contain the usual family portraits. But as you enter the second stage of your tour the grand interiors are replaced by flaking wallpaper and discarded bric-a-brac.

SculleryCalke Abbey is the National’s Trust ‘un-stately home’, and has been preserved in the state that it was received in by the Trust in order to educate the public of the dramatic decline that plagued many country house estates in the twentieth century. The Trust aims to raise awareness of the many estates that did not survive.

While I enjoy looking round the more normal National Trust properties, Calke Abbey is fascinating and amazingly atmospheric. Many of the deserted rooms retain remnants of their former grandeur; the Nursery has a rather eerie feel, with its collection of broken and abandoned toys scattered across the floor. The seemingly endless warren of empty corridors would not seem out of place in a horror movie.

CorridorIn the midst of this decay, visitors encounter the State Bed, in pristine condition having remained unpacked since its arrival as a gift in the eighteenth century. Its beautiful canopies draw attention to the hidden gems that are lost in these decaying houses, and the importance of their conservation.

It takes a huge amount of effort and ingenuity to safeguard Calke Abbey while maintaining it in its current state of disrepair. But it is certainly worth it; Calke Abbey is not only a fascinating and atmospheric building but also a monument to the decline of the British country estate and the lost lifestyle of the families that once lived in them.

Nursery

Dancing With Titian

 I’m quite an Olympic-sceptic and, dare I say it, I was rather underwhelmed by both the Olympic torch relay and the Olympic rings that have been stuck on the side of Box Hill. Not being proficient in Ancient Greek, I’m also unable to fully appreciate Boris Johnson’s recital of a new Olympic poem. But Dancing With Titian, the Imagine documentary covering the multi-arts project that is part of the Cultural Olympiad, is rather more up my street. I’m likely to watch any documentary on ballet, but this also played to my interest in Titian and Venetian art, fuelled by studying early modern Venice at University.

The scale of the project was amazingly ambitious, featuring contemporary art and sculpture, new choreographic works by the Royal Ballet, and poetry. The documentary was equally ambitious, covering all of this in just 75 minutes. All of the subjects were fascinating; from Titian’s work itself to the multiple poets, painters and sculptors, dancers, choreographers and set producers involved in the project. There was probably enough material to make a sizeable documentary about each area of this project.

The amalgamation of mediums and the collaboration between contributors made for a fascinating comparison between the differing creative processes of those involved. I find ballet rehearsals and choreographic processes as interesting as the finished performance, and it was interesting to see the various approaches of the individual choreographers as well as the diversity of the finished pieces.

While not quite convinced by some of the art (although I did like Mark Wallinger’s concept of voyeuristic viewing of a real bathing Diana) each of the three dance pieces seemed beautifully choreographed; I would like to see the full works. Their success is a fitting tribute to Monica Mason at the end of her tenure as Director of the Royal Ballet. This unique collaboration between the National Gallery and the Royal Ballet has produced a body of thought-provoking work that will surely encourage people to re-examine the three Titian paintings on show as part of the exhibition as well as Ovid’s Metamorphoses itself.

Abigail’s Party

 It must be a daunting task taking on the role of Beverly that Alison Steadman made so iconic. I’ve never seen the BBC recording of Abigail’s Party (although I’ve been meaning to for some time) but even though I wasn’t born when Steadman played Beverly I still came to Lindsay Posner’s production with preconceptions, gleaned from descriptions and clips. Jill Halfpenny rises to the challenge, treading the fine line between comic exaggeration and total believability. Joe Absolom as surly Tony, whose mousey wife Angela (Natalie Casey) is in awe of Beverley,  Andy Nyman as Beverly’s estate-agent husband Laurence and Susannah Harker as divorcee Susan are all excellent, but Halfpenny stands out as the force that gives the play its momentum.

The set is hideously ‘1970s’, and at the interval I overheard several people commenting on how they or their friends had had décor just like it. Yet the play could be transposed into any era, capturing as it does the timeless themes of social aspiration and anxiety as well as of marital strife. Each of the characters is a perfect portrayal of misery or dissatisfaction glossed over with a veneer of middle-class respectability.

The comedy is slick and perfectly judged, much as I would expect from Posner after his superb revival of Noises Off at the Old Vic. The culmination of an increasingly tense and dramatic build-up, the play’s climax is still shocking – yet the cast manage to maintain the comedy right through until the end. As the alcohol flows and tempers rise the action becomes increasingly fraught; Beverly’s continual baiting of her husband throughout the night draws a dramatic reaction, while Tony’s dominance over wife Angela escalates. The final minutes of the play draw superb performances from the cast, in particular Halfpenny, and are totally riveting. Thirty five years on, Abigail’s Party is as good as ever.

Birthday at the Royal Court

Having spent the afternoon with my friend, who is studying to become a midwife, I headed off to the Royal Court to see Joe Penhall’s Birthday which details the experiences of a couple having a baby on an NHS ward. But Lisa and Ed’s is far from a normal pregnancy. As Lisa was left unable to have any more children after the difficult birth of their first son, Ed stepped up to the plate and nine months later is lying heavily pregnant in the same room that his wife had, induced and ready for a caesarean.

After an impactful start, the play did seem to lose direction and at 90 minutes long sometimes seemed more like a heavily extended sketch. Yet in general Birthday remained entertaining throughout (largely due to the talented Stephen Mangan, supported by Lisa Dillon, Llewella Gideon and Louise Brealey). Mangan was utterly believable as a pregnant man going into labour, capturing the pain, frustration and humiliation of his ordeal. Dillon, meanwhile, was pitch-perfect as the partner providing ineffectual but well-meaning support while struggling to put up with Mangan’s increasingly melodramatic responses to the situation. Brealey and Gideon were also excellent as the nervy registrar and laid-back midwife respectively.

Birthday perhaps plays too much on inverted gender stereotypes, although the role reversal does allow for an examination of the differing expectations of childbirth of the mother and father, that may have been less prominent if the play had featured a normal birth, and the switch is an ideal way to reveal the numerous double-standards that society takes for granted. The play also looks at the stresses that pregnancy and child-rearing put on a couple, with Mangan and Dillon making a totally believable partnership. If anything, the play brings to the fore the extent to which giving birth is a team effort, and the expectations and mutual reliance of the couple involved.

I’ve never been present at a labour, but recently became familiar with the workings of the NHS while sitting for an interminably long time with a friend in A&E overnight. Waiting to be seen by a doctor, and being ignored unless facing the repetitive round of questioning from nurses every couple of hours, is enough to push anyone over the edge, and I wasn’t the one in awful pain. I’ve also heard stories from the aforementioned midwifery student, that suggest giving birth in an NHS hospital can be far from a walk in the park (not that it ever could be…) despite the best efforts of overburdened staff. The maternity hospital in the play perfectly encapsulated the NHS’ pitfalls, but clever dialogue prevents the play from becoming one long rant.

Even the most routine of births is rather a dramatic occasion, and audiences are fascinated by One Born Every Minute. Yet Mark Lawson has suggested that while childbirth is “among the greatest and most important dramas of many people’s lives” it is “in theatrical terms, boring: in drama, there needs to [be] conflict, suspense, surprise”. While the gender twist in Birthday provides an element of surprise it occurs at the outset of the play. After the audience becomes used to a pregnant man, the play really becomes a straightforward look at the tensions and tribulations facing a couple going into childbirth.

Penhall himself has argued that it would be impossible to find backing for a play about a heterosexual couple giving birth to a healthy child. I’m not sure if the gender-reversal is enough to overcome the problems of creating a play around the birth of a child, and this may account for the play’s lack of direction. While there are complications in Ed’s delivery, on the whole the play comprises of the waiting that forms the bulk of most deliveries. Generally, however, Penhall’s witty dialogue and the superb performance from the cast make Birthday a thoroughly entertaining look at childbirth and relationships.

GATZ

Seeing Elevator Repair Service’s GATZ a couple of performances before the end of its six week London run, I was unsure what to expect. Staging it has been an epic achievement in itself; however while an eight-hour production is guaranteed to attract attention, whether it is an enjoyable experience is a different matter. The fact that GATZ held our attention for three times as long as a normal performance is testament to the writing of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, to the ingenuity of John Collins’ staging and the stamina of the cast (in particular the amazing endurance of Scott Shepherd). For those who have been involved with the project since its inception in the late ‘90s it is clearly a labour of love, and Shepherd has committed the entirety of the 49,000 word novel to memory.

Having booked the cheapest tickets for the performance, with a seat at the back of the Noël Coward Theatre’s balcony, I was slightly worried that after eight hours I’d come to regret my frugality. However, apart from the heads of those leaning forward I had a good view of the stage, and ample leg room. I wondered if the audience might thin after the dinner break, but in the balcony there were only a couple of newly vacant seats. While there were a few moments when the pace slowed and I found my attention drifting, on the whole GATZ was thoroughly engaging; I’ve sat through plays a third of the length that were far less interesting. Starting with an office worker who discovers a copy of the book and begins to read it aloud, his co-workers begin to occupy the roles of the characters. The office workers are under-developed, with the actors not coming to prominence until they take on the roles from the novel. Yet once they have, the cast tells the story effectively – evoking wealth and exuberance despite the dreary office backdrop.

Despite the excellent support of the rest of the cast, I felt that one of the most successful parts of the play was the end, which was effectively a half-hour monologue by Shepherd as he leaves the book and speaks directly to the audience. I heard a fellow audience member on the train sum up the experience well; that although he was glad he had been, and he had enjoyed the experience, he wasn’t sure that he could do it again. Which makes the commitment and stamina of the cast all the more astonishing.

Posh

Since its premiere at the Royal Court, Posh has been causing a stir. It’s highly entertaining, and also thought-provoking. I would describe the characters as caricatures, but they are perhaps all the more funny for the fact that people that extreme do exist (some of them are running the country). The performances are all excellent, and the boys are thoroughly convincing; they’ve perfected the demeanour and speech of the over-privileged, and ooze a sense of entitlement.

The play highlights the challenges facing the upper class, as the National Trust take over their houses and they are forced into internships and Numerical Reasoning Tests. However, it also lists the long history of challenges, such as industrialisation, that the upper class has overcome and this reinforces the underlying sense of the entrenched and immovable power of the upper classes.

The fact that Posh is part of an increasing fashion to poke fun at the privileged is acknowledged within the play itself. In the programme, Laura Barton talks about the increasing fascination with the upper class in recent years, citing examples such as Downton Abbey and Titanic – yet these programmes are all set in the past. As was the conclusion of Grayson Perry’s documentary on class, it seems that the upper class is intrinsically linked to their history. In the present, Made in Chelsea and Will and Kate have made posh ‘cool’, but this is posh as a fashion statement or a lifestyle rather than as a social and political reality. The posh occupy an aspirational lifestyle; this explains the nation’s fascination with Kate Middleton’s marriage into the monarchy.

Yet Barton also recognises how much reassurance and satisfaction we gain from having an upper class to rail against. Not only do they provide a useful scapegoat for our troubles but in a world of upheaval it is comforting to recognise the continuity and timelessness of the upper classes. Whatever your view of the upper classes, the message of Posh is clear: they’re here to stay.