Sunday, 16 January 2011

Fragments of Life

[This review of Ivor Noël Hume's recent autobiography will appear in the Times Literary Supplement next month. Cite this paper as Hicks, D. in press. Fragments of Life. Times Literary Supplement.]

Ivor Noël Hume. A Passion for the Past: the odyssey of a transatlantic archaeologist. University of Virginia Press, 2010. ISBN 978-0-8139-2977-4 (cloth) £26.95.

Ivor Noël Hume is famous as a British archaeologist who pioneered the archaeological study of the early modern American past. His autobiography brings his distinctive writing style to bear upon his own life and work. It describes a bleak and itinerant childhood, beginning in London in 1927, against which background Noël’s developing archaeological interests are introduced: a chance participation as a cub scout in the 1939 excavations at the Sutton Hoo Viking ship burial, collecting shrapnel after air battles, and explorations during Devon holidays at the deserted coastal village of Hallsands and the abandoned ruins of 19th-century Eggesford House.

Failed attempts to develop a career in the theatre prefigure the unemployed 22-year-old Noël’s ‘treasure hunting’ along the Thames foreshore in central London, donating what he collected to the Guildhall Museum. Offered a job at the Museum, and later joined by his wife Audrey, during the 1950s Noël became a pioneer of the archaeological ‘watching brief’. In workmen’s lunch breaks, at evenings and weekends, or ducking between machine bucket and trench, for eight years he collected and recorded archaeological remains exposed at construction sites in the Square Mile and beyond. Noël’s vivid anecdotal accounts of this nascent rescue archaeology, managed by Adrian Oswald and Ralph Merrifield and assisted by volunteers (the ‘Guildhall Irregulars’), feature coal sacks full of artefacts dragged from the Bankside Power Station site, a perfectly-preserved sparrow in peat below Walbrook Street, and a ‘Roman goat-skin bikini bottom’ from Queen Victoria Street. During the construction of the Lloyds Building in 1952, hundreds of bottles of port sealed after a fire in a pre-war wine merchant’s cellar are uncovered: the aroma drifts along Leadenhall Street ‘prompting wine connoisseur businessmen to stop, sniff, and smile’.

The Guildhall’s bitter rivalry with the London Museum, and especially with William Grimes’ Roman and Medieval London Excavation Council, is sketched. The adventurous ‘building site archaeology’ and Noël’s imaginative engagements with the press are contrasted with Grimes’ more scientific programme of controlled excavations at bombed-out sites, most famously at the Temple of Mithras. His account of the unrecorded destruction of the 1950s – what he calls the post-war ‘slaughter’ of London’s archaeological deposits – calls into question the response of Grimes and his colleagues. At the same time, Noël describes his growing commitment to post-Roman, and especially to post-medieval, archaeology, inspired by Oswald’s studies of seventeenth-century glassware and clay pipes.

The second half of the book reflects upon Noël’s activities after being hired in 1957, aged thirty, to direct the archaeological programme of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Some Guildhall themes resurface in Virginia. Difficulties with architectural historians, and with ‘anthropological’ approaches, recall earlier conflicts with Grimes, as Noël sets out his scepticism about programmatic or excessively scientific approaches, which downplay interpretation. He nicely explains how his interest in the seventeenth century was out of step first with the Roman and Medieval focus of London’s archaeologists, and then with the Georgian aspirations of Williamsburg preservationists. Indeed, much of his achievement in Virginia, especially in his excavations of Martin’s Hundred and Wolstenholme Towne at the Carter’s Grove site, was to reveal potential of the seventeenth-century archaeology of Virginia. But Noël also describes how the Guildhall’s failure to complete reports was reproduced in Williamsburg’s rescue activities. Combined with an excessive focus upon collecting and cataloguing artefacts, a habit learned from building site archaeology this has limited the impact of the extensive fieldwork undertaken by Noël at other sites in Virginia and beyond.

Despite the dearth of field reports, Noël’s ‘Virginia adventure’ produced a wide range of museum displays and popular publications, especially his 1970 Artefacts of Colonial America, which brought his broad knowledge of British material culture to an American readership. However, his 1969 introductory textbook, Historical Archaeology, was disliked by many because of its astonishing sexist comments on women in archaeology. An apology to what he calls the ‘anthropological bra burners’ is never quite provided here, and the book is predictably silent on African-American and indigenous history. Instead it repeats Noël’s more generalizing, but pioneering commitment to re-imagining ‘the broken and the commonplace’ as ‘tools to give post-medieval history a new dimension’.

The book concludes with regret for the changes at Williamsburg from the late 1970s, which redefined it ‘less as an ongoing restoration project than as a university campus, and regret for the closure of Colonial Williamsburg’s archaeological service in 2007, and regret for the selling-off of Carter’s Grove in 2008. Indeed, the book’s sustained melancholy reminds the reader that Noël’s vision of archaeology as ‘handmaiden to history’, rather than an anthropological pursuit, was wedded to a particular nostalgic vision of re-fitting the fragments of an imagined English past. With a degree of showmanship, he collides British 1940s counter-modernism with the latent colonial revivalism of 1950s Williamsburg. And while the empirical results of Noël’s ‘history with the dirt on’ were sometimes disappointing, his central role in establishing the archaeology of the modern period as a creative field of enquiry – grounded, in his famous phrase, in ‘the art and mystery of historical archaeology’ – is indisputable.

A Passion for the Past is a likable and honest account of an archaeological life. It re-states the humanism that lay at the heart of the 20th-century rescue and preservation movements: the persuasive suggestion that, as Noël has it, ‘artifacts have to be seen first as fragments of life and only afterward as potsherds to be scientifically studied’.

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