Pots speak to me of the past…and other reponses to archaeology

Archaeology can be many things to many people but it never anything less than an inspiration to most. As a museum curator I present the past in a variety of different ways to multiple audiences and I believe I do so using many creative forms of interpretation. Its not often, however that I am asked to respond creatively to it myself. In October last year I was invited to participate in a project called Sanctum which was summarised later as follows “A remarkable structure arose from within the bombed-out remains of Temple Church in Bristol. For 24 days, 24 hours a day, the site was transformed into an intimate place of listening, in which to hear the city like never before.” An amazing auditorium was constructed from recycled materials to provide a round the clock performance space. “How did an archaeologist get involved in that?” I hear you ask. I was approached by a group of local potters at Potstop to introduce them to some sherds of broken pottery that had been products of the kilns in and around the area of the church. The sherds were to act as a source of inspiration for the soundscape they intended to produce using a kick wheel, oral history recordings, music and readings. In the end I was asked to speak about the pots “but not in an academic way” as part of the live performance and so on the spur of the moment whilst sitting on a bench in a London park I penned a poem for the first time since I had been at school:BMG Q1844[vi].1250x1250

Pots speak to me of the past.

They have a language of their own …….through touch and texture, shape and form, through the stories that they tell ……revealed by the real and the imagined.

But which one should I choose for you? Which one would you like to hear?

Is it of the potter who having won the clay, worked, coiled and turned it, pinched and prodded, stabbed and slashed it, to create bases that are frilled, handles like straps, and spouts with faces just like you and I? But wait this one is a cow and that a monkey! So simply formed from a single piece of clay yet it betrays our city’s seafaring past,
modelled on a sailor’s exotic companion from a far off place.BMG Q1844[v].1250x1250

Then there are the scenes – a stag with tongue protruding, wild eyes bulging, running for its very life being pursued by a hunter, bow drawn and ready for the kill. 

Round and round the pot they go, for all eternity, the stag never caught and arrow never fired. Their story is wrought from nothing more than strips of clay and a potter’s imagination. Whose story were they trying to tell?

Pots speak to me of the past.

Of the people who found them, sorted, washed, glued and researched them and then placed them one by one in rank and file, on shelves, in boxes, in cabinets and cases and helped the curious who were keen to learn more. Matching the patterns, classifying the shapes, dating the forms and handling with gloves – carefully curatorial to protect them from us all so they might live to tell tales in the future.

Pots speak to me of the past.

Their lives are now fragmented, both by accident and by time but still so many questions!  Who dropped that pot down a well? Who poured water from the jug? Who ate from that bowl? Whose finger made the spaces where I can perfectly fit mine? They are an unbroken line, spanning thousands of years between me and those who made them then and to those who make them now.

Pots speak to me of the past…….and of today.

Fortunately the poem was really well received and I performed it live three times. I am very proud of the fact that it now hangs on the wall of the potters’ studio. I had though that my foray into the world of creative writing was going to be short-lived but not so. In October this year we will be hosting Warrior Treasures: Saxon Gold from the Staffordshire Hoard . There are so many questions to be asked about the hoard for which we have no answers so we will be using a piece of my creative writing to provoke visitors into thinking about what these might be – here’s the result:

warriorWhere do the warriors sleep?
Slain by the sword, perhaps a thousand fold or more,
forgotten in death,
names unknown…
their deeds unspoken…
at least by human breath.

Where do the warriors sleep?
Bodies broken in battle and trodden in mud,
picked over by victors,
weapons smashed,
their jewels plucked…
a bounty greedily shared.

Where do the warriors sleep?
Absent tales of mythical beasts, kings, heroes and fate,
misplaced in memory,
dulled by time,
just hidden secrets…
whispered only by trees.

Where do the warriors sleep?
Lost lives rudely awoken, revealed only by those who seek,
stumbling upon truths,
without knowing
some answers lie,
hovering just above the mist.

Somehow I think my “Poetry Pandora” alter ego may have been truly let out of the box…..but only for the sake of archaeology!