Durham University

Excavating the Great Depression in England

Photo of the Jarrow unemployment march. Image from www.workerspower.co.uk

Photo of the Jarrow unemployment march. Image from www.workerspower.co.uk

Since 2013, Dr. David Petts (Department of Archaeology, Durham University) and I have been building a project to study the landscapes and material remains of the Great Depression in the Northeast of England. One of the defining historical events of the 20th century, the Great Depression is often associated in the US with the stock market crash of 1929, bread lines, shanty towns, and eventually, the New Deal and creation of the modern social welfare state. In the UK, the situation was slightly different. For one thing, parts of England had been in poor economic straits since a slump that followed World War I. Likewise, the Great Depression in the UK was highly regionalized in its effects, with areas like the Northeast seeing extremely high unemployment, while other areas saw only modest drops in unemployment. And responses to the depression were likewise regionalized–there were almost no national policy initiatives on the order of the New Deal in the US.

But there were responses at regional and local levels, and most importantly for our purposes, many of these responses involved changes to the landscape. They involved the construction of work camps, new settlements to house the unemployed, works projects that improved infrastructure, and much more. The Great Depression was a material event, and a record of it is recoverable archaeologically. This has certainly been the case in other parts of the wold, where a growing literature exists from archaeologists who have tackled the Great Depression through sites created in its wake. Much of this literature likewise shows that responses to the Great Depression were neither altruistic nor completely embraced by participants. For example, my colleagues LouAnn Wurst and Christine Ridarsky (2014) have evaluated attempts at farm resettlement in western New York state to improve the lives of “poor” farmers during the 1930s and found that the farmers were not actually that poor to begin with, and that the plan was largely about regional land grabbing. Barker and Lamb (2009) used data from an unemployment camp in Queensland, Australia to complicate the concept of the “undeserving” and “deserving” poor. And St. Denis (2002) showed how, despite the best efforts of the administrators of the Prince Albert logging camp in Saskatchewan, excavations show that workers drank and smoked when they could get away with it, perhaps offsetting anxieties about the larger economy with sociality and revelry.

In the U.K., there has been almost no archaeological study of sites related to the Great Depression, and no systematic accounting of such sites. David and I are hoping to change that with a project that will examine a few case studies where individuals and groups tried to ameliorate the awful conditions of the Depression through changes in the landscape. And when we started looking into the types of sites we could incorporate into our study, we were astounded at their variety and scale. There were proper work camps such as the one at Hamsterley forest, educational settlements and training schemes such as the Spennymoor settlement, resettlement and agricultural schemes such as the Moorhouse Farm settlement in Eaglescliffe (Perley 1985), and much more. Some of these schemes came from national programs and initiatives such as the Special Areas Act of 1934, which designated certain parts of the UK as regions in need of assistance. Others were local, set up by individuals and groups with an interest in curbing the worst excesses of the economic downturn.

We are working on funding a project to examine some of these places, but we have already had some success with an early case study: Heartbreak Hill, near Margrove Park village in the East Cleveland region of North Yorkshire (Chase and Whyman 1991, Chase 2000, Chase 2010). David has written about the history of this site, as have other bloggers. Suffice it to say, this was a combination work camp/allotment scheme for unemployed Ironstone miners, part of a larger scheme of three parcel areas called the Community Cultivation Association. Set up by a local wealthy landlord and his wife (James and Ruth Pennyman of Ormesby Hall), it was run and managed by British naturalist, folk scholar, and arch-conservative Rolf Gardiner. It included amongst its participants the composer Michael Tippett, and it ran for much of the 1930s, possibly longer. Today the land on which the site sits is unimproved hilly pasture, and it had not been significantly utilized prior to the 1930s, so David and I suspected that there might be some pieces of the depression-era landscape still present on the surface or underneath.

Map2Map showing the locations of the CCA parcels, from Petts and Lewis 2013.

We received a small grant from the Institute of Advanced Study at Durham University to undertake geophysical survey and compile some background research. Earlier this year, a survey team from Durham’s Archaeological Services used magnetometry to survey part of the site. The results, visible in the map below, are suggestive of several subsurface human-deposited features. According to the geophysical analysis, the anomalies in the southwest corner of Area 1, all of Area 2, and the North-Central part of Area 4 represent likely areas of deposition of some kind of material with a magnetic signaturem, perhaps architectural refuse. Further testing in these areas may allow us to determine the exact nature of these anomalies.

Map3 GeophysMap showing geophysical results at Heartbreak Hill.

However, David and I were also intrigued by many of the standing or visible structures present in the field today. We found numerous brick huts scattered across the site, as well as other scatters of brick and stone that may represent ruined outbuildings from the allotment scheme. The brick structures below are similar in design, but are separated by nearly a half mile, on parcels of land used for completely different purposes today. What they have in common is that they are both in areas that were used during periods of CCA activity.

Brick comparisonPhotos showing similar brick structures on Heartbreak Hill and Dartmoor Parcels, respectively

We also noticed several portable items of material culture that one would not expect to be present on unimproved pasture-land. During a rudimentary surface survey, we noticed white-bodied 19th/early 20th century ceramics, a glass medicine bottle, and fragments of coal. One of the most striking finds was a linear scatter of bricks running over 10 meters in one of the current fields. This scatter, visible in the photo below, was later confirmed by Mark Whyman, one of the authors of a book on Heartbreak Hill (Chase and Whyman 1991), to be in the same location as a brick-lined garden plot setup by the CCA.

bricks

David and I are optimistic that there is more work to be done at Heartbreak Hill and perhaps at the other CCA parcels. One thing we would like to do is put together a community-led recording project to carefully document each of the standing structures and ruins at the site. This could be combined with further testing at the site to see if there are more subsurface remains to be found. Depending upon how extensive the archaeological record is, we are also interested in more social and political questions. We are particulary interested in how the miners who worked at the site made it their own–for example, were they able to bring items from home, or to otherwise mark off pieces of this “collective” allotment scheme as theirs? Such questions could also be asked at many of the other sites mentioned earlier, and we hope to have the opportunity to investigate them soon.

Aside from archaeology being a novel way to investigate the Great Depression, we find ourselves more broadly comparing the kinds of responses that were attempted in the 1930s to the current attempts to intervene in the most recent economic downturn, now in its sixth year. These have largely inhabited the arcane world of monetary policy, or have involved the dismantling of government programs, some of which were first initiated during the Great Depression, under the heading of “austerity”. We do not have any strong conclusions to draw in this comparison, but we are struck by the ways in which place-making seemed to be such a strong aspect of 1930s responses–for example, Heartbreak Hill was named for the difficult conditions of its production, while the other parcels were named for local flora. Conversely, many of the contemporary responses have been about de-territorializing–allowing, encouraging, or forcing the free flow of money across borders, out of public institutions, and out of the hands of individuals and communities in the name of laissez faire capitalism, regardless of historical or spatial circumstances. In any case, we believe that an archaeology of the Great Depression can locate the contingent, complex, and contradictory landscapes that emerged in its wake, and allow us to understand the Great Depression at a more human scale.

This article originally appeared on my blog on the Day of Archaeology 2014.

REFERENCES

Barker, Bryce, and Lara Lamb (2009) The Archaeology of Poverty and Human Dignity: Charity and the Work Ethic in a 1930s Depression Era Itinerant’s Camp on the Toowoomba Range Escarpment, Queensland. Archaeologies: The Journal of the World Archaeological Congress 5(2): 263–279.

Chase, Malcom (2000) Heartbreak Hill: Environment, Unemployment and “Back to the Land” in Inter-war Cleveland. Oral History 28(1): 33–42.

Chase, Malcom (2010) Unemployment without protest: the ironstone mining communities of East Cleveland in the inter-war period. In Unemployment and Protest: New Perspectives on Two Centuries of Contention, edited by M Reiss and M Perry, pp. 265–282. Oxford Univeristy Press, Oxford, U.K.

Chase, Malcom, and Mark Whyman (1991) Heartbreak Hill: A Response to Unemployment in East Cleveland in the 1930s. Cleveland County Council.

Perley, Doris (1985) The Moorhouse Farm Estate, Eaglescliffe. Unpublished Dissertation in Local History. Teesside Polytechnic.

Petts, David and Quentin Lewis (2013) “Heartbreak Hill: Towards an Archaeology of the Great Depression” Paper presented at the Contemporary and Historical Archaeological Theory Conference, University College London, London, UK.

St. Denis, Michael (2002) Camp #9: An Historical and Archaeological Investigation of a Depresion Era Relief Camp in Prince Albert National Park. Unpublished MA, Department of Anthropology and Archaeology, University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.

Wurst, LouAnn and Christine L. Ridarsky (2014) “The Second Time as Farce: Archaeological Reflections on the New New Deal.” International Journal of Historical Archaeology 18:3, pp. 224-241.
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Medieval & Post Medieval artefacts from the River Wear, Durham City

Shakespeare’s  famous line; ‘Once more unto the breach‘ taken from Henry V, Act III, 1598 captures my #dayofarch 2011 quite nicely! For my breach is also associated with a gap in a high city wall or perhaps more accurately a 850 year gap that still to this day forms the main  thoroughfare in to the heart of a historical medieval city.

I  am actually talking about Elvet a medieval bridge built around 1160 by Bishop Hugh Du Puiset; once guarded by gate and tower protecting the historic City of Durham. Why once more? Simply because it has been a three year exploration by me of the River Wear as it flows under Elvet Bridge and around the stunning peninsular that forms the World Heritage Site. The sole purpose of the explorations many often undertaken in extremely challenging conditions using sub-aqua diving equipment is to recover medieval and post medieval artefacts  from the river bed.

My #dayofarch should have actually been much different but for a late cancellation I was due to be some 270 miles south in the study rooms of the British Museum in London researching their collection of lead cloth seals. As it happened Friday 29th July started quite early enough as I had to take my daughter Sarah to Newcastle airport to catch an 8 a.m.  flight. Then followed a 74 mile drive south for a hastily re-arranged family day out in another historic city this time York. Fortunately my detour from archaeology was not terminal as I was kindly  allocated 60 precious minutes to take in the Roman and medieval splendours of the Yorkshire Museum.

Arriving back in Durham City where I live at 6.p.m. was actually quite good timing as it meant that the bulk of the river traffic – tourists on hired rowing boats, Durham University peeps with their torpedo like super fast 8s and the dreaded Prince Bishops river cruise boat with its huge propeller should have pretty much vacated the stretch of river I am currently excavating.

Strangely for this time of year I had not actually dived for the best part of three weeks. My previous dive was done with TV cameras following my every move both above and under the water not to mention spending much of the day discussing medieval river artefact’s with the delightful historian and broadcaster Bettany Hughes! And so as any diver will tell you pulling a diving drysuit on after a prolonged spell of inactivity is no easy nor pleasant task.

My usual entry point in to the river this late in to the summer was now heavily overgrown; Himalayan balsam seed pods exploded violently all around me as I picked out a path through the now giant plants down the steep bank to the water’s edge. My usual (just submerged) rock clearly visible through the clear water was still in situ, as indeed it  has been for the last three years; it’s partially flattened upper surface proving an ideal platform to sit and put my fins and dive mask on.

The last thing a diver needs at this point is to realise that their cylinder first stage valve is not open. However, complacency is a real danger and a full kit check had been carried out back at the car park – my demand valve fed me cool air. I spat in to my dive mask and gave it a rub before rinsing it in the river water and shaking it dry and in less than 18 minutes from leaving home I slipped under the water – again!

My first thoughts were wow how warm is the water and great the underwater visibility is superb! A thin deposit of silt no more than .5 cm deep lay like newly fallen snow on the river bed, its pale brown colour suggesting a peaty origin. Heavy rain fall two weeks earlier in the area of the Pennines near the source of the river was almost certainly the culprit. I remember not being too deterred by the silt deposit I had seen it many times before, a few fin strokes around the gully I had planned to continue searching would send it off downstream.

The flow of water at my dive site is unusually slow, the current held back by a series of weirs further downstream. Within 3 minutes of entering the water I  was positioned directly above the gully I was looking for. I call them gullies for an obvious reason as they are quite simply a series of narrow channels worn in the sandstone bedrock by centuries of water passing over it. Some gullies are wider, while some gullies are deeper than the others.

Conditions this evening 2 m underwater on the river bed were as good as they probably ever get. Although the visibility is really important much of the work I do  underwater recovering the artefact’s is very physical; imagine working intensely for an average of around 140 minutes in one single location. Concentration is  essential, meticulously picking through pebble after pebble looking for artefact’s that quite often can measure as little as 1 cm. You cannot simply drift off in a day dream thinking about what’s for supper when I get out or how  many goals will Sunderland put past Newcastle when they meet at the Stadium of Light in August. Forget nitrogen narcosis or the bends the one really dangerous threat to diving in the river is the possibility of being struck by the propeller of the Prince Bishops boat. However, if you maintain your concentration throughout the dive you will pick up the faint chuk chuk chuk the boats engine makes well before it gets anywhere close, giving you plenty of time to swim off to the safe shallow river edges.

So what medieval or post medieval artefact’s did I recover on #dayofarch Friday 29th July 2011 from a single gully formed in the sandstone riverbed? In short tonight’s haul was fantastic! predominately from a 16th century origin they were in the main made up of dress accessories, items linked to trade, industry and a few pieces of broken pottery. These ceramics are just as
important as they help date the artefact’s as they come out of the stratified layers.

The picture below shows tonight’s haul – yes from only one dive! I only just managed to capture enough of the setting sunlight to take the picture so apologies if it’s not the best. As you can see the haul is predominately made up of small finds. The first artefact that I picked up was nicely decorated 16th/17th century button which was quickly followed by a lovely small copper alloy coin weight with what appears to be 3 fleur-de-lys within a shield beneath a crown. Several pins quickly followed (twisted wire  head type) as is the norm for this area, then some nice decorated mounts. The mounts  are prolific and appear to be unused. Although the majority of mounts I find are copper alloy like the star shaped one pictured; several are actually lead and the two small lead mounts found this evening show a typical five pellets on  the top.

It’s my theory that the majority of the dress accessories I am finding are new or should I say have never been used. They almost certainly were items that were once offered for sale by a trader or local merchant very possibly located on Elvet Bridge itself.  A classic example of these ‘unsold’ artefacts are the many small ‘beaded’ mounts, the stems of which remain straight – had they been pushed through a leather strap for example the stems would have been bent at right angles to effectively hold them in place.

Only pausing to remove a small sliver of glass that embedded its self in my finger I continued to recover artefacts at a rate of approximately one per minute (I wonder if  anyone else in the world found more artefacts that me today?). The main focus for me on every dive is to try to find more lead cloth seals. The reason is simple as I now have a significant assemblage of medieval and post medieval cloth seals all recovered from the same stretch of the river. Two weeks ago I was at the Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum researching their collection of
177 lead cloth seals mainly recovered from the water channels that run through the medieval city. Prior to this evenings dive my total number of cloth seals stood at 171 – unbelievably I found seven tonight! Who’s the daddy now! Two of tonight’s cloth seals are really interesting, one seal features a standing man possibly holding a spear and a second seal appears to be a dragon or griffin rampant to the left. Hopefully I can find some parallels in Geoff Egan’s Occasional Paper 93!

I should point out that previous to my early discoveries of cloth seals only two others had been recorded on the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) database as being recovered north of Yorkshire and only one of those was in County Durham. Research to date indicates that the cloth seals in my collection appear to have arrived in Durham City from as early as the 15th century continuing right through until the 18th century. Arriving attached to cloth from locations across England and Europe for example Augsburg in Germany.

The seven cloth seals that I found this evening were clustered in a stratified layer which also contained a really strange lead alloy mount. I am only calling it a mount for  the time being as it has a bent stem or pin on the reverse. The front features a face of what could easily be described as a cherub; you may be able to see it third from the bottom right hand side of the picture, (I will add another picture of it tomorrow) any suggestions of what it could be would be appreciated.

Just below this stratified layer the finds as you would guess should be older and this may well be the case with the four or five circular form buckles (see Egan 2002, P.58 (28)) that I found. Although the central iron pins are missing many others similar in style yet complete buckles  have been found very near to this gulley and they are almost certainly dated from the early 15th Century. A lead spindle whorl was also found at the same depth as the buckles, this singular find bring the total of lead spindle whorls recovered to 32 most unlike this one most are decorated with  pellets.

The only distraction to recovering tonight’s artefacts was the need to keep checking my air contents plus some crazy person throwing stones at the point of the river where my  exhaled air bubbles hit the surface. The stones make a loud plopping noise and  fall harmlessly to the river bed around me – I never surface to see who throws the stones for the fear of being hit on the head, strangely it is something that happens more often than not!

Many small pieces of waste lead were found, a few of which were window came, other finds include; tools (possibly for working with leather), a knife, twisted copper alloy loops, lead tokens – one with a nice anchor, a solid cast (bi-convex head) button Circ. 1650, a partial horse shoe, a copper alloy rivet, a circular lead alloy pan-weight, iron nails, a fragment of a jug handle and iron key. It will take me around two weeks to clean the artefacts, bag then record them.

There is a serious side to my endeavours in the river; it is not just a crazy dangerous hobby. For the last three years many artefacts have been loaned to Durham University Archaeology Department where their MA students have researched then as part of their studies. In addition and by working very  closely with my Finds Liaison Officer  Frances McIntosh to date 350  artefacts have been added to the PAS database. All being well in 2012 I am set to undertake an MA by Research in to the assemblage perhaps focusing on the considerable lead cloth seal collection.

The finds that have been recovered so far total over 2000 artefacts and will without doubt help to re-write the history books of Durham. If you are a small finds expert and would  like to help identify many of the unusual artefacts then please do get in touch  garybankhead@360.com plus you can follow news of the assemblage and indeed what
my latest discoveries are by following me at twitter.com/garybankhead

I hope you have enjoyed reading about my Day of Archaeology 2011!

River artefacts

Artefacts recovered on #dayofarch