Referendum blues

Trying to understand who voted Leave and why – here are data from a survey by Lord Ashcroft of 12,000 people who voted:

It makes frightening reading. They are older, poorer, ill-educated and less in tune with the modern world or progressive 21st century concerns. There is a great disconnect between the London-based metropolitan political elite (of all parties) and large sections of the population. The rise of UKIP and the appeal of Boris Johnson show how dangerous this is. Politicians need to wake up and begin to address folk outside the Westminster bubble.

Party voters









Liberal Democrat












Those against




social liberalism















Those for




social liberalism


































Socio-economic group













University degree













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So that was 2014

2014 – a new start

So, what did 2014 bring? I began a new chapter in my life – going back to university to do a PhD (again: and before you ask, I did one in 1983-88 but never submitted it as I got a job and changed career direction).

The upside of going back to university was a comforting retreat into the academic bubble. I’d forgotten how much I’d missed it. The luxury of being able to focus on one thing in depth, to read, to think and to write. Being surrounded by other archaeologists is like a return to the nest; warm, comforting and safe. Being a lowly postgrad means not having management responsibilities and only a minimum of bureaucracy to deal with. Being part of a team of people – the Star Carr folk – is lovely. And they’re such a nice bunch of folk. Having a student railcard means I can now pass for 25 again!! Actually, all of the above have made me feel younger again with more energy and enthusiasm. If only I could get the grey out of my hair at the same time!

The downsides are less income, but I’m not a big spender anyway so that’s OK. Also, entering a new place with new people. For an introvert like me that can be quite scary. Allowing myself to get absorbed in research can make very obsessive and isolated. I was also very aware of being so much older than the rest – nothing to do with age, but everything to do with life experience and a long career in the so-called ‘real world’. I did not want to be the aged bore in the corner endlessly telling stories and warning the youngsters about what their future might look like. On the other hand, I do want to help and share what little experience I have with the rest if it would benefit them. Interesting social dynamics for a shy retiring type like me (I know others think I’m outgoing and gregarious, but that’s really a skilfully created front).

My impressions of the department and of postgrad life. In many ways not so different to my time in Sheffield in the 1980s. Archaeologists of any era are much the same. Hard working postgrads, approachable staff, a feeling of shared culture and fellowship, the interesting seminars and thought provoking presentations and occasional deep discussions. On the other hand, universities now are so much bigger than in the 1980s. There are far more staff and students. Where Sheffield was cosy, friendly and intimate, this is no longer possible and York is larger, less intimate and dispersed into groups of people who seldom meet or interact. This is simply an inevitable feature of modern higher education as the big business it has become. I wonder if it has also then lost something of its soul? Anyway, the department is a good place, with good people, and a lot of interesting research. It is humbling to be part of it.

The other postgrads are lovely people. Hard working. The major difference between now and the 1980s seems to be the social side. My 1980s was spent in an alcoholic haze of endless sessions in the pub and parties at people’s houses. There seems to be less of this these days. Postgrads seem to be more serious, alcohol is of course far more expensive now relative to incomes, and many postgrads have lives or families outside the university and archaeology.

My research has been so far highly interesting and great fun. I’ve done a lot of reading on new topics and written a lot of words – whether they mean anything is hard to say at the moment. It’s good to know I can still put in that amount of concentration and effort. I also know I need to guard against obsessively working and shutting out the rest of the world. Highlights so far – spending a fortnight digging at Star Carr (iconic site, hard work, great team of people and fun), giving presentations at some primary schools to enthusiastic 7-8 year-olds, teaching a module to a small group of MA students, having new thoughts about how archaeology is communicated and delving deeply into the academic literature on the Mesolithic since 1866.

What else did I do in 2014? Oh yes, I helped in a small way as a consultant on a project to produce online resources for teaching using Japanese archaeology. This was a fun project, and the end result is impressive (and mostly the work of a very hard working Japanese archaeologist Oki Nakamura, and a talented web-design team). I also wrote a book on the archaeology of Britain for AltaMira Press in the USA which took a lot of time and effort (and will appear on the bookshelves at Easter this year). I gave three fun lectures at Leicester University, judged two sites for the Sandford heritage education awards, gave advice to a historic property in Aldborough as a Historic Houses Association learning advisor, attended meetings of the Archaeology and Engagement Panels of the National Trust, did some judging for the British Archaeological Awards and handed over the reigns of the CASPAR at UCL to the brilliant Chiara Bonnachi. I aso continued as a Governor of Millthorpe School in York where we had a highly successful Ofsted visit earlier in the year. In all of these, I continue to be amazed and delighted at the dedication, enthusiasm and skill of everyone involved in heritage education and interpretation, and in the hard work of amazingly skilled teachers. In comparison, I always feel somewhat inadequate myself but do what I can to help. (Note to self – I must actually try and do less this year and give more time for the PhD).

This is already way too long and I doubt anyone in their right mind will read this, but I needed to give myself an overview of the year and get it all off my chest.

Onwards into 2015 – looking forward to it.

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Archaeology and the modern condition

Some reading for my PhD left me once again inspired. A piece by Sir Grahame Clark in 1943 on what archaeology could contribute to school education after the war.

Clark, J G D 1943 “Education and the study of man”, Antiquity 17 (67): 113

“we stand on the threshold of what could be a new world: whether we cross that threshold or are elbowed back into the dark passage that leads to another holocaust, depends primarily on our attitude to education, on the steps taken during the next few years to bring to the common man everywhere a realization of inheritance as a citizen of the world and an awareness of his power to mould his own destiny. What is needed above all is an overriding sense of human solidarity such as can come only from consciousness of common origins. Divided we fall victims to tribal leaders: united we may yet move forward to a life of elementary decency.”

Yes, archaeology has a great deal to teach us of real importance – more than simply conserving a historic environment, imagining how it felt to experience the past or refining a pottery typology. I wrote this in 2011 without realising Clark had beaten me to it, and expressed it so much better –

“There have been archaeologists, and still are, who are seduced by nationalist and racist ideologies, and use their archaeology to bolster extreme views. However, the greatest thing we can learn from our past is that we share a common identity. Underneath the varied patterns of human culture, lies a basic unity of behaviour and shared experiences. At a time when our television news screens deliver an almost daily diet of inhumanity by people to each other; this is surely something worth stating over and over again.”

In Henson, D 2011b “The educational purpose of archaeology: a personal view from the United Kingdom”, in A Matsuda & K Okamura (eds.) New perspectives in global public archaeology, New York: Springer: 217-226

As I watch in despair at the TV screens yet again in 2014, I wish the world had listened to Clark back in 1943. But then at heart I remain a despairing, pessimistic yet utterly naive idealist.

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A student again!

So, today I begin life as a student again. I begin my PhD research on public perceptions of the Mesolithic at York University under Nicky Milner. It really is exciting. The topic is set by Nicky – it’s a collaborative doctoral award, so fully funded and run jointly between the University and York Archaeological Trust. I’ve been doing a lot of reading to get up to date with the Mesolithic. In some ways, not a lot has changed. In other ways, it has. Some new sites and finds, some new theoretical approaches. It’s so good to be getting back to grips with prehistory though, and to have three years to do something in-depth again. Bliss! I suspect I shall need extra supplies of chocolate to fuel my brain cells. I know a few of the folk at York, and am looking forward to getting the know the rest.

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British Archaeological Awards for 2104

Nominations for the 2014 British Archaeological Awards are now open.

The 2014 British Archaeological Awards will take place on Monday 14
July 2014 at the British Museum and is one of the key events of the
Council for British Archaeology’s annual Festival of Archaeology.

Nominations close midday on Friday 28 February 2014.
The British Archaeological Awards are grateful to our sponsors for
enabling us to celebrate the best in archaeology across the United

Best Public Presentation of Archaeology 2014
For a television or radio programme, computer program or website,
newspaper or magazine feature which stimulates interest, advances
understanding and changes perceptions of the past. Judges will be
looking for evidence of the following:

Contribution to spreading knowledge of the past in the UK by
archaeological means
Includes recent research or provides a new interpretation of old
Enhances public education and understanding in relation to archaeology
Clear and stimulating presentation
High design, production and editorial standards
Accessibility and appeal for its intended audience
Originality of approach

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EAA 2013 in Plzen

I’m back now from the European Association of Archaeologists conference in Plzen. It was in a lovely city, small and not oriented for tourism, but with lovely buildings in the old town.The way out to the university was lined with very nice Art Nouveau buildings with a hint of Art Deco.

The conference was at the University of West Bohemia. They coped well with 1,300 delegates and the organisation was well handled. The army of student helpers were superb. I missed the lithics sessions I wanted to see as I was co-chairing and present a paper in the morning and completely chairing an afternoon session that clashed with them. Still, we had good papers and very good discussion, well worth organising the sessions.

There is a growing interest in public archaeology in the rest of Europe, especially driven by the  possibilities presented by digital communications technology. The context for a publicly engaged archaeology is very different than in the UK where community archaeology has become embedded in recent years.

The best paper I saw was by Antastasia Chourmouziadi from Thessaloniki who gave a moving account of what the economic problems of Greece have mean for archaeologists and the relevance of archaeology. For all that we love to complain and that there are difficulties in the UK, we are so well off and thriving by comparison!

On a more personal note, it was also good to see my book on sale and being sold. It was also good to see old friends again. And thanks to Paloma and Marina for looking after me when I was a little ill!

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Painful heritage


I had a recent trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau. There was much to think about at both sites. Both represent very painful heritage, a history of barbarity and industrial killing on an unimaginable scale. Part of me went round both sites responding as any other human being might. Another part of me was fascinated by both sites as examples of heritage interpretation. These are a few of my thoughts.

What is the purpose of both sites? Are they memorials? Are they a political message? Are they sources of tourist income? Are any of these in conflict with the others? Are the camps themselves the memorials, or the displays placed within the camp buildings? Which moves the visitor to remember and respect the dead? Is authenticity an important part of the memorial function?

As memorials, I found the physical remains of the camps to be powerful. For me, it was important to stand were the dead once stood, to touch the fabric of the site that the dead once touched, to see the steps down into the changing rooms outside the gas chamber, to touch the walls inside the only still standing gas chamber. Next in power was the display of the mountain of 80,000 shoes in huge glass cases, and the 2 tonnes of human hair. The interpretation panels for me were, by comparison, more intellectual and less emotive. So, does it matter that the ovens in crematorium 1 are reconstructions and that the gallows in the Auschwitz yard are likewise? I can’t decide.

What messages do both camps deliver? That such barbarity should not be allowed to happen again is an obvious answer. But is that too simplistic? Can messages be made more powerful? Is the subliminal message that these inhuman acts were the responsibility of the Nazis and that as the Nazis no longer exist such things cannot happen again? In other words, is the interpretation to historically specific, too contextualised to have wider power? The message surely is that such acts have occurred throughout time and that what was different about this instance was the availability and mis-use of industrial technology. A more humanistic and more powerful message might result if examples of other genocides were referenced in the displays.

These sites are tourist sites, where large numbers of group tours as well as individuals mill around. Both sites are crowded. This certainly takes away from the ability to contemplate the site. At least at Birkenau the site is so huge that you can go to quiet parts of the site and its emotive power is greatly increased.

Which site is more powerful? Auschwitz was a concentration camp while Birkenau was the much bigger extermination camp. Auschwitz has the displays, complete accommodation blocks etc. Birkenau only has a few blocks still standing, with a few rebuilt, but does have the dynamited remains of the main gas chambers, and railway tracks and gateway that symbolise so much.

Birkenau’s sheer sizes overwhelms the mind. Being able to stand by the remains of the gas chambers, left as they were found is very powerful. But Auschwitz has the chilling execution yard, enclosed and easy to imagine the shootings that took place there, although the shooting wall is a reconstruction which takes away some of its power for me.


Is it right to focus on the victims?

That may seem a daft question. Of course we should focus on the victims. But, I remain unsettled by that. I want to know why it happened. I want to know why thousands of ordinary people could put on a uniform and take part in the processing and murder of millions of human beings. I want to hear the voice of the guards, of the Nazis, to know why this could happen. Who were the guards? What kind of backgrounds did they come from? Were they all brutal psychopaths? Were any capable of any decency? Only when we understand the perpetrators can we make sure that things like this can never happen again.


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