Inherited Places

The inspiration for my doctoral thesis came from a personal sense of concealed local histories and an interest in the ways archaeology is narrated and made visible or accessible.

How does a landscape of Prehistoric artefacts reflect the experience of place, heritage, and changing meanings for people who left traces thousands of years ago, and for people now?

Uxbridge in the 1980s was a place and time where not much happened – according to my 16-year-old self. I would spend my weekends hanging around the town centre, with no idea that around the corner one of the most important Mesolithic sites in SE England was being excavated. It was to my surprise, many years later, to find a collection of artefacts from Three Ways Wharf, Uxbridge, on display at the Museum of London. I couldn’t understand how this had escaped my attention. I had visited what I thought were all the important Prehistoric, or rather, Neolithic, sites in Britain and Ireland; Stonehenge, Newgrange, Skara Brae etc., and yet here on my doorstep was a place of monumental significance. Three Ways Wharf, however, does not generally feature on the radar of local communities; there were, and are, no school field trips to it. Local heritage trails don’t reference it, and Google Maps had it randomly situated in the middle of a roundabout. Because it is a Mesolithic site and it is buried in a suburban business plot, it does not generally figure in public perceptions of Prehistory.

…mapping these sites and spot finds using ArcMap GIS software was great for analysis of my data… for wider audiences these visuals were not as accessible or evocative as I would have liked them to be.

The ‘Pre’ histories presented in my thesis were taken from local Historic Environment Records (HERs). While these records are predominantly a product of commercial gravel extraction and developer-led archaeology, they also include random finds from gardens, allotments, fields and unploughed moorland, collections of artefacts from groups and societies, antiquarians, collectors, and archaeologists. Consequently, the material needed bringing together somehow, and although mapping these sites and spot finds using ArcMap GIS software was great for analysis of my data, and worked for presentations to students and academics, for wider audiences these visuals were not as accessible or evocative as I would have liked them to be.

Figure 1: A screenshot showing a custom trail named ‘Walking in Mesolithic Footprints’.

I came across the Layers of London project first through the Thames Discovery Programme, and later through a GIS methodology workshop at Birkbeck College, University of London. Being London-based I was interested in the project itself, but also in the software, which could be used to make my research more accessible. I wanted to show artefact locations through photographs, illustrations, and documents on a map, and to find ways to connect odd finds (in allotments, for example), to what was going on at larger sites such as Three Ways Wharf. I was extremely excited when a year or so after this workshop I received an email asking for volunteers to trial Humap, a similar interactive mapping platform from the developers of Layers of London, which was being modelled with academic researchers and academic research maps in mind. I met with Miriam and Martin from Humap, and after an introduction to the world of tray views, record creation, and collections creation, I was given free rein to create my very own Humap!

Figure 2: A screenshot showing the second custom trail: ‘Neolithic landscapes.’

I found the admin back pages fairly easy to navigate, and with some guidance and the addition of map overlays, I was soon very excited to get an email from Martin to let me know that I could now create my own Mesolithic heritage trails in Uxbridge. Humap worked perfectly with my research and performs as a medium between academic and developer-led archaeology, and public access to lesser-known Prehistories. It also gave me a more immediate and human dimension of visual analysis, particularly in terms of how people might have moved between places. I’ve now submitted my thesis and finally have time to try out some of these ancient routeways!

Image credits

Walking in Mesolithic footprints images

  • Watercolour by Frank Gardner, Museum of London ‘Valley of the River Colne, Southern England, 8000 BC’
  • Photograph of Sandstone blades is my own image. Artefacts from Franks House, Museum of London
  • Line drawing is from A.D. Lacaille (1961) ‘Mesolithic Facies in Middlesex and London’ Figure 2: Flint industry from Dewe’s pit, south Harefield
  • Photograph of Three Ways Wharf is credited to Martin Bates while he was working for Museum of London Archaeology Service

Neolithic landscapes images

  • Photograph of Stanwell cursus (top image) is credited to Framework Archaeology
  • Photograph of Peterborough Ware pottery from Caesars Camp is credited to Museum of London Collections: ID 49.87/29
  • Photograph of Fengate pottery from Manor Farm, Horton is credited to British Museum online: 1990, 1009.3