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Poet as Archaeologist Studio Blog

This autumn, I’m thinking about what poets can learn from archaeologists and their discoveries. Poet as Archaeologist Studio will be a chance to generate new work, read and discuss poems and get feedback on your drafts. It will also be an opportunity to consider how a different discipline might inform our writing.

I spent my teenage summers on archaeological digs. Much of this was luck. I was a short train ride from the Surrey Heath Archaeology and Heritage Trust in Bagshot. They had taken over a vast crumbling police station that had been built to look like a Queen Anne dolls’ house. Rumour said it had been designed with unnecessary beauty to placate a local aristocrat. Inside was a dilapidated mix of bright sash windows and poor strip-lighting. There were rooms with overflowing wall-mounted book shelves. Piles of box folders. Archaeological finds were kept in brown cardboard boxes in the old police cells. There was a small museum with a tray of Roman pottery which a child could rootle through, each piece with a minute finds number dutifully written on in black or white ink. There was a reproduction iron-age loom which stood half-way through the same weaving project for my entire adolescence. One summer, we built a full-sized iron age roundhouse in the overgrown garden, squishing claggy clay with straw to make daub.

It was natural that I would graduate to help with ‘real’ archaeology. Starting with ‘finds processing’, washing objects from previous digs in cold water, in a freezing room, in winter. Also, ‘field walking’, walking across newly ploughed fields looking for objects of interest (think agrarian mudlarking, except where you find things is more important than what). There was ‘marking’, writing the find numbers on tile, pottery and bone, with a metal dip pen, in the smallest handwriting possible. And, eventually, in gloriously hot summers, there was digging. I started on boring levels where I could be trusted not to destroy anything important. Digging with a trowel involves scraping earth into a hand-shovel like sweeping up with a dustpan and brush. By my late teens I was on digs for weeks at a time. We were a mix of volunteers and university students, with professionals keeping us on the straight and narrow. Meanwhile, I was wondering what to do at university.

There is a stereotype of the poet starving in a garret, but the real archaeologist is sleeping on site in a tent, in all weathers, and has developed arthritis by their 30s. Every professional archaeologist I met was trying to escape: into academia, into an office job, even into estate agency. Besides, I’d got the poetry bug. I felt there was a vast written ocean out there and so far, I’d only got as far as the A Level syllabus. I was itching to make things out of words and thought an English Literature degree might help. So, I didn’t take my archaeological training further. However, I suspect there are ways in which my early archaeological enthusiasm has informed my writing.

Yes. I know. Heaney has the Poetry as Digging metaphor covered.

But it’s not just about digging. It’s how you dig. It’s the 1% digging to 99% processing everything you’ve found ratio. It’s the state of preparation: the field walking, the map scrutinizing, the records work, you do before you dig down into the unknown.

It’s the knowledge that the bit that survives, the pieces that are left for you to work with, are not the pieces you would have chosen to survive.

It’s understanding that when something is really important, people still record it by drawing it on paper. Yes, even now. The human eye can discern, and a drawing can record what has been discerned, whereas a photograph is just a fancy way of measuring different levels of light.

It’s about how to (re)create a world from fragments.

It’s in the self-honesty. It’s being trained to record what’s there. Not what you thought was there. Not what you’d hoped was going to be there. Because once the dig is over, all the patterns in the soil and the objects’ positions in the earth will be gone. Your record is all a stranger will have left – your work must be so crisp; they will be able to see things that you yourself couldn’t have known were there.    

Book here for Holly Hopkin’s course ‘Poet as Archaeologist Studio’, running as part of our Autumn Term 2022.

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