MGM 2003 - Digging Science At Wakefield Museum

By Anna Goodall | 08 May 2003
Shows a photograph of an excavated skeleton in situ.

Left: pots and arrow heads are one thing, but you can't beat a good skeleton to get the archaeological juices flowing! Just ask Dr Mike Parker-Pearson who made this find of a lifetime that turned out to be a mummy. © Dr Mike Parker-Pearson.

You've only got a few days left, so get yourselves down to this fascinating show before May 11. Anna Goodall did and this is what she thought.

Upon first glance this one-roomed archaeology exhibition, 'Digging Science', at the Wakefield Museum until May 11, seems rather modest.

However, on further exploration the visitor discovers they have uncovered a rich source of interest and information about the history of the Wakefield area and the complex science of archaeology.

Set in the round with no designated route, visitors can explore in their own time.

It's a very interactive exhibition full of hands-on activities. So, despite a lot of technical information, and an emphasis on the laborious and painstaking time and effort that goes into a 'dig', one never loses the feeling that the essence of the show is to allow the audience to understand the thrill of discovery.

shows a pile of three well preserved mammoth tusks at the quarry site near Thetford.

Right: it might look like it's just about digging about in the mud, but it's really a rather delicate science.

You are invited to sort and date real artefacts, and there is a sand pit fitted with trowels and brushes where you can locate and dig up artefacts.

Carbon dating and dendrochronology (tree dating) are explained and illustrated by pieces on display. Microscopes let you look at cleaned and sorted discoveries: insect pupae, shrew bones and grain from a Roman site in Castleford. They are all methods of building as accurate a picture as possible of the past.

A vulnerable human skeleton curled up in the foetal position and found at the building site of the third Ferrybridge power station 40 years ago, is an oddly moving image. Its presence brought to the fore some of the complex ideas that remain just below the surface throughout the exhibition.

Sites are often discovered when a new building is being erected, and ironically an archaeological dig actually destroys the very site it is interested in historically reconstructing.

Shows a photo of coins in the ground, partially unearthed.

Left: among an archaeologist's many tools is the trusty brush for careful unearthing. Courtesy of The British Museum.

There is a strange sense of the past, present and future commingling and being inseparable and of conservation and destruction being one and the same. We are focused on changing the landscape and modernising constantly, yet we have an anxious respect for the past.

The use of aerial photos and geophysical surveys - technology that helps identify sites of ancient burial grounds, villages etc by reading the moisture in the landscape - reveals patterns of the past criss-crossing all over the land.

According to exhibition curators, we live in a landscape densely covered with trackways, field boundaries and farmsteads that go back to the Iron Age and earlier.

There is a sense of the multifariousness of the land we are walking upon. It is teeming with past human life that is indelibly imprinted in the earth.

Once a ‘dig’ is over, the exhibition clearly points out that the picture archaeologists build with their finds is based on information that is necessarily fragmented and unbalanced. It is now up to them, to translate the information into how people lived in the past.

Shows a section of the geophysical survey showing the presence of a large settlement.

Right: geophysics often reveal the first evidence of archaeology - like this Roman fort in Wales for example. Courtesy of Cambria Archaeology. © National Trust.

The word translate in itself suggests the problems they face. To translate is to remove to another place, to interpret. There is an element of filling in the gaps, and of losing and gaining something in crossing the fragile bridge between the past and the present.

A complete history is constructed out of fragments and slivers of details about civilisations past.

Unavoidably, in constructing this narrative, other stories and historical possibilities are refused.

In the act of uncovering, inevitably you hide something else and that perhaps is the constant fascination of archaeologists. Your work is never done and the historical truth is never certain - who knows what will be found tomorrow?

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Reviewer Anna Goodall is participating in the 24 Hour Museum / Museum and Galleries Month Arts Writing Prize.

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