Remains of the day

Three years ago, archaeologists at Bristol University embarked on a unique research project: the excavation of a 1991 Ford Transit van. After some background research with the logbook, they carefully collected up all the dog hairs and sweet wrappers, before stripping back the layers of carpet, plywood lining, metal and rust. Some of their discoveries were fairly trivial – such as the revelation that the van’s roof was badly dented after serving as an impromptu diving board at a riotous Christmas party. But there were also intriguing insights into social history. After fingerprint dusting on the bodywork drew a blank, they learned that the van was one of the first vehicles in the country to be built entirely by robots, which coincided with a wave of redundancies at Ford’s Southampton plant. Now the dismantled van has become the flagship project for a booming scholarly area, the archaeology of the “contemporary past”.

This is not as radical a departure as you might think. The popular image of archaeology may be about romantic quests to uncover lost civilisations, but deep excavation is only one area of a field which begins with the mundane reading of documents, geophysical surveys and surface investigations. There is no reason why any of this needs to be limited to the ancient or exotic. Even Channel 4’s Time Team, who generally get excited about Roman bath houses and Saxon burial grounds, have run programmes about the D-Day landings and warplane crash sites.

Contemporary archaeology is a response to the problem of preserving and recording our disposable, rapidly changing culture. The structures of the postwar era – 1960s tower blocks, mobile phone masts, distribution warehouses, retail parks – are fairly temporary and likely to disappear quickly. That is why Change and Creation, an archaeological project on the late-twentieth-century landscape run by English Heritage, is focusing on transient sites such as the codebreaking huts at Bletchley Park or the Greenham Common peace camp – now slowly turning from airbase concrete to its original grassy state, but offering up piecemeal evidence of its former life in the form of moss-covered children’s toys and anti-American graffiti.

All historians, and not merely archaeologists, are likely to encounter difficulties researching our own era when so much of the evidence will be ephemeral or intangible. The historian Niall Ferguson recently said that he did not envy future members of his profession because of the “disappearing decision trail” in the contemporary period. The archival record of the present day is likely to be both too scarce and too abundant. Email databases may not survive, or they will be so full that no scholar will know where to start, or they will be unreadable because of changes to hardware or software. So perhaps we will have to rely on the archaeologists, whose whole training teaches them to make wider deductions from fragmentary material remains – the smudge of black on pottery providing evidence of a hearth, for example. 

Just imagine how much an archaeologist could unearth about our lives from excavating a typical suburban garden. All the changing fashions of the Ground Force era, from water features to decking, would show how that little plot of land became a hive of DIY creativity and social expectation. Timber remains would reveal that, everywhere in the country over the last half century, back-garden fences doubled in height from three to six feet. The dendrochronologists would discover that the neat shrubs and conifers at the garden’s borders satisfied a similar need for privacy. A quick dig in the front garden would reveal a lawn replaced by block paving for a car – the simplest and easiest way to increase the price of a house, with the unintended side-effect of making the whole area more prone to flooding. Just like archaeologists at ancient sites, the garden excavators could use the scrappiest evidence to extrapolate a wealth of social detail about our privatised, mobile, weekend-oriented lives.

Contemporary archaeology is an egalitarian endeavour. Anyone can excavate the half-buried evidence of the recent past. I have just been for a walk along my street, combing the pavement and the road for archaeological remains. I discovered several dozen red rubber bands discarded by careless postmen; a fragment of burst balloon, almost certainly a survival from a front door decorated for someone’s birthday; and a recession-era flyer for an electrician (“your local bright spark!!”) saying “no job too small” and “call anytime!!!” It looks like this street will offer rich pickings for an intrepid Time Team of the not-too-distant future.

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