Summer 2009: The Pebble Beds Project archaeological dig directed by Professor Christopher Tilley.
Some times I wonder how I get out of bed. Not because I might be too tired or waiting to respond to the alarm, but those mornings when I am lying in bed deep in thought, and then suddenly find myself up and off to make a cup of tea. I didn’t tell myself to get up, but I somehow just did! This same disconnect must have happened the day I decided to write to the archaeologist Professor Christopher Tilley, after hearing that there had been a dig on Woodbury Common, Devon last summer. It was an email sent without too much thought or deliberation, otherwise I may have dithered and not gone ahead.
I had been considering embarking on a project that would involve making a cairn on Budleigh Satlerton beach, and monitoring the connection people would have with the cairn, their interest and attraction to the colourful pebbles and the journeys they had undertaken in order to get to the beach. So it was with great interest I heard about the four-year Pebble Beds Project.
One day in the spring of 2009 I met Chris at his home and he talked about the project, and other digs, and his interest in trying to express archaeological investigation through visual interpretation. A past experience of working with artists had not altogether matched his expectations, with the artists often ignoring the process of excavation work, and becoming caught up with the tools of the trade and thus avoiding immersing themselves in the process itself. Having established that I had never undertaken any art-in-the-landscape before, he still invited me to join the dig, and that I should be armed with kneepads and a proper archaeological trowel!
My childhood was spent within earshot of the sound of the sea on pebbles, sometimes the soothing waves rolling on the stones and then that reluctant sound of the pebbles being dragged back out by the tide, and at other times the cacophony of a gale. Pebbles, their endless variety of shapes and colours, have always been of significance to me, a symbol of place, and collected wherever I visit.
I had heard it rumoured that archaeologists often resent artists being on site, and so it was with a little apprehension that I set out to join the dig in August. I was one of the advanced party of five women, four locals and one of Chris’s PhD students, who were to uncover the work started last year and prepare another nearby small cairn for excavation. The ‘real’ archaeologists would arrive at the end of the week! It was good to be broken in this way, being on my knees and bent over from 9 to 5, six days a week, was gruelling for a studio based artist! Agony aside, this is certainly a good way to get to know people!
The physical process was not unlike digging up potatoes, and they actually looked like potatoes when covered in the red/brown soil. Each stone was weighed, measured, washed, categorised, its location measured and all this information documented. Reams of it! The information will be fed into a computer and analysed, at a later date, to see if there are any patterns for specific pebbles within the structure. When wet, the pebbles disclose an array of colours and patterns, which probably had as much of an attraction in the Bronze Age, as they still do for some of us now. The jewels of the time.
I found it hard to break away from the activities of the dig and start really concentrating on what I wanted to create. Somehow I felt guilty, as though creativity is not work! Time was moving on and I felt a sense of urgency.
There were two sites to be excavated, with the main dig taking place on Woodbury Common, my preferred site. This place is special. It is a place suspended between the earth and sky, separate from the real world. Safe. A secret place. We are our own community or tribe without the hindrance of the high tech world we usually live in. This is Avalon looking down on a sea of luscious green, cultivated landscape. A powerful place of lost knowledge and spirituality. I love it!
I had become interested in the process of building a cairn. The Bronze Age people would have been brought the stones up from the riverbed. What type of container would have been used? Would this have been a pilgrimage on special occasions such as the Equinox or Solstice? The panoramic landscape aligns itself with sunrise locations. Would it have been a group activity or a personal journey? Built over many years or a single build?
My intention was to weave a container, a large structure to contain pebbles. My first attempts to weave a basket were hindered by my lack of knowledge regarding the harvesting of materials and trying to fashion a regular shaped structure. I became frustrated by the whole process and technique of basketry, which seemed to detract from my initial response to the place and materials available.
I started to collect gorse and heather and was engrossed for hours stripping the needles off the gorse There was a repetition of walking, collecting, sorting and stripping back, a meditation of sorts. The making of cairns would have required many journeys back and forth with the pebbles. Creating paths, creating stories and remembering.
Weaving became a metaphor for life on the heath lands. The weaving of narrow paths across the landscape mirrors the structure of plant life. The gorse and heather grow together creating a dense undergrowth. The pebbles may have some weave like order in their placement within the cairn, and as work progressed on the excavation, so stories were woven around its revelations.
The weaving took on a life of its own! The inflexible and random nature of the roots and branches inevitably dictated the form. Not surprisingly the structure related to its surroundings. I felt more frustration again as the wayward nature of the weaving started to collapse under its own weight. It would never become the shape I had in mind; in fact it looked more like a large nest! At this point I decided to take the basket to its final resting place on Great Tor Barrow. Much to my surprise it looked finished. It belonged there. A woven flame.
I felt less connection with the Aylesbeare Common site, and others on the dig expressed the same feeling. Its difficult to pin point what it was about the place that evoked such displeasure. It didn’t have that other-worldness, somehow more earth bound and connected to habitation. It lacked mystery. With a week to go, and the excavating completed on Woodbury Common, I knew I had to find some way of working with and on this site.
Categorizing and defining the different colours of the pebbles was a constant task on the dig. With this in mind I utilised a metal grid used for recording information on an excavation. The metre square grid, with its twenty-five squares, is placed over the area to be recorded and the information laboriously drawn onto graph paper.
I had to be creative with the definitions in order to fill the grid with different pebble categories, referring to some as ‘body parts’, not because of shape but a combination of colour and texture. Once again the process was one of walking, gathering, selecting and repetition. The end result, when wet, magically reveals the range of colours and textures of the pebbles.
Through out the year, I will return regularly to visit both sites and see how the passage of time plays a part on the art works. I have also left paper and fabric in the landscape with a covering layer of pebbles for weather and time to produce its own drawing on the surfaces. I was surprised to discover that, over the four weeks we were on site, very little had happened to my paper experiments. The heath land terrain drained quickly after a rainfall and the dew dried rapidly in the ever-present wind.
So the weaving continues. The diary of daily found objects, pebbles, photographs and the shared stories of our lives and the ones recreated from the past will, however subliminally executed, inform the visual work that will evolve during the coming year. It has provided me with a wealth of information and experience that could only have been informed by ‘being there’. Being there was magical.