Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Animal Tropes and Enchanted Woodlands

Animals in the woods, The Hunter and the Hunted, Colwick Woods
I have been researching appearances of animals in folklore and myth.  I started doing this alongside my Reliquary Project, to think about what animals represent to us and how this has changed over the centuries, but inevitably this interest has started to influence other projects I'm working on.

Because I'm inspired by the image of the reliquary, a Medieval Christian notion, I have been reading around the medieval period. A wonderful book is Image on the Edge: The Margins of Medieval Art1 a book on marginalia, those intriguing images that decorate the margins of medieval texts. Here animals appear in strange guises. Dogs dress as humans or hide under their cloaks, there are snails that attack medieval knights in armour, hares become archers intent on the murder of humans, and rabbits scamper about and nestle up against pretty girls. A lot of this is believed to be sexually suggestive, and I love the book's whole thesis that the margins are where the artist defiles and pokes fun at the righteousness of the page's main text.

It's the theme of running wild, of humans believing they are central, but around the edges are these wild creatures rampantly ignoring the preaching of the text:
"One of the most powerful statements that the monstrosities of marginal art make is that they violate the taboo that separates the human from the animal."

Becoming animals, Colwick Woods

In Saints and Animals in the Middle Ages 2 animals again represent the wildness, but in these old stories their relationship with the divine is complicated and contradictory. The stories seem to me to be a constant battle between wildness, or freedom, and those in authority.  Sometimes the authority is simply that of the human, who believes that he has dominion over the earth and the animals, but finds he cannot control the wildness all around him. Sometimes the authority is the Church, but often the wild and natural creatures are seen as closer to god than humans and, although crude and base, are actually more akin with the purest of Christian hearts. The religious hermit chooses to live in the forest with the creatures because they are not tainted by the deceitfulness of humans. Again the hare often appears, as a symbol of wildness. In stories such as St Anselm and the Hare and in the topos of the hermit and the hunted animal, the hare may represent the soul chased by its demons. The hermit is able to rescue the hunted animal because he lives outside of human society.

LJ and I discussing the hawthorn in Colwick Woods
The hare is of particular interest to me. It does have a really wild appearance, and a strange otherworldly quality. I came face to face with one in Dukes Wood, and now I'm working on another woodland project I'm thinking about him again. This time I'm working with Laura-Jade Klée, a curator I work with under the name Sidelong. The project is commissioned by Ordinary Culture, who also curated The Dukes Wood Project. Their current project, View From the East, takes place in Colwick Woods in Sneinton, Nottingham. Some of the themes of wildness and control are bleeding into this project, rubbing up alongside the tales we have unearthed about the woodlands itself, and LJ and I have become fascinated by the contrasts of the woodlands, the joy of the natural world but also its more threatening side. There are many dark deeds that have taken place in these woods, as well as a real sense of playfulness and enchantment. We are calling our project The Hunter and the Hunted, and through storytelling we are playing with the contrasting ideas of the woodland of a place of safety where you can hide from the hunter, but also a place of fear where you can easily become lost.

LJ and I will be running a stall on the afternoon of the Colwick Woods Gala Day, Sunday 5th July, where we will have activities for families - seek us out if you can!

All photographs in this post by Matthew Vaughan.

1 Image on the Edge: The Margins of Medieval Art, Michael Camille: Reaktion Books, London, 1992  
2 Saints and Animals in the Middle Ages, D Alexander: Boydell Press, 2008

Friday, 17 April 2015

Surveying Bradgate

It’s a lonely walk from the car park. I'm looking for the archaeologists, somewhere on the park they've been surveying for a few days. The weather is changeable, one minute warm sun and the next heavy dark clouds and driving rain. As I walk along the path the rain turns to hail stones and it's really chilly.

Then I see them in the distance, and it warms me. Not stopping for the weather, the archaeologists plough on through, choreographing their poles and tapes, a step by step measure across the ground, delving rods into the earth.

I sidle up to one of them, a student who is sheltering under a tree and leaning on a red and white striped pole, it seems like a sensible place to be. I ask her what they're doing. She describes marvelous things to me, like tapping the earth’s magnetic pole, gauging amounts of moisture in the soil and what the gaps tell us. She talks of lasers passing through orange prisms and ways of seeing into the earth. She stands by a pile of rods and tripods. I think they are magician's tools.

I speak to Rob. He tells me how they were led here, to this spot, by viewing aerial images and seeing the tell tale shapes of the earth that we can't see standing on the ground. It's like reading the signs meant for the gods, and seeing back in time.

I watch them for a while, mapping this other viewpoint.  Mapping and re-mapping, mapping materiality, mapping by metal, stone, wood, soil.

The rain is still throwing it down, forced into us by a strong wind. Their carefully placed tapes come loose and flap, they catch them and re-measure and their rhythmic trudge continues. Finally the sun breaks out again, and dries my jeans.

I see some people I know, Katrien and Mark. I don't speak to them much because they are counting. Katrien draws rectangles and numbers on her clipboard. She mentions some animal bones that have been spotted in a river.

The measuring is done for the day, and they start to pack up and compare notes. Everybody seems tired and glad to finish, but still with a mild excitement because they know that Mark will take the results and look at the images that evening and it will be very soon that they begin to see what the instruments can see.

Richard appears, having fetched the van. I ask him about the river bones. Katrien and I follow him in a near-run across the scrub, me stumbling, Katrien more gracefully. We reach a small brook, Richard navigates its curves and locates the spot. We crouch on the grass, my knees are on sodden soil and my hands lean on stinging nettles. I have to get my chin over the edge of the water to see the bones.

At first I can’t see them, then do, or don’t, or is it rock, I’m not sure. "How did you spot them?" I ask Richard.

"Just walking in the water."

His eyes are trained to see bones, even when camouflaged, it's like a habit. Give Richard an animal bone and he instantly starts to identify it, what age it was, trying to find its story. It's like a reflex action.

Exhausted from battling the weather and the physicality of the repetitive walking, lifting, placing, walking, lifting, placing, staking and taping, the archaeologists climb back in the bus and are gone. There is no sign that they were ever here, but for a few discreet markers staked in the grass, my wet knees and my tingling palms.

As I walk back to the car park, now under blue skies, I see a new image superimposed on this land, an image with village homes, a kennel, a slaughterhouse, blackened heaps, buildings and walls. And it is transformed forever.

The cliché is that archaeology is about digging. Today I realise it's about seeing. Seeing in different ways.

That night I go to a poetry event. One of the poets talks of reading a landscape like a phrenologist, its undulations mapped like lumps and bumps on a skull to discover its underlying character.

And my palms are tingling.


You can follow the progress and see photos of the Bradgate Park dig on their Facebook page.

Dr Mark Gillings is running a day conference on Archaeology and the Map, find out more at

Saturday, 14 March 2015

Schrödinger's box, a cat reliquary

Schrödinger's box, digital x-ray, 2015
I particularly like this experiment because it was truly collaborative, crossing scientific techniques with art and humanities (which is what archaeology does, really) and something I wouldn't have done if I hadn't been working with Dr Richard Thomas. It came about as a result of conversations and thoughts on what you can and cannot see.

Richard and I have had a few discussions about medieval reliquary boxes; were they ever opened or not? Originally they may have been opened, but later reliquaries were permanently closed or even sealed to prevent people from handling the relics. Therefore whatever is inside them is, in fact, unknown. You could say that it is merely a matter of faith that there is anything in the box at all; pilgrims who came to pay tribute to the relics of a saint believed that the box contained the saint's bones, but there was no proof of this and they probably couldn't even see the bones themselves.

In the later medieval period there are examples of reliquaries which were more like elaborate display cases and one could view the bones within. Rock crystal was used as a viewing chamber, as in a reliquary in the Walter's Art Museum in Baltimore. I'm making another piece about this.

But for other reliquaries it was merely the signifier of the box itself that maintained the belief that it held powerful relics.

I made a wooden box in a classic reliquary shape, with a sloped lid, to resemble the shape of a sarcophagus. We put cat bones inside, closed it and then x-rayed it. The results are rather beautiful and I love the foreshortening from the rays "flattening" a three dimensional object.

It was an odd process making a box that was not to be seen itself, but would have its inner revealed, and even its construction. This made the fixings for the box much more important than the box itself, I paid more attention to the screws than to the wooden case. It also meant I had to consider the materials for more than their structural or surface properties. It was a curious thing to be making an object whilst thinking of the relative densities of its parts.

We called it Schrödinger's box. In Schrödinger's famous thought experiment the cat in the box is both alive and dead until the box is opened and the cat is observed as one or the other.  But with an x-ray, what's in the box is both seen and unseen at the same time, in a sense, without even opening the box. I don't know what that means for Schrödinger's cat, existing in two states of being, but our cat in a box makes me think of those archaeological objects which hover between two states of the past and the present, detected or even just suspected, but not yet recovered.

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

The Hypothetical Object

I've been thinking about the idea of a hypothetical object.

An object that you think might exist, but it has not been discovered yet.

Something that remains unfound.

Or, an object that you can hypothesise about: an object that is found but you don't know what it is, or why it is.

It's about the guessing game of archaeology, that is based around objects, materials, traces, gaps.


Tangle drawing, detail. Graphite on paper, 2015

Today I made a drawing that is a tangle of lines, but from the tangles some shapes emerge that look like bones and could be recognised by somebody who is familiar with them. Somebody who knows what to look for.

I remember a phrase that Dr Thomas used in a lecture a little while ago. The lecture was about horse breeding, and, if I remember correctly, he was talking about how horse bones may have been used for other things after the horse had died, perhaps ground up and used as fertiliser, and thus they were being "removed from the archaeological record." I was intrigued by the notion of "the archaeological record", the idea that there are items kicking around somewhere that are all part of this bigger framework, this complete record, a jigsaw of hypothetical objects that just need to be pieced together and it will all make sense...

Except the record is not a complete logical record, it is blurry and has gaps and parts removed or altered, and it shifts constantly and is redrawn. Tangled, disentangled, linking knots tied and then untied.

It will never be complete. It's an ongoing and impossible quest. And I like that.

Friday, 20 February 2015


"The past is not behind us but beneath, and the ground we walk on is nothing more than a pit of bones, from which the grass unstinting grows."1
Olivia Laing was writing about a place in Sussex, but I thought about her words as I sat on a bench in Bradgate Park, Leicestershire, looking out over this landscape.

This area will be the subject of an archaeological dig in the summer months as part of the University's Fieldschool. I've spent the last week devising a way to make a creative response to the dig as part of my residency.

Reading through the excavation plan, I've picked up some terms new to me:  LiDAR, a sort of laser-scanning of the landscape, that can "see" through buildings and trees to create a beautiful graded monochrome image of the land's undulations; and lithics, the study of flints and stone tools, our earliest form of tool making. New and old technologies converging.

Bradgate Park has a long history, but as a protected area most of it has not been excavated so there are many secrets still hidden. As a place that I walk often, it will be really exciting to be a part of an investigation here.

I'm already thinking about the area in a different way. I watch the people enjoying the winter sunshine, walking the paths and tilting up the slopes, not giving a thought to what might be beneath them in suspended time. I wonder how my work will respond to the unlayering of some of this landscape.

The University's Fieldschool now have a blog and a Facebook page where you can follow progress and find out about the public open days.

1 To The River, Olivia Laing, 2011

Friday, 13 February 2015

A Reliquary for a Hen Harrier's Wishbone

Reliquary for a Hen Harrier's Wishbone, acrylic, gold leaf, 2015
I have just completed this reliquary. The box is a plastic specimen box from the Bone Lab; the design is in gold leaf, based on a medieval manuscript illumination.

The box measures 5.5cm x 4.3cm,  and just under 2cm high.  The wishbone of a hen harrier would fit inside exactly.

I was fascinated to discover in the collection that the wishbone (furcula, or "little fork" in Latin) of different birds are very different shapes. Some are quite straight and stiff, some very curved and fluid; some skinny, some wider and flatter. The hen harrier's wishbone is rounded, almost heart shaped. You can see the shape of it in the centre of the curling gold leaf.

It seems to me that the furcula is a very special bone. It is (almost) only birds that have them, and their function is to keep the bird's chest from tearing apart each time it beats its wings. The force of the wing stroke would be enough to do this if it wasn't for the strengthening power of the wishbone.

The wishbone is a charmed bone, too. I remember from my own childhood making wishes on these bones from the Sunday roast.

My Reliquary for a Hen Harrier's wishbone is an empty box. We still have hen harriers in this country, but their continued existence is threatened; their numbers are fast declining and the RSPB think that only three pairs bred in England last year. The hen harrier needs our wishes. I have left the box empty because it is a reliquary for the future, perhaps for the last hen harrier. I hope it will never need to be filled.

Click here to read the RSPB's appeal for the hen harrier.

Friday, 6 February 2015

Display and burial

Archaeology is a continuous play between the hidden and the displayed.

Sketch for Wrapped Bone, 2014
It is curious that the things that prehistoric people would have displayed are now gone, the act of displaying them making them subject to corrosion by the elements.

Whereas the things they buried were then preserved... order for us to then dig them up and reveal them again, and display them in museums.

The act of displaying something is an act of transformation.  A prehistoric tool made from bone is transformed by us, by placing it in a glass case, from a useful material thing into an object for admiring, revering its age, beauty and ingenuity. A relic.

However, prehistoric people buried their special things.
"British prehistory represents a complex dialectic between hiding and revealing things..."1
Prehistoric peoples buried things in pits, placed things in tombs, concealed their hoards and buried objects as well as bones in careful and specific ways. But were they separating things out as special, such as we do with display? Or were they returning things to the earth, thereby reuniting them with the original source of all things?

When I'm working in the Bone Lab I think a lot about boxes. I'm surrounded by labelled boxes, categorised bones placed in bags and boxed, stacked around the room. Boxes come and go, occasionally there is a delivery from a Roman site, another set of boxes that need to be sifted through. Objects that have been excavated, revealed, from a site, only to be concealed once again in a box with an esoteric label with numbers and letters.

They might then be taken out of the box, sorted, and placed in other containers, transparent plastic bags or acrylic boxes. This time the boxes reveal their contents so that students can study them.

The relic container, the reliquary, is a box that conceals and displays simultaneously. The relic itself is hidden within the box, though sometimes the box is made around the relic to form the same shape, like clothing, describing what is inside. The outside of the relic displays something about the relic itself; often there are depictions of the life of the saint whose relics are held within.

The reliquary as an object of display and concealment represents, perhaps, the practice of archaeology itself as well as the practice of display and burial of both prehistoric and contemporary people.

You can see examples of medieval reliquaries on the Metropolitan Museum of Art website. There are more, including Buddhist reliquaries, in the British Museum.

1 Making and display: our aesthetic appreciation of things and objects, Chris Gosden, in Substance, Memory, Display, Ed. Colin Renfrew et al: McDonald Institute for Archaelogical Research, 2004