Friday, 18 August 2017

Forests and Woodlands Questionnaire Results

Thank you for completing the Forests and Woodlands Questionnaire. (The survey is now closed)

I was overwhelmed by how many responses I got in just a few days! So it has taken me a little longer than I expected to go through the results. I am still analysing what it all means.

I'm working with Dr Suzi Richer, Research Associate in Archaeology and Environment at the University of York, who is helping me respond to the questionnaire results. I've summarised some of the results below.

Suzi recently published an article From Rackham to REVEALS: Reflections on palaeoecological approaches to Woodland and Trees . Her interest in cross-disciplinary approaches and integrating alternative perspectives into research has inspired this project. Suzi and I are intending to develop activities to further investigate people's relationships with woodlands in the UK, and we hope you will be involved. Your input in the questionnaire has given us our first evidence to inspire and develop the project, and we hope to stage workshops and events in various woodlands in the months to come. I will continue to update you as we progress.


238 people responded to the questionnaire. The distribution was wide, stretching from the furthest tip of Cornwall across to South London, from Worcestershire across the Midlands, to the Yorkshire coast and up to Fife in Scotland. There were a few from outside the UK too. I am still putting together a map of all the places... if I ever get to finish it I will share it!

The first question asked for people's first thought when they think of forests or woodlands. A significant number, 25% of respondents, used words such as "peace", "tranquility", "silence", with a further 10% using words like "calm", "relaxing", "slowing down". An additional 4% said "freedom", "escape", "liberating", and another 4% wrote "breathing", "clean air", "fresh air". These were by far the gist of most responses, associating woodlands with leisure and escapism from "modern" life.

Not a surprising result. Nobody mentioned woodlands as worked or managed (apart from one response of "work"), although a majority of woodlands need to be managed. In more ancient times, woodlands in the UK would have been hives of industry and activity, so this shows how much our perception and use of woodlands has changed.

Hence the question asking if your occupation involves you with woodlands. 29% replied that their occupation associated them with woodlands, which is quite a significant number. However it's likely that our survey is biased and would have attracted more people associated with woodlands through work than the national percentage.

Respondents seemed to come from a variety of both rural and urban areas, with 70% saying that they visit woodlands regularly, listing woodlands of varying sizes and age, from small local copses to significant managed forests.

I found it interesting that the question about cultural references to woodlands, whilst generating a very wide range of responses, also had a significant cluster giving similar responses. 19% mentioned Robin Hood or Robin of Sherwood; 11% mentioned Lord of the Rings, the Hobbit or the Ents; 5% a Midsummer Nights Dream. There were a number of other fantasy or fairy stories (Red Riding Hood, Narnia, Enid Blyton's Enchanted Forest and more) that connects with our sense of fairy tales associated with woodlands.

I thought Robin Hood was interesting as the most common response. It's a story with many levels, including ideas about hiding and living out in the woods as an outlaw. Does this connect with our idea of woodlands as wild places, dangerous places, disconnected from the everyday town dweller? Or as a place of freedom?

If you want to read all the responses, you can see a spreadsheet of them at this link. I have removed any emails that were supplied. You could certainly compile a great reading list or playlist from the suggestions!

Thanks again for taking part, and I hope you will stay subscribed so that I can bring you more updates of the project as it progresses. In the meantime, feel free to send any comments - all thoughts and responses welcome!

Errol Flynn, The Adventures of Robin Hood, 1938

This post was originally posted as a newsletter on 18 March 2017 by Jo Dacombe.

Sunday, 18 June 2017

Imagining Woodlands

Ash trees, Thoroughsale Woods, Corby
Imagining Woodlands is the new project I am working on in collaboration with Dr Suzi Richer at the University of York. We aim to explore perceptions of woodlands and forests through a series of events and conversations: bringing together science, archaeology, art and literature, through a collaboration between academics, artists and people in their local woodlands.

The following our my own notes, written when we began devising this project.

“Culture is ordinary”1– it is a lived experience, and an inherited one. Socialist writers such as Raymond Williams and Antonio Gramsci2 defined ways in which we learn through being surrounded by cultural hegemonic messages, which determine the way we think about things. By unpicking these influences, Williams and Gramsci wanted to break down the inherent power systems within them.

How does this relate to woodlands? Through Richer’s research3 she has identified that the way people think about woodlands and about nature is seen as ‘other’ to their own lives. Where does this attitude come from? As a palaeoecologist, Richer understands that humans and woodlands have long been interconnected; humans worked with woods as part of their everyday culture. So how has the more recent notion of separating woodlands and nature from ourselves come about?

It is important to think about this because, as Schiffman writes, “We need a story that properly situates humans in the world — neither above it by virtue of our superior intellect, nor dwarfed by the universe into cosmic insignificance. We are equal partners with all that exists, co-creators with trees and galaxies and the microorganisms in our own gut, in a materially and spiritually evolving universe.”4 If we think of nature as separate from ourselves, it affects the way we act in terms of issues like climate change. We act as masters or custodians to the woods, rather than as connected to them.

Williams uses the term “cultural materialism”5 to discuss ideas about how our beliefs about the world are formed: that is, through the absorption of material and mediated ideas through visual culture, literary culture, the naming of things, the terms we use in the news and media; these all affect, often in subconscious ways, the way we think about things and concepts around us.

I have long been fascinated by the naming of things. When we name something, it both reflects what we think of that thing, and influences what others think of that thing. Naming conceptualises how we perceive the things around us. Names also make things real. Once something is named, you see it properly. As Robert Macfarlane writes in his book about names, Landmarks6 “This is a book about the power of language…to shape our sense of place… 'The hardest thing of all to see is what is really there,’ wrote J. A. Baker in The Peregrine (1967), a book that brilliantly shows how such seeing might occur in language”

Richer’s research also discovered that the naming of trees in the woods has changed over time. Fascinatingly, in the medieval woodland, people did not name the species of trees; instead, they called them by names for their use. For example, the hazel and the birch were known as “poles” because their straight grains made them ideal for making staffs. Now that you know this, you will see hazel and birch differently from now on!

But these colloquial names have been lost to us over time. As our perception of woods and trees changed, affecting our use of language for them, thus our words for them further shaped our sense of them.

Dr Mark Jenner at the University of York has written about Culture and Communication7 and how, if the concept of cultural materialism is correct, then our culture is communicated through much wider fields than that of the arts and humanities: “More interesting is the way sociologists and anthropologists have used the term culture much more inclusively in order to make sense of sets of shared meanings, of communication practices and ways of life”8. Jenner advocates that people working within different disciplines including the arts, sciences, history etc. must work together to discover how cultural communication of ideas, such as the perceptions of our woodlands, come about. More importantly, how can this knowledge be utilised to engage people more meaningfully with issues such as climate change and other global issues, which can be extremely difficult for people to grasp or conceive of fully, and especially difficult to relate to their everyday lives?

Our project with the woodlands aims to address these two things: 1. What are the perceptions and daily relationships that people have now to their woodlands? and 2. How can artists and scientists work together to formulate cultural materialism which engages people more meaningfully about the complexity of woodlands?

You can sign up for email updates for the Imagining Woodlands project at this link, or follow on twitter @imagwoods

1 Raymond Williams, Culture is Ordinary (1958), in Resources of Hope, R. Gable (ed.) London and New York, Verso, 1989
2 Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks. International Publishers, 1971

3 Richer, S and Gearey, B,  ‘From Rackam to REVEALS: thinking towards a palaeoecology of woodland dwelling’, Environmental Archaeology, 2017

4 Richard Schiffman, March 2, 2015, We Need to Relearn That We’re a Part of Nature, Not Separate From It:

5 Raymond Williams, Culture and Society, Chatto and Windus, 1958

6 Robert Macfarlane, Landmarks, Penguin Books, 2015

7 Dr Mark Jenner, Research Champion for Culture and Communication

8 Jenner, ibid

Saturday, 4 March 2017

Continuum Postponed

I'm sorry to say that our woodland time-travelling walk Continuum has been postponed due to the continuous rain. The woodlands have become very boggy, so we have made the decision that the event will run later in the year instead.

The new date is Sunday 21st May 2017. Please note the date in your diaries and check the website here, the new details for booking will appear soon.

If you already have tickets, you should have been contacted about this already. If not, please contact The Core.

Thanks and I look forward to a lovely event in May when, we hope, the weather will be better!

I should have news by then of other walks I will be running - check back on this blog or sign up for email updates so you don't miss out!

Friday, 17 February 2017

Forests and Woods Survey

Please complete this short questionnaire for me!

I am planning a new project which will respond artistically to people's perceptions of forests and woods. It would really help me if as many people as possible respond to this survey. It only takes a few minutes - and please feel free to forward the link to others! Just click on the image below to open up the survey. Many thanks.

Monday, 30 January 2017

The Charter for Trees

Thoroughsale Wood, Corby, July 2016
Bringing together my interests in history, trees and how people relate to place, The Charter for Trees, Woods and People aims to guide policy and practice in the UK, "enabling a future in which trees and people stand stronger together."

The Charter is to be launched on November 6th 2017, the 800th anniversary of the historic 1217 Charter of the Forest which established rights of access and use for the Royal Forests in England.

I am currently working with other researchers in science, archaeology and literature, to think about how we relate to trees and woodlands. This also springs from my current project in collaboration with artist Carole Miles for Our Woods festival in Corby, celebrating parts of the Rockingham Forest. For this project we are considering time travel through the woods, how we experience the woodland's constant change from season to season.

Past projects are also informing my thoughts at the moment. Forests and woodlands stimulate our imaginations as we consider them as places of folklore and enchantment, places of sanctuary but sometimes fear, and places of the wild. Our Sidelong walk The Hunter and the Hunted played with these ideas, of how woodlands exist in our imaginations.

Woodlands are also places of industry, and they share their history with people who have had working relationships with trees over centuries. They have also been useful for hiding things. In my project for Dukes Wood I had an intriguing time exploring the woods and stumbling across traces of its past as a secret inland oil field, hidden deep within. Last autumn at the University, learning about LiDAR, a technique using lasers which can penetrate woodland canopies to reveal what is beneath, I was startled by a number of large manmade structures that suddenly became clear on the images. These were 20 or more ammunition parks, making use of the tree canopy to store explosives where the enemy in the air would never spot them. (Unfortunately the images are under copyright so I cannot share them here.)

I hope that I can link up some of my projects with the Tree Charter as it resonates so well with me. Carole and I were delighted to find that our Our Woods event, Continuum: a time travelling woodland walk has been included in the Charter's winter publication of LEAF!

I hope some of you will be able to join us to explore the woods in March.

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Visualisations: The Theoretical Archaeology Group

I am delighted that I will be exhibiting work and speaking at the Theoretical Archaeology Group 2016 conference (TAG2016) at Southampton University, 19-21st December. The conference theme this year is "Visualisations".

The Reliquary Project installation view, Attenborough Arts Centre, May-July 2016
I will presenting some of my work from The Reliquary Project as part of Sightations, an exhibition and series of short talks alongside the conference which "seeks to unpack what it means to represent archaeology visually in 2016".

I'm very excited to be going, and some of the sessions in the programme promise to influence some of my current thinking around art and archaeology. "Enchanting Objects and Ways of Seeing" (Joshua Pollard (University of Southampton), John Robb (Cambridge University) and Peter Wells (University of Minnesota) sounds thrilling, and I hope to get to "Images in the Making: Art-Process-Archaeology" (Andrew Meirion Jones (University of Southampton) and Ing-Marie Back Danielsson (Uppsala University) which, if you have been to any of my recent talks, you will know sounds right up my street. You can see the full conference programme here and the full list of talks taking place in Sightations here.

You can book for the conference up until 16th December here.

Friday, 30 September 2016


I'm continuing to think about animal bones and archaeology, this time affected by my experience of watching the excavations at Bradgate Park.

Assemblage I, white conte on paper, 2016
I started casting half shapes of bones, with a view to creating some sort of installation. I wanted to create a landscape of hidden bones, somehow. However, as I played with the shapes, and discovered that I'm still often attracted to the vertebrae shapes, I started creating them in assemblages, which is a concept I must now reflect on.

Assemblage is a term used in both archaeology and art, but meaning quite different things. I'm starting to wonder how my work converges the two.

An assemblage in archaeology generally means "a collection of material related through contextual proximity."1  However, what actually constitutes an assemblage can be more difficult to pin down - where does the context end and begin? and thus what does or doesn't belong to a particular assemblage? These are important questions for archaeologists; how structured are the assemblages, how intentional was it that these things were laid here together? I have found that I also need to think more about stratigraphy and the different ways this has been thought of, if I am to understand assemblage, and what has been called the "space-time-cultural continuum"2, a phrase I really like!

In art, assemblage is also a practice that questions context as well as association between objects. Many artists make connections between previously unconnected objects in their work to create new meanings - something that artists intentionally do, but something that archaeologists wish to avoid! Post-modern artists enjoy multi meanings derived from their work, whereas archaeologists attempt to discover a "truth" (also a problematic term!).

Here's a short clip by Tate Shots of artist Brian Griffiths talking about his assemblage process;
 "I collect objects and they become a sort of material fact to start from":

And then I came across the Theory of Assemblage Panel:
"Assemblage is one of these “bridging concepts” that connect various disciplines while retaining their specificity. Commonly used in geology, paleontology, archaeology and art, recently it regains popularity in different fields (political sciences - Manuel DeLanda, science studies – Bruno Latour, cultural studies - Brian Massumi)... From the understanding of assemblage as an equivalent term to Foucault’s epistemes, Kuhn’s paradigms, or Callon, Law and Latour’s actor-network-theory, to its popular definition as “a group of objects of different or similar types found in close association with one another”"  3
So there are many ways of thinking about assemblage.  My works seem to be instinctive assemblages, mainly concerned with the shapes and how they suggest that they could work together. There is still an aspect of scale that I have unresolved yet, and I do need to find a way of addressing that at some point. But for now, I'll keep playing with them and reading (and reading them).

1 Archaeological Assemblages and Practices of Deposition, R Joyce and J Pollard, in The Oxford Handbook of Material Culture Studies, Ed D Hicks and M C Beaudry, 2010 
2 Method and Theory in American Archeology, Willey and Phillips, in American Anthropologist, 1953, Vol.55(5)
3 Theory of Assemblage, Theoretical Archaeology Group: Stanford, 2009,