Archaeology and Poetry: The Lansdown Poetry Workshop

Last week, the excavation received a visit from the Lansdown poetry workshop, an informal network of Bristol-based poets who meet once a month in The Lansdown, Clifton. The tour was organised by recent Bristol graduate, Robert Beavis, to provide an educational and inspiring experience, in the hope of stimulating creative responses to the academic environment.

Although the processes of archaeology and poetry may seem worlds apart, they share many similarities. 
Archaeology makes the past present; poetry makes the past as experienced by somebody else present for the reader.

Poetry can be can be used to reflect on the past, much in the same way that archaeology provides us with a physical interpretation of history. There is also a romanticism to archaeology, in the ruins of buildings or holding an artefact for the first time in hundreds of years, that can be seen in many poetic styles. Robert wished to highlight this and inspire the visiting poets to create their own artistic interpretations, influenced by the excavations at Berkeley.
The Lansdown Poetry workshop at the site. Credit: Diane Taylor 2017 
As part of the tour of the site, Robert showed the poets archaeological artefacts from previous seasons at Berkeley including Gloucestershire slip ware and worked flint. Robert used poems from the Classical era to the present day as the basis for discussions of taphonomic (the study of processes, such as burial, decay and preservation) processes, materiality and temporality (existing within or having some relationship with time). These are themes present in poems such as Heaney's work, 'Grauballe Man,' or the Roman poet Lucretius's De Rerum Natura.When asked which elements of archaeology they found the be the most interesting many of the poets, such as Tim Burroughs, noted the paradox of archaeology - the destruction of history to better understand and record it. Martin Rieser also commented on the artefacts and layering of history in the trench. Some, as will be seen, were interested in the notion of 'the uncanny,' while others have been captivated by the reality of past lives that archaeological excavation can bring to the surface.

Over the next few posts we will be sharing poems written by the Lansdown poetry workshop that were inspired by the excavations and archaeology of Berkeley. Some of these poems are still in draft form; they will be subjected to their own complex processes as they are reworked and rewritten.

Keep checking the blog over the coming weeks for even more poems!

The ground is hard, halfway to
Stone, packed safe round stone,
its secrets kept,
Layered away from curious eyes.

Flow has no place down here
in another time,
Meaning no validity. These
Things simply were, these black sherds
where the earth
Cradled them. Exposed to rain and measurement,
Trowelled up, a sacred confidence
has been broken:

The long concealment of walls is violated
With tools, with hands, with novel thoughts,
for unwanted scrutiny.

- R. C. Beavis

It begins in the ritual of meeting
In the car park (Late Automotive Age) 
Early spider webs catching the sun 
The movie trucks are gone 
But I’m still here like a ghost 
Visiting a pasture of ghosts 
I was a leper here 
And I was a dead man in the dry moat 
Covered in muslin and dust 
I smell the ghosts of smoke machines 
I was English Irish French and Cornish 
I was a contractor for Disneyland 
We walk through the churchyard 
The inscriptions disappearing 
Rome reappearing in sherds of Severn Valley ware 
Bullet holes in the church doors and pillars 
Uncanny air in the pasture below the church 
Where an army of archaeologists swarms in the great trench 
We come to the tent of finds / above Coenwulf’s Anglo-Saxon silver penny (c800) 
Coins from Elizabeth I and Edward III A perfect iron arrowhead from the 14th century 
Neolithic flint and medieval tableware 
Slipware greyware black-burnished ware 
And an Aestle: a ritual pointer 
Not like King Alfred’s Aestle-jewel 
This is a humble monk’s pointer 
For pointing at a book of jewels
And a whetstone neck pendent 
A beautiful beveled scribe’s tool 
With a hole for the leather lace 
A whetstone to sharpen the pen knife 
Used for cutting goose quills 
The pages are missing but the footsteps continue 
An archaeologist points with her trowel 
To the rocks of the inner outer walls 
In this trade of pastures plans and sections 
The plague is buried here 
Along with smallpox 
Milkmaids don’t catch smallpox 
Ask the hut / below 
A little bit of knowledge 
Is a visionary cosmos 
Even the grasses know New Worlds 
The artist installs ghost deer in the game larder 
Whiter than the fog of early hunting 
And again I’m the ghost in residence 
Archaeology is like a poem 
That is never finished 
Poetic closure only infill 
Some day we will be the ghosts 
And thrill the visitors of this changing landscape 
So completely changed by time and music 
Oh look what they have found 
Freed from the red protective clay 
A rare undamaged communication device 
No just a stainless steel wristwatch from 1951 
Blinking again in the footsteps of the pasture 
Days later it’s raining and the trench will be slick 
But I’m sleeping with the spiders in the rain 
- Tony D’Arpino
Robert Beavis showing finds to the poets. Credit: Diane Taylor 2017.


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