This article was originally printed in Current Archaeology issue 268.
It seems that Jubilees are not a recent invention. The idea of marking important anniversaries extends back at least to Biblical times, when the Book of Leviticus suggested families gather every 50 years for a ‘Jubilee’, restoring land to original owners, remitting debts, and freeing slaves. The word comes from the Hebrew yobel, being the ram’s-horn trumpet used to signal the beginning of a jubilee. Since AD 1300, jubilees have been celebrated every 25 years by the Catholic Church – the most recent, in 2000, involved a campaign to relieve world debt. Royal jubilees work the same way: they mark important anniversaries, none more so perhaps than the 60th, the ‘diamond jubilee’, something only Queen Victoria has achieved… until now.
In 2012 Queen Elizabeth II celebrates her 60 years on the throne. It has been a remarkable reign by any standards. When it commenced in the post-war years, the Beatles were still a decade away. The Conquest of Everest was coincident with her coronation in 1953, a time when television was a rare luxury (although many families bought their first sets for the Coronation); trains ran on steam; and London remained ‘The Big Smoke’. It is a reign that has taken in much of the Cold War, a moon landing, the emergence of the world-wide web, and new ways of working and living – email and social networks; it has seen the emergence of a National Health Service following its foundation in 1948, the closure of coal mines under Mrs Thatcher’s Conservative Government, the fading of wartime memory and practice, conflict including in the Falkland Islands and Iraq, and the emergence of leisure time, tourism, and increased professionalisation in the workplace.
In the 60 years since 1952, the world has changed, massively and irrevocably. Some people hark back to ‘good old days’; others embrace the present, and celebrate future opportunity.
But here I focus on the very recent past, addressing the archaeological legacies of the past six decades, the heritage of this ‘Second Elizabethan Age’, asking: What is the heritage of the reign of Queen Elizabeth II; is it in any sense an archaeological heritage; how significant are the legacies; and how has archaeology itself fared as a discipline over this period? Is it a reign to be celebrated, or does it merely mark the doldrums of what the Smiths once described as a ‘Dole Age’?
Johnny and the Prince
In 2011 and for the Jubilee year, the Department of Archaeology at the University of York won a prestigious Queen’s Anniversary Prize (QAP) for Higher and Further Education. This was awarded for the department’s ‘leading-edge work in archaeology from prehistory to the present’, and was announced shortly after I published research into some Sex Pistols graffiti, penned by their singer Johnny Rotten. The connections seemed obvious, but few appeared to notice them. The Pistols had released their single ‘God Save the Queen’ to mark Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee in 1977, making themselves even more unpopular with the establishment than they were already. They even had the audacity to sign a new contract outside Buckingham Palace.
Johnny Rotten’s graffiti dates to this ‘Jubilee’ period, yet no anti-monarchist sentiment was expressed, suggesting perhaps that their anti-Jubilee vitriol was ‘all show’. But the Sex Pistols are now writ large into the history of jubilees, by standing in direct opposition to one of the most recent. Alongside such things as ‘Stuff the Jubilee’ badges and T-shirts, their contribution is now part of the material culture of jubilees, providing a counter to the more-official commemorative mugs and souvenirs, fragments of early examples of which have come from excavations in Alderley Edge, Cheshire (see CA 238), and elsewhere. We can add to that statuary and monuments, and the finery that goes with both ceremony and everyday existence in the lives of the Royal Household. Such is the diversity of Royal and Jubilee heritage.
After the QAP presentation a small party from the York Department was introduced to Prince Philip. The Prince had a long and in-depth discussion with a PhD student about Troy, asking questions about its location and authenticity. He then asked me about heritage, and why we kept things from the past. I resisted the temptation to refer to the monarchy, mentioning instead the wonderful original artworks that surrounded us in the Picture Gallery. For a moment I imagined the Johnny Rotten portrait hanging among them. Earlier, at the formal presentation, Julian Richards reminded the Prince of his visit to Sutton Hoo some years before, when Martin Carver showed him around the excavations. In all of these conversations, the Prince expressed characteristic interest and engagement.
Fire and whisky
The Queen came close to working archaeologists when Time Team and Oxford Archaeology excavated her garden at Buckingham Palace over the August Bank Holiday in 2006. Excavations also took place at Windsor and Holyrood, but Buckingham Palace grabbed the headlines, just for its location – digging at the heart of the monarchy. Designed by Channel 4 as part of the Queen’s 80th birthday celebrations, five trenches were opened revealing evidence for the first Duke of Buckingham’s house and gardens, built at the turn of the 18th century.
But this was not the Queen’s first engagement with archaeology or heritage. Some five years before, the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS) conducted a photographic survey of the buildings and structures on the Balmoral Estate (Aberdeenshire), while more recently a group of volunteers working with a Community Engagement project, Scotland’s Rural Past, have been surveying parts of the same estate, at Glen Muick. One significant discovery included five previously unrecorded illicit whisky stills relating to the Glen’s post-Medieval townships. In Norfolk, the Queen’s Sandringham Estate contains a large number and wide range of archaeological features (including round barrows, Roman villas, Medieval moats, deserted/shrunken settlements, and ruined churches). Since the early 1990s Norfolk County Council’s Monuments Management Project has been working with the estate to encourage its sustainable management. Positive work by estate staff, with support from the Project, has ensured that all the estate’s earthworks, among other archaeological remains, are in good condition and well managed.
But mention the Queen and heritage in the same sentence and you may think first of the 1992 fire at Windsor Castle’s Round Tower. This was a project in which English Heritage was closely involved, and in which the Royal Family unsurprisingly took great interest. The disaster occurred shortly after a civil-engineering project by English Heritage, designed to stop the Round Tower from sliding down the motte. This was a successful excavation and survey project, running from 1989 to 1992. English Heritage staff showed the Queen and other members of the Royal Family around, on a strictly private, no-cameras-allowed basis. Then came the 1992 fire. The role of the Royal Family in the post-fire reconstruction project is covered fairly comprehensively in Adam Nicolson’s 1997 book Restoration. As Nicholson suggests, they were heavily involved behind the scenes, and maintained interest throughout, despite not being that visible on-site after the initial shock of the fire.
Over the past 60 years a large number of people have been honoured for their services to archaeology or heritage. This has come at a time when archaeology grew significantly as an intellectual pursuit, taught now within universities outside Oxbridge and London, and as a profession, and during which heritage emerged with a key role in cultural tourism and the economy (‘cos tourists are money’, as Johnny once sang). Of course this has little direct connection with the monarchy itself, except to say that one reason cultural tourists come to the UK is for the monarchy and its legacies, and that the Queen’s honours reflect such cultural trends.
It has not been possible to quantify honours data over the full six decades, as the information is hard to access, but the Cabinet Office has provided figures and names from 2002 under the headings ‘Conservation, The Environment and Heritage’ and ‘Museums and Galleries’. Under ‘Conservation’, 95 people have been honoured in total over this ten-year period, with a significant increase in numbers from 2007 (a three-fold increase in recipients from the previous year, and a nine-fold increase over 2005). Notable among those honoured are: Sue Davies, Peter Beacham, Warwick Rodwell, Tim Darvill, Simon Thurley, Mike Heyworth, Peter Stone, David Thackray, David Breeze, and Paul Bidwell. All received OBEs, apart from Simon Thurley who received a CBE for services to conservation. Under ‘Museums’, 84 were honoured over the same ten years. A familiar name under this heading is Roger Bland, who received an OBE in 2008 for services to heritage.
There are of course much earlier examples of honoured archaeologists, and a full listing over the 60-year period, with citations, set in the context of archaeology’s emerging professionalism and the growth of heritage, could prove an interesting exercise, as could some attempt to quantify the recognition of archaeology and heritage within the honours system alongside similar-sized professions and practices.
As well as individuals, organisations and projects have also been honoured. Additional to York’s recent award, the University of Reading won the QAP in 2009, while previously BUFAU’s Wroxeter Hinterland Project won the award in 1996 for its use of novel technology.
But what of jubilees in general – what might we expect of them by way of their heritage, their legacy? In terms of artefacts, there is the ceremonial heritage used for most state occasions, as well as the commemorative and jubilee (including protest) artefacts which many collect, and which feature in social-history museums across the country. Then there are the structures and buildings that mark these significant anniversaries and which accumulate in our cities and countryside. We would expect them in London: the monument for George III’s Golden Jubilee (1810) and Queen Elizabeth II’s equestrian statue – also marking her Golden Jubilee – both at Windsor, for example.
But monuments to jubilees also crop up in less obvious locations, including Weymouth and Happy Valley in Llandudno. At Moel Famau, the highest point in the Clwydian range in North Wales, the ruins of a jubilee tower provide a surprising royal connection. This was another George III memorial, built to mark his Golden Jubilee. Its foundation stone was laid in 1810 by George Kenyon, 2nd Baron Kenyon, yet the tower was never completed due to a lack of funds. In 1862, a major storm brought down the incomplete structure. The surviving upper part of the tower was demolished for safety reasons, leaving just the base. Most of the rubble was removed from the site, with smaller stonework being reused by local farmers for dry-stone walls.
The archaeology of the Second Elizabethan Age (1952ff) seems an obvious and interesting topic for archaeological and heritage research. One might consider: an archaeology of the Queen’s Estates; the heritage of this and other monarchies, examining closely how the monarchy and how jubilees contribute to a country’s heritage economy; the archaeology and heritage of jubilees, both Royal and other; and the degree to which the Queen has honoured practitioners and academics. Indeed, some research has already been proposed: the Diamond Jubilee sits under English Heritage’s National Heritage Protection Plan’s ‘4A2 Late 20th Century Architecture’ activity line as a potential project for the current year. Some may scoff, not so much at the ‘heritage-ness’ of this, but at an archaeological approach to something so recent – contemporary, in fact.
But why is that? Archaeology is not a period of study; it is not something that is bound by some rule or other to focus only on earlier, deeper pasts – there may be convention to consider here, and the literal definition of archaeology may seem relevant to some, but there are no rules. And since when have definitions and convention prescribed our actions? Just as Johnny broke with convention in 1977, to attempt a disruption of the Silver Jubilee, the Diamond Jubilee comes at a time when archaeology and heritage are changing. This is not just in terms of the period covered, but also the people we try to engage in the process – homeless communities, for example, a cause in which Prince William is actively engaged.
The fact is, this ‘contemporary’ archaeology already exists. English Heritage’s 2007 Images of Change book by Sefryn Penrose covered the very period of the Queen’s reign. We teach this subject at York – recall the QAP citation: ‘leading-edge work in archaeology from prehistory to the present’ – and the ‘Johnny Rotten’ project features in my coursework: students either love and embrace this contemporary past with great enthusiasm, or they just don’t get it at all. But either way they learn, and they debate with vigour.
So maybe, once again, Johnny has a role here, at the time of the Diamond Jubilee, his graffiti facilitating a process: taking archaeology beyond tight definition and convention, to a new level, challenging order and acceptability… just so long as no-one goes and bans it!
Source John Schofield is Director of Studies, Cultural Heritage Management, at the University of York.