Friday and Saturday morning found me in (two different) Wiltshire fields under ephemeral cirrus cloud, amid bird noise and warmed by a strong breeze. I was with about 40 other people on each occasion at [i] the launch of Wiltshire Wildlife Trust's Wild Connections project, and [ii] an archeological dig at Marden (the largest UK henge you may not have heard of).
Wild Connections (a quintessentially outdoors project) was launched indoors with the aid of runaway powerpoint slides and far too many presentations, one of which was so verbally incontinent that it went on for three times its allotted slot. We all sat dutifully quiet, and far too polite. We were eventually released into the open air for a walk round the Langford Lakes reserve, and were so frustrated that conversation broke out immediately. I was able to talk to many people about the project, the reserve, the Trust, local development problems, student internships, and about the state of conservation in Wiltshire. I made sure I talked to some of those who'd made presentations (apart from those who wilfully over-ran). I even found a passing expert who knew the name of a flower that I could not identify – ribbed melilot. We were stopped at intervals for updates on particular features, but this added to the stimulus and did not detract from the enjoyment.
All this rather anarchic conversation in the open air made up for the overly-organised start. How much better this would have been, I reflected, had there been a brief (15-20 mins?) input at the start:
Welcome / Introduction to Wild Connections and its purposes / Identification of the experts in the room (I suppose they might have been given two minutes each, sans powerpoint, to describe their role) / the instruction to go forth to connect and converse – and learn.
An additional possibility would have been to have had stations round the reserve with poster displays where experts could have foregathered. We'd have had more time outside, even more conversation, and greater opportunities to learn.
The Marden dig, by contrast, was all in the field – well, two fields to be precise. In the first field (it was inside the henge), we gathered round the dig leader, Jim Leary, an articulate and thoughtful academic from Reading, who talked lucidly for 15 minutes or so about Marden, henges, the Late Neolithic, and the dig. At the end of which he said "Let's go to see what we're doing; we can talk on the way". And so off we ambled, talking and admiring the setting of the Marden henge inside a great bowl formed of Salisbury Plain and the Marlborough Downs. As settings go, it was quite something, even for someone like me who is used to such things.
The dig was in the next field, and there was further input against a backdrop of great student activity with picks, shovels, wheelbarrows, grids, trowels, even smaller trowels, scrapers, brushes and bags. I'll spare you the detail, but never has soil been so dramatic, even to an untutored eye. Back in the first field, we looked at some of the finds along with a Time Team stalwart, before heading off to the rather splendid local pub. It had all been outside and oral, and rather perfect. I wondered to myself how long it took Jim Leary to decide not to use powerpoint. You know the answer.
I said that Leary was articulate and thoughtful, which he was. He was also intent on our learning something about henges (that is: LNMEs – Late Neolithic Monumental Enclosures), about the people who lived there, and about how we know what we know about them. He was scrupulous about setting out where the uncertainties lay, about the relationship between speculation and understanding, and about how explanation and evidence go hand in hand. He was explaining how they theorise the Neolithic from the present day cultural landscape, and made archeology seems utterly thrilling (despite its being 99% kneeling, digging and scraping). Such skill, then and now. I am still thinking about it ...