Grave Goods – Matthew Pope.
Welcome to Grave Goods, a series of interviews in which the guest is invited to select five items to accompany them on the Awfully Big Adventure (the list of categories can be found here).
This time around, we’re delighted to welcome archaeologist, map addict and enthusiast of all things four dimensional, Dr. Matt Pope.
Matt got off to a flying start in his a career as an archaeologist. when he took a post at the now world famous Boxgrove excavation in Sussex. Boxgrove re-wrote the story of human occupation in Britain (and beyond) when the excavations uncovered pristinely preserved hominid activity from a half a million years ago (and above), including butchery sites, probable spear use and even individual sitting positions preserved in flint fragments, scattered as they created the tools which were also left behind in profusion.
More recently Matt is perhaps better known for readdressing the record of La Cotte de St Brelade as part of the La Manche Prehistoric research group in Jersey, which has been delving deep into the behaviour of our Neanderthal relatives, and transforming our understanding of the subtler behaviour of this much maligned group.
Tools of the Trade
“Although I haven’t used one in far too long, it would have to be a theodolite. Preferably a lovely old brass instrument. So much of my work basically comprises a geography of the deep past at varying scales, and I’ve always been at my happiest engrossed in making, reading and using maps. The first map I made was of the hills and streets around my Brighton home, but my epiphany came when we had a primary school project to make a model mountain out of polystyrene sheets. We did this by painstakingly tracing contours from an OS map of a Welsh mountain, scaling up the contours using an OHP and then cutting each line out, tracing them on the tiles and shaping each in turn. By the time they was stacked, covered in paper mache and painted green, my 8 year old brain had rewired itself and flat paper maps were transformed into epic three-dimensional landscapes.
Mapping the ancient past means getting your head around time and change as well as space, I love the hyper-dimensionality of it. In spite of the incredible technological developments the most important tool in archaeology is a mind that can see sites and landscapes in four dimensions.
With an old instrument, pencil and graph paper I can spend my time mapping the Otherworld, a place where I hope every view to a trig point is clear and the back site never moves. Why a 21st century archaeologist would have such an old brass instrument in his grave might cause a few future archaeologists to scratch their heads, but might help ensure my grave makes it into a text book.”
Food for the Journey
“I’d like to create a similar dating conundrum for future archaeologists and have my body sent off on this last great adventure with a packed lunch of an early 1980’s vintage: within a plastic Empire Strikes Back lunchbox (maybe featuring Yoda on the front), the lunch shall include a clingfilm-wrapped paste sandwich, a Marathon Bar, a bag of Fish’n’Chips crisps and a can of Topdeck. That will keep them busy for a bit.”
“It would have to be a beautiful example of a Cretaceous echinoid fossil. We used to find them walking the fields with my family across the Downs and they always seemed to me a token of the south country and the chalk hills. Shepherds carried them as ‘thunder stones’ to ward off lightning strikes and rural communities would place them on their window sills for the same effect; in East Anglia they are called fairy loaves and kept close to the fireside. They are definitely magical objects, I can’t think of a fossil in Europe that is more entangled with folklore.
They also have prehistoric resonances, very occasionally forming an intrinsic part of Palaeolithic artefacts, but in later prehistory intentionally buried with the dead. My Great Grandfather, a workman employed by the Sussex archaeologist Cecil Curwen, found a Neolithic female and infant burial where an echinoid formed part of the grave goods, and of course there is the ostentatious Dunstable burial, where hundreds of echinoids accompanied a mother and child on their journey to the Bronze Age afterlife.
I’m hoping going over clutching such a tangible link with the land might give me a greater chance to come back when the celestial tides allow and walk the high places now and then. There aren’t enough spectral archaeologists in modern folklore.”
“Choosing a single book has been the trickiest task. Because I both love many books immensely and also have a short attention span that even the longest and most gripping tome couldn’t hope to hold for eternity. Books are very important objects to me, as a teenager I tried to make up for a patchy education by reading avidly anything I could buy from the many second hand bookshops in Brighton. One shop, Wax Factor, on Trafalgar Street near the station became my gateway to a wider world and I hoovered, with no direction of discrimination, a mixture of literature, sci-fi, black-spined Penguin classics, the rare archaeology books and abundant occult tomes that lined the shelves around the vinyl goods. Choosing one now would be impossible. So I’m going to cheat and commit myself to writing one, in retirement, on the Geography and Topography of the Afterlife, researched assiduously from every existing account. I hope I might get to have a guide there to help me explore, Virgil or that new boy Dante will do. I can then spend eternity producing the revised and extended edition.”
“I considered having my dear departed Land Rover Series III hauled to the graveside and deposited with me ready for resurrection. Although somehow, after a life time of driving around, the thought of crunching rusty gears into eternity isn’t that appealing.
Despite being very much a terrestrial land-lover I do find myself increasingly drawn to the sea, or specifically to remote islands. I certainly hope before my time comes to get a chance to explore some more and right now I’m obsessed with the idea of visiting Ouessant.
So while it would require a bigger burial mound, and one close to a natural harbour (Sutton Hoo would do!), I’d like an ocean-going boat, no make that a Longship, and maybe a little crew too. If Thor Heyerdahl was free that would be fab. Once on the other side we’ll hoist the sail and point the vessel west in search of the land of the young. West always seems like the right direction to go when your time has come.”
A Message from Beyond the Grave
“If you screw that section I’m going to haunt you”