Over the months I have thoroughly enjoyed reading my fellow-trainees’ accounts of some of the projects they have undertaken this past year. It goes to show what fascinating stories we can find in our archives. However, in this entry I’m going to break the mould a bit…
Like the other trainees, I have spent a lot of time in the archives exploring topics such as Alan Turing for LGBT History Month, the origins of local place names, and food in Surrey (mock turtle soup, anyone?). But that is only one part of my traineeship at Surrey Heritage.
Based at Surrey History Centre, Surrey Heritage makes up the County Council’s heritage based departments, including the archives, archaeology, learning in heritage, and museums. This means that the traineeship here incorporates not only working in the archive, but some of the other teams as well. I don’t have enough time to describe all the projects I have been involved in during my traineeship, but have decided to pick out a few to describe some of the work I have undertaken outside the archive.
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I am very privileged to be blogging to you today from a place to which I affectionately refer as ‘ground zero’. I mean, of course, the city of Leicester, much famed in recent weeks for a certain Yorkist monarch unearthed below the tarmac and asphalt of the county seat. Just 700mm below the aforesaid asphalt, mind you. This precarious state of affairs was compounded by the presence of 19th-century building foundations, drains and outhouses criss-crossing the ancient footprint of the 13th-century Franciscan friary in which he was laid to rest. Any one of these building projects could have easily swept away any evidence of Old Dick, and were indeed responsible for the unfortunate demise of his feet.
This fortuitous preservation, combined with the skill and luck that allowed University of Leicester archaeologists to pinpoint the grave’s location after opening only three trial trenches, is miraculous indeed. I am pleased and humbled to be placed in Leicester for my Opening Up Archives traineeship in this most landmark of years. All images in this article were personally digitised and it’s been wonderful to help preserve and promote such important source material.
But what exactly does the ‘Richard III Discovery Story’ have to do with archives, you may ask? In many ways, everything – because of course, our county Record Office holds the majority of desk-based data, in conjunction with the local Historic Environment Record office, which was used by resident archaeologists to surmise the circumstances of Richard’s burial.
This includes historical documents written post-Bosworth, in which various people have described, recorded, and theorised about the King’s death and final resting place, as in this example below by William Burton in The Description of Leicestershire, 1622:
Extract from William Burton's The Description of Leicestershire, 1622 (reference P 9/2)
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Over the last year I have watched helplessly as dozens of Mali’s most ancient monuments have been damaged or destroyed as Ansar Dine supporting militia have pushed further and further south from their strongholds on the edge of the Sahara Desert. So it was with more than a little relief that I watched the recent liberation of Timbuktu by French and West African forces. But that relief turned quickly to shock as news reports showed the liberating forces uncovering what appeared to be the deliberate destruction of some of the irreplaceable archives ancient and libraries of Timbuktu.
As I watched the news reports, I was taken back to my last visit to the great city…
The alleyway had been worn into a series of deep smooth sculpted ruts making it almost impossible to negotiate for the uninitiated without absolute concentration.
It is only in recent years that I have come to realise what has driven me to spend significant chunks of my adult life travelling, searching out archives and libraries across Africa, hunting down local historians and visiting small and remote museums. Whether I have been engaged in concrete research or not, I have always sought out manuscripts whether held in state archives or small family collections.
Over decades I have fed my fetish in the basements of multi-national corporations, in the stores of village churches and mosques, at battlefields, in goldmines and in the backrooms of small corner shops. And I have learned that history is important in Africa for all the reasons one might imagine – but perhaps more than anywhere else I have travelled, I have become aware of the past forming a vivid and palpable presence in people’s lives.
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