When is an object an artefact?

Art work produced by school learners, on display in Manchester Museum

I recently had the great pleasure of co-leading a project, ‘Dig: Creative Interpretations’, working with schools in Greater Manchester, around the topic of parks, drawing on material from the Whitworth Park Excavations. For our particular part of the project, Melanie Giles and I led a team of PhD students (Ellon Souter, Jodie Kim and Jenna Ashton), who worked with local primary and secondary schools to produce some amazing postcards and poems, as a part of a workshop which reflected on issues of use, and the ownership of spaces, in parks.

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Everyday objects become artefacts

Old bottles on display

The postcards and poems went on to form a component of a recent exhibition at Manchester Museum.   Aside from being immensely proud to have work included in the exhibition, it was fantastic to see everyday objects taking centre stage as the focus of exhibition cases. For instance, Lego bricks and other children’s lost or discarded toys are on display, providing insights into childhood in the past (and the subject of a PhD topic by Ruth Colton), with the re-use of pop-bottle stoppers as marbles conjuring up narratives around play, and how these items came to be lost, forgotten or thrown away, and discovered many years later. It is probably safe to say that their owners were unlikely to have guessed the eventual fate of their objects, in museum displays. Alongside toys, there is evidence of the subversive activities which often take place in parks, then and now, including alcohol bottles and hash bags. As discussed on a recent Radio 4 Woman’s Hour, parks were supposedly alcohol-free places, and their findings here demonstrate the long history of hidden behaviour taking place in park spaces.

Perhaps more than anything, the excavation, our work with local school groups, and the museum exhibition, highlight the value of studying everyday objects and behaviour. It is refreshing to hear the stories of the everyday, rather than those of the rich and powerful, as is so often the case with archaeology.

I’m looking forward to encouraging archaeology students to think about the topic in my lectures at the University of Bradford next semester – along with visits to local and National Museums (including the British Museum), lectures will discuss what makes a museum exhibit or artefact, and address the relationship between the past and the present.photo 4

The Whitworth Park Community Archaeology and History Project is directed by Prof Sian Jones, Dr Hannah Cobb and Dr Melanie Giles, and the project assistant is Ruth Colton.

Check out blended images of the Park, produced by Stuart Jeffrey

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