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THE VAN – Archaeology in transition

Posted by John Schofield, Greg Bailey, Cassie Newland and Anna Nilsson

Figure 1 - The van during excavation
Figure 2 – Evidence of a well-maintained vehicle

In late July 2006, archaeologists from the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Bristol with involvement also from Atkins Heritage, embarked on a contemporary archaeology project with a difference. They have been ‘excavating’ an old Ford Transit van, used for field archaeology projects for some years (1991-c.1999) prior to its new life in works and maintenance (c.1999-2005). The object: to see what can be learnt about a very particular and characteristic type of contemporary place, and to establish what archaeologists and archaeology can contribute to understanding the way we (society) and specifically we (as archaeologists) use these places. Archaeologists John Schofield, Cassie Newland and Anna Nilsson, and filmmaker and archaeology and screen media student Greg Bailey have provided the following report:

The van was donated to the project by the Ironbridge Gorge Museum, and moved to Bristol for excavation. This was to be like any conventional excavation: we proposed to dismantle the van systematically and – at times – forensically, recording all features, structures, deposits and artefacts, as well as introducing specialists for particular tasks. We were interested in how the van had been treated; what condition it was in; and what stories the artefacts, body work and engine parts could tell us. Do they all contribute to a single narrative, or multiple narratives each emphasising different degrees of care and attention? Can we distinguish ‘drivers’ from ‘owners’ for example? What could forensics tell us – we understood the potential from police investigations, but in terms of the everyday, what could we learn about the uses to which the van was put? Here we will describe briefly the methodology and some preliminary results, and then reflect upon the debate this project has created, largely concerning the nature and purpose of contemporary archaeology.

This was in many ways a conventional project. Our site was fixed in the sense that we couldn’t move it to a more convenient location for excavation (eg a lab or indoor space) – it was to be in the place allocated by the University of Bristol. And planning the excavation was much the same as for any site. We prepared the ground through documentary and oral historical research. We were provided with documents pertaining to the vehicle’s service history, while staff from the Ironbridge Museum were interviewed, or expressed views and memories online. Later we were given further documentation by the Transit Van Club who receive archive material directly from Ford. This included technical manuals (additional to the published ‘Haynes’ manual we had already), brochures, promotional videos and models, including that used for wind tunnel tests.
Figure 3 – Drawing artefact scatter in the rear of the van
Figure 4 – Date stamp, one of many different types of date stamp used on the vehicle

Fieldwork also followed convention. A rapid drawn survey of the van preceded surface collection of artefacts from the interior. This collection revealed significant quantities of artefacts, ranging from large objects such as pieces of vacuum cleaner and halogen lamps, to much small items including screws, wire, pens and pencils, confectionary wrappers, receipts and price labels. Surface artefacts were collected on a 20cm grid and plotted at 1:10 over the site plan. The rear of the van had three stratigraphic layers: a carpet; a wooden panel floor and the original metal floor of the van. Each layer had its own distinctive assemblage, and clear spatial patterning could be seen within each. The carpet and wooden floor contain evidence of use for works and maintenance purposes; while beneath the wooden floor is evidence for its archaeological role: a seventeenth century potsherd, slag, a Victorian threepenny bit, and the types of pencils typically used by archaeologists. There is also evidence for some kind of celebration: part of a confetti box and a piece of ‘champagne glass’ shaped confetti.

The engine and all components behind the facia were systematically removed, recorded and inspected. Many of the parts – and notably engine components – are original and in immaculate condition, suggesting the van has been very well maintained and regularly serviced. The oil has been changed religiously, as the sump was completely clear of filings. Where parts are not original they are brand new, and virtually unused: the exhaust for example and the air filter. By contrast, the bodywork is in a very poor state. We have an accident report which coincides with evidence for significant repairs to the offside of the van. Staff tell of the van being used as a diving board on one project, and flattening of the roof appears to confirm that.

All parts have been given context numbers, and descriptions were written for each. It helps that every component is date stamped. Our forensic work has focused on dusting for fingerprints (very few on the internal panels because this van was largely built by robots), and examining hairs to establish whether humans or animals have been carried in the back. Researchers from the Chemistry department are examining stains from above the driver’s seat, the door panels and the seat fabric, as well as dust from behind the facia. We have also been contacted about the bugs we have removed from the air filter, radiation grille and the interior.
Figure 5 – Forensic investigation of hairs from the rear of the van
Figure 6 – Researchers from the School of Chemistry sample dust behind the facia

Finally, elevation drawings were made and photographs taken. The project will also be the subject of a short film.

As we have been involved with excavating, others have been debating. And opinion is sharply divided on whether this is a worthwhile exercise or a complete waste of time and effort (not money, as this project is entirely self-funded). The blog hosted by Ironbridge (available here) has hosted our various site reports, and provided easy access to the BAJR site (available here), where an opinion poll has been running. Our ‘press day’ resulted in a report by BBC Online (available here). In addition to opinion expressed via these various weblinks, the site of our excavation, at the entrance to Royal Fort Gardens in Bristol, and two weeks of hot, dry weather, meant we had many passers-by. Numerous of these were interviewed, including cleaners, police and security personnel, research and teaching staff from a number of departments at the university, and notably a group of summer school students. These views have been recorded, and some will feature in the film.

Figure 7 Summer school students discuss the project and examine our finds

In a recent essay (Schofield 2006, p11) I argued for contemporary archaeology, on the simple basis that archaeology has no time limit, and that archaeologists study material culture in the pursuit of understanding, however ancient or recent it might be. So why not a van? We are not planning on repeating this exercise, but welcome any comments on what we have done, and where this might lead.

Schofield J. 2006. Rethinking heritage management. British Archaeology 89 (July August 2006), p11.


This is an important example of archaeological practices deployed as a series of interventions into the contemporary and specifically as a means (and end) of marking what once was, before it passes: a life history (memory) if you will. But, in the vein of the Garbage Project approach, what did you learn through this intervention that you could not have learned from interviewing the drivers/passengers?

Moreover, this is no ordinary archaeological thing and as such you must have had to tailor your practices to suit. How did they change?

I disagree with the last comment to some degree. The course is an intriguing device for honing skills - analytical reasoning, modeling from material remains. As someone who works in Greek and Roman, I would endorse it as an elective for Classical archaeologists. Perhaps more cautiously, for Classical archaeologists with conguent interests.

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