The title of my PhD changes pretty much every time I think about it. But as no one really wants to hear me recite a twenty-something word title out loud, I usually simplify it to:
“Why did people break stuff?”
which seems to keep most people quite content and saves that awkward moment where they realise they should never ask a PhD student what they do and why. Don’t worry, I won’t be elaborating here “why” I do my PhD – that’s a question best saved for an existential crisis of the sleepless early hours.
For me, I’m usually more interested in the “how?” behind a PhD. How did someone end up studying bone fat processing or the domestication of chickens or fish skin tanning? (Yes, these are all real PhDs!) I realised I’d actually forgotten my own answer to this question until a week or two ago when I was studying objects at the Somerset Heritage Centre and I encountered the very artefact that first sparked my interest.
Somerset has a host of fascinating objects that have suffered destruction in one way or another. The large Late Bronze Age Wick Park hoard contains numerous deliberately broken swords, spears and other pieces, while the 17 gold bracelets from Priddy were reportedly found crushed into a ball. An elaborately decorated shield was laid in a settlement ditch at Milsoms Corner, South Cadbury, and stabbed through three times. And yet, it was none of these that sparked my interest. It was a tiny mangled piece of socketed axe courtesy of a Time Team excavation at Greylake, Middlezoy…
This piece represents the lower blade of a Late Bronze Age 3-ribbed socketed axe that has been cut in half, burnt and crushed. As my supervisor described it, it’s like a “triple death” of the object. Someone really battered it into nothingness.
This piece is by no means unique – mangled bits of socketed axes are common, particularly in the ‘scrap’ hoards of South East England and North West France. However, there was something about this piece. It was the first time handling a piece like it and I couldn’t stray away from my thoughts about the amount of effort that must have gone into achieving this sortof destruction. It was only then that I started to take note of all the other examples that were piling up around me.
So when I opened the drawer of objects at Somerset Heritage Centre, I spotted this piece and the memory of it came flooding back. How had I forgotten about it? This was the whole reason I am where I am today. All because of a tiny fragment that in all likelihood is the scrap piece from a recycling process. There’s no way that Bronze Age individuals 3000 years ago could have had any concept of what they were setting in motion when this item was cast into the ground, which is an incredibly stimulating notion.
It must be nearly three years since I last saw it and that too provided an interesting insight into my development of thought processes. My original notes are minimal – the concept of “deliberate destruction” merely a set of buzzwords to acquire funding (huzzah!); studying it now, I can spot the marks of intent, I’m aware of the rarity of finding a macroscopically burnt bronze piece, and I know that its context associated with a Bronze Age trackway could make for an interesting case study.
This was the first piece that really got me thinking about destruction and represents the original reason for how I ended up doing what I do. It probably hasn’t held any serious significance to anyone since the Bronze Age (in fact I can pretty much guarantee it), but for me it actually set me on a path that, for better or worse, has shaped part of my life. And there’s no chance of turning back now.
Acknowledgements and Notes
My sincere thanks to Bethan, Steve and Amal at the Somerset Heritage Centre for allowing me to take these photos – all credit going to the South West Heritage Trust (Museums Service). Also, for anyone who loves Time Team (and who doesn’t?!), the excavation during which they find this axe is available online at 4 On Demand – Season 5, Episode 2. This axe does not actually feature, but the site itself is fascinating.