CURRENT ARCHAEOLOGY 117
Conspiracy at Wharram Christopher Dyer writes:
Academics make poor conspir ators because they talk too much, but at least one good- natured plot was kept a secret for the last three years - the publication of a volume of 16 essays on medieval rural settlements in honour of Maurice Beresford and John Hurst. The conspirators assembled at Wharram Percy on 18th July of this year, a day when the unsuspecting Beresford and Hurst were expecting no more than a meeting of the Wharram research committee.
Maurice Beresford's suspicions may have been aroused by the arrival of Stuart Wrathmell at his home in Leeds that morning to offer a lift; he normally has to make the first leg of the journey from Leeds to Wharram by train, but the plotters were anxious that he arrive on time for lunch.
John Hurst was more and more astonished as a site tour that he was conducting for the benefit of one unexpected visitor was joined by more and more experts on medieval settlements. He became worried that there would not be enough lunch to feed the 70 plus diggers, and the committee, and these unannounced arrivals. His concern mounted on discovering the Director of the British School at Rome and the Emeritus Professor of Medieval History at the University of Durham standing in the lunch queue.
After a tense first course at lunch the Wharram bell was rung, a lectern appeared, and Christopher Taylor made an elegant speech of praise for the two founders of medieval village studies. The book was presented, a cake was produced and cut, and corks popped from bottles. Not since the desertion of the village, c.1500 has there been so much public drinking at Wharram. The two doyens of village studies showed every sign of pleasure at the event, and recovered sufficiently from the shock to make speeches of thanks.
The book, Rural Settlements of Medieval England was edited by Mick Aston, David Austin and Christopher Dyer, and is published by Blackwells at £55. The essays are intended to sum up the present state of settlement studies and to point towards future research. That means shifting the emphasis in the study of Deserted Medieval Villages from desertion towards origins, planning and development, and adding hamlets, farmsteads and other types of dispersed settlement to the villages. It means looking at the villages and farms in their landscape context, both in terms of their prehistoric and Roman predecessors, and the evolving rural economy in the Middle Ages. And it involves the application to medieval village studies of techniques and ideas developed by other disciplines - sampling, analysis of environmental evidence, study of vernacular buildings, and so on. The essays do not claim to give as comprehensive an overview as Deserted Medieval Villages did in 1971 (edited by Beresford and Hurst, and now reprinted by Alan Sutton), but they do give a flavour of all aspects of the subject and have something new to say about almost every English region.
How to run the BM How do you run the world's greatest Museum? Sir David Wilson has been the Director of the British Museum since 1977 and has just written a manifesto to tell us all about his problems. The book he says stems from impatience because it is impossible to place before the public the practicalities of running the BM. The book was written in two months flat, and "written on the hoof in airport lounges, in Japan, Jordan and America, on trains and in aircraft, in excavation houses and even at home". It is a fascinating read which reveals the real story of running the BM.
Take for instance the saga of the Victorian Society and the front hall. The museum wanted to redecorate the front hall to make it light and airy incorporating the original decor of Smirke in the 1820s. The Victorian Society, however, wanted to go back to the decor of Collman - dark and gloomy. The Museum is a Grade 1 listed building so the planners and the conservationists all came in. The Victorian Society "embarked on a campaign of vilification which ate deeply into the soul of the museum". It took 18 months' fighting to get the decor they wanted which in any case cost half as much as the Victorian Society's plans.
And then there was his fight with the Public Accounts Committee - a great triumph in which he routed all his critics. Everyone believes that the stores of the BM are full of treasures that have never been recorded. This is nonsense. They have all been recorded, even though the recording may go back to the 19th Century (and a location index is needed). What they are trying to do is put everything onto computer. They've done nearly half the 70,000 objects in the Egyptian Department, and nearly a third of the 600,000 coins. But the four million items in the Greek and Roman, Western Asiatic, Prehistoric and RB, and Prints and Drawings have yet to be entered.