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April 2018

Posted by admin on April 5, 2018

This month James considers how we translate the archaeological findings at Teffont into compelling stories.

“If translation is a form,” writes Walter Benjamin, “translatability must be the essence of certain works … Clearly a translation, no matter how good it is, can never mean anything so far as the original is concerned. Yet thanks to the originals translatability, the translation is very closely connected with it.”

Coming up with a story of the past is very similar to translating a text. What Benjamin identifies in the translation is a unique form of writing that is, paradoxically, neither original nor copy. The meaning of a novel, for instance, must be captured despite the exact words conjuring that meaning being off-limits. A string of plot points and lists of characters will never do; the translator has to reinvent the novel, make it come alive in her own way. Similarly, archaeological stories – actually known as ‘narratives’ – are more than facts and historical dates. They have to tell us a story that impresses on our imaginations. My interest, coming at Teffont from a museums/archives background, has always been in the creation of narratives.

Participating in my fifth (and possibly final) Teffont season last summer, the story of our work here was something that was very much on my mind. Each season has a different feel and a different flavour of memory once finished. Some appear golden and hopeful from the baking sunshine of summer work, others darker and greener from forest labour and rain. Cohorts of friends come and go, discussions and jokes behind them. I am the sort of person, as well, who curates memories of my own feelings a little too much, and each Teffont brings them back in unexpected ways: what the Teffont dust smells like, where blisters form in the first week, familiar aches, how to sober up while engaged in hard labour. I remember my own thoughts and intentions, moods and explanations over seven years, how they reflect a changing self.


Above: The author, right, with anthropomorphic bottle

I must not have been the only one to be thinking on these lines, because before a single spade entered the soil last August, the team gathered in the back of The Boot, Tisbury, to discuss David’s suggestion of Teffont’s ‘sacred grove’. It is impossible to describe how fanciful these two words appear to an archaeologist, particularly ones who have ever had to read a textbook on stratigraphy, but it nears the disbelief any of us would feel were we to see a West Country farmer performing a fertility ritual in a field of beets. Looking over the maps that were helpfully spread across the table, the most we could be certain of is that there was a large area lacking in any finds or archaeological layers in the centre of the occupation area in the Upper Holt, and a broad halo of material in the fields surrounding it. Over the next two weeks the ‘sacred grove’ became a stock joke of field interpretation, a personal reminder of the time when I used to point out ley lines in trenches. How does one measure the sacredness of the grove? What even exactly is a grove?

Despite all this, probably all of us agreed that it was at least a plausible theory. There is a great deal of evidence for religious activity in and around Teffont that we were all aware of. And, most crucially, no one offered an alternative interpretation despite a lot of prompting from David. And so, it began to settle into our minds that this was what we were working on, even as we approached our work with meticulousness and objectivity. Afterwards the sacred grove went on to conquer the world, becoming the subject of David’s public lecture in the village - I have never been to one of David’s lectures in the village, but I imagine each one is like the Beatles landing the USA all over again. The grove has become the story of Teffont, and whenever anyone asks me what I did last summer, it’s usually how I answer (along with a few fertility dance gatherings thrown in for spice). It is possible to answer the question of “did you find anything?” with a list of discovered ceramics, but conversations become so much more elaborate after name-dropping a cheeky grove or two.


Above: No Sacred Grove atheists in foxholes - the author with remarkably more hair, Teffont 2010

The fact is that it is an assumption that will never be proved – it is the quintessential placeholder idea. But why should that limit its value? The best histories, regardless of what any archaeologist or scientist or historian might tell you, are not the most accurate or factual, they are the most compelling. It’s the reason why we read, by choice, books by Hilary Mantel about the Tudors or watch movies about the Second World War, and why we remember them. To be compelling doesn’t mean we ignore facts and accuracy – on the contrary, to maintain our interest it demands a certain faithfulness to realities.

That’s why, when friends, colleagues and things like this blog ask me about my Teffont experiences, I find myself translating it to them.