Well into the second week of our digital fieldwork, we turn our efforts from brainstorming the myriad imprints of this pandemic towards the categorisation and sorting of data. In doing so, we hope to begin with a coherent data set, allowing us to start analysis and discussion of some of our examples. To summarise, contextual data is continually being added to the padlet timeline. Meanwhile, object and building forms have been sorted into google spreadsheets- enabling a level of clarity in presentation that the map padlet couldn’t provide. These efforts are not to say that we have ceased to explore new ideas of how the pandemic has shaped contemporary material culture.
Late yesterday we recorded some of Royal Ascot’s ‘virtual racegoers’ and their outfits, a novel practice which exemplifies digital adaptation to one of Britain’s oldest traditions. More recently, we’ve turned to Damien Hirst’s ‘Butterfly Rainbow’, which, while holding aesthetic value in its own right, also contributes to the new COVID metanarrative of nationwide NHS support. Drawing upon these examples helps illustrate the multifaceted nature of all the objects we have chosen to record- serving as both a merit and an issue in analysis. Central to our methodology is the designation of Historic England’s heritage values to each aspect of material culture (i.e. evidential, historical, aesthetic, or communal). Yet while clearly defined, these values are interwoven. The total salience of Hirst’s rainbow is lost without an understanding of the support it conveys. Likewise, the newfound digital footprint of Royal Ascot is only made important with reference to its centuries-old history. Essentially, the material culture of this pandemic is both formative of, and dependent on, the context it is a part of. From a heritage standpoint then, we should aim to capture both the physical and wider contextual value of each item- an opportunity provided especially to us as contemporary archaeologists, living through the history.
While pandemic life has somewhat become our new ‘normal’, its evolution is far from stagnant. If the fleeting establishment of our Nightingale hospitals is anything to learn by, the contextual backdrop of this fieldwork will inevitably change just in the short period we are undertaking it.
Therefore, it is inherent to contemporary archaeology and heritage asset production that this work will become just a snapshot of our time in this pandemic. It is vital then, in designating heritage values, that we provide a rich contextual background against which we substantiate our selection of this pandemic’s exemplary material culture.
Second Year Archaeology and Anthropology Student.
Day 4 of the project and we are well into the swing of it. Group 1 has been focussed on formalising the historical narrative the project uses. This includes looking at how COVID-19 spreads and linking this to both material changes and our Padlet timeline. Groups 2 and 3 are recording the objects and buildings which have changed or been introduced due to the Pandemic.
Today that included looking at the short-lived life cycles of some of our examples. In March, the Government appealed for help with 10,000 ventilators. Dyson replied, designing, engineering, and producing ventilators across 4 weeks at a cost of £20million. But these were never needed. Now Dyson have shifted to how they may be able to produce ventilators for international markets. The objects themselves were designed and prototypes made but they were never used. This narrative may change our perception of their importance.
Similarly, many of the makeshift hospitals worked under capacity or were built for a demand that never materialised. NHS Nightingale London and ‘Dragon’s Heart’ Hospital Cardiff were open for less than a month. Exeter and Bristol Nightingale hospitals were unused. Of all the makeshift hospitals recorded so far only the NHS Nightingale Manchester still has patients. All others are on standby in case of further surges in the pandemic.
We therefore face questions about how we record these objects and buildings, and their value in heritage. These are key buildings, objects and moments in the historical narrative but so far have had small lifespans within the pandemic. Unless there is a significant second wave, they will play smaller parts than expected in the pandemic response. How important are these hospitals which did not fulfil capacity? Is the fact that they were built important enough to warrant documentation and preservation? The much longer biographical histories of centres such as the Excel Centre London, the NEC Birmingham and Manchester Central Convention Centre must also be considered.
Second Year Archaeology and Anthropology Students
Today’s post is about the difficulties that we started seeing early in our project. As mentioned yesterday we have split into three groups researching the historical narrative, buildings and objects associated with the pandemic, respectively. Most items of interest – the announcement of the lockdown, the construction of temporary hospitals, and the repurposing of ski goggles as PPE for medical staff, due to shortages – will naturally fall into one of the above categories. However, there are exceptions which we came across today. Shipping containers are being converted into portable laboratories designed to carry out up to 2,400 COVID-19 tests per day. The metal containers started as objects but through conversion into testing centres, they have become buildings. Should the containers be recorded as shipping containers or labs? Should they be placed in the category of object or building? The answer is that they could be either – it is debatable. The materials and transportable nature of the finished laboratory would identify it as an object, whereas the uses of the shipping container as a lab, something which cannot be moved while in use, would identify it as a building. As we had to categorise the shipping container labs into one of the two categories, we placed them under objects. This is because the shipping container is what the lab was converted from and could be converted back to. How ordinary items have been altered due to demands caused by the pandemic is key to this project, as it is reflective of the changes caused by COVID-19 that we are documenting.
Another feature of the pandemic we found to be difficult to record is the digital replacement of physical events. The Hay Festival and Download Festival are just two examples of events that were due to take place this summer as physical events but have been forced to go online instead. When attending a physical event, one would expect to leave with physical reminders: tickets, wristbands, muddy boots, souvenirs. But those who attended virtual festivals have none of these. By taking the events online more people can be a part of the experience, although the experience is altered through the lack of materiality. We are taking note of these festivals both because they did not happen physically but also because they did which makes them difficult to record their ‘material print’. These events are best documented by looking at social media posts detailing the reactions to any festival forced online, as the use of such sites and technology as a substitute for physical interaction is a defining feature of this pandemic.
Continue to keep updated with our progress in documenting the historical narrative, and the heritage value of the objects and buildings associated with the pandemic, on our Padlet Map:
Second Year Archaeology and Anthropology Student
It is day two of our socially distanced Archaeology of Pandemic project, and we split into three groups. Group One started researching the historical narrative of COVID-19, the most significant respiratory virus since the 1918 influenza pandemic, by establishing a timeline of UK-related events. The study combined World Health Organization key events from the first identification of COVID-19 in Wuhan, China, its arrival in the UK ,and the following responses of the Government. We are now linking these to COVID-19-related material culture. Looking at non-pharmaceutical interventions of suppression and mitigation from Imperial College London’s COVID-19 response team, we have begun tying key events and data of death/case rates to material culture. This includes the demand for PPE, building of temporary hospitals, and changes in use of objects and buildings.
Groups Two and Three have developed heritage asset recording forms that work in conjunction with padlet boards. We are recording objects and buildings in line with Historic England’s guidelines annotating the four values of heritage: Evidential, Historic, Communal and Aesthetic. These can be anything that is viewed as significant in the material response during the imposed lockdown in the UK. The use of social media platforms like Twitter are helpful as they form dated threads, such as the ‘#DragonsHeartHospital’ from Cardiff. Via Padlet we are mapping objects, events, physical and digital sites that have been important or have changed meaning and use during the lockdown from the 28th March to the 1st June.
We have all been working from our homes while communicating via Slack, Google Docs and padlets, and we are using digital recourses to gather data and information as a base for our project. Today, in our daily 4pm meeting on Zoom, we discussed the different heritage interpretations of the ‘Shetland scrubs’ initiative and the communal, historical and aesthetic value of the manufacturing of facemarks. We also discussed the use of fieldwork for looking at ways buildings, such as retail and grocery shops, have been modified for social distancing to minimise the transmission of COVID-19.
You can follow our progress visiting our padlet map
Second year Archaeology and Anthropology student
The Archaeology of Pandemic Project
Historic England in April 2020 launched an initiative to archive public pictures from the COVID-19 related lockdown. The ‘Picturing Lockdown Collection‘ aimed to archive images from the quarantine that has been applied across the UK to tackle the spread of the new Coronavirus. More than 3000 people contributed with images that show the impact that lockdown had on everyday lifeways. It is important that Historic England reacted rapidly to the temporality of the current events and tried to preserve the Heritage aspect, launching a community-based initiative. The collection is publicly available and can be accessed through this webspace.
Here in Bristol, we believe that the disciplines of Archaeology and Anthropology should play a more active role studying the impact of the pandemic and helping to preserve the related tangible and intangible Heritage Assets. We advocate that archaeology is a tool to study past and present societies alike through their material print while the methods of anthropology enable us to document individual and collective thoughts in the contemporary. Thus, we decided to launch a two week ‘fieldwork’ programme that studies the material response to lockdown.
The ‘fieldwork’ is digital and socially distant! We are working from our homes, and in our neighbourhoods, tracing the objects and the buildings that have changed use, meaning, and/or importance during the lockdown. Alongside we are looking for objects that have been created specifically to battle the pandemic. We are also interested in seeing how the public interacts with these objects and buildings, and how active perceptions have changed during the different phases of the lockdown.
The idea of studying materially pandemics and quarantines is not novel, and relevant outputs can be observed from medieval plague burials in London to modern quarantine stations in New South Wales, Australia. Our aim is to identify the dynamics of the lockdown and how material cultures change meanings. In order to achieve these goals, we are recording objects (such as the Shetland Scrubs), buildings (such as the makeshift hospitals) and intra-landscapes (such as the arrangements for social distancing in shops).
We are using padlet boards to organise our research along with Slack and Zoom for team communications. We are following Historic England guidelines for the building and object recording, when the norms of ‘Object and Building Biographies’ are the theoretical baselines of our research. At the end, we aim to have a digital record of lockdown-related material culture and built heritage across the UK.
We will be posting daily updates in this blog about the project and its outcomes. So watch this space for the progress of the Archaeology of Pandemic Project’s digital fieldwork.
Dr Konstantinos Trimmis
Archaeology Technician and Associate Teacher