David Connolly ‘Intangible Heritage’

At last we present the papers from the 2016 conference and who better to start with than the man, the legend Mr David Connolly !


David Connolly

Hidden Heritage takes many forms as we will and have heard and seen in this conference.

This lecture/paper discusses the realities of personal heritage that lie hidden within ourselves.  We create our landscapes of memory and imagination– too often leaving these stories and places as we grow older, recorded only in our own reminiscences.  Perhaps the time has come to rediscover the environment around us with fresh eyes, sharing our personal histories with each other. Exploring and recording our shared visions of the past.

Personal heritage that must always remain slightly mysterious, perhaps even self-referenced, does not have to remain hidden forever.

There are two main areas of hidden heritage, which can be explored within the remit of this conference: the personal history and the site relationship (i.e. the knowledge of place). As I hope to demonstrate, using my own personal experiences, these two areas are inextricable interwoven.

Anyone who has spent any time in the company of others begins slowly to uncover or excavate the personal past of the individual or individuals involved, whereby each moment or stage in a person’s life is marked by their own unrecorded instants of life changing or memorable histories.

Personal Heritage

This aspect of hidden heritage is often overlooked and even ignored by the professionals when listening to others and yet to my best knowledge it is this area, which offers the richest dialogue of all areas of hidden heritage. After spending time volunteering in a dementia day centre, where I was exosed to countless past recollections of its residents and staff, I was forced to re-examine my own relationships with the past. As a result of this panoply of lived experiences, it became increasingly clear that this introspective self-examination can provide an innovative and alternative route to interpretative process.  Like a story told in a great Anglo-Saxon hall, this was a narrative that was heavy with symbolism and meaning, in addition to a descriptive wealth that could not compare with the sparse commentary of even the best examined archaeological site.   Here we have the ability to view the past in a microcosm of personal memories (true these are often embellished) that turns a clay-pit into a bottomless lake and a railway embankment into a hillfort rampart.   Often these have meaning only to the individual, but can create a woven memory that creates a tapestry as sumptuous as any medieval wall hanging.



Sharing these experiences can provide trans- generational associations, sparking discussion, communication and connection.  In one instance, the discovery of ‘thrupenny bits’ and pennies brought smiles associated with fond and sentimental  memories  from the volunteers and visitors on site (i.e. Victorian wash-house in Haddington, East Lothian):  school children laughed at stories of pocket money counted out in pennies, while others recounted tales of sweets bought or moneys lost on the way to the shop.  When taken together and listened to, these seemingly inconsequential moments in time transformed into a fascinating social documentary. In this instance, the insignificant experience became valued, providing a catalyst for a discourse.

Moving forward, we – as archaeologists – must remember this vital part of who and what we are, and how this shapes the individual and the society.  Therefore an archaeological site is not a sterile past-scape, with two-dimensional characters slipping across without form or meaning.  Undoubtedly, we see the past through the richness of the present, but what is often overlooked is the fact that our interpretations of what we examine are 99% incomplete. The particular reasoning and stories attached to each artefact are (one suspects) lost forever, but their physical presence with associated hidden heritage value cannot be ignored.



Site based Heritage

Alongside our personal heritage, we also form relationships or bonds with sites/places that are born from a powerful formula of familiarity, facts and mythology.  A ruined castle, a pillbox or a bottle dump can only be viewed, and interpreted, through the eyes of those who have experienced them directly.  Often this relationship is the least revealing or rewarding in terms of providing factual and usable information about the place. Nevertheless, it is most influential in formation of personal believes and development. For example, when visiting Hadrian’s wall in 1975, (while only 11 years old I should add) my own informed memories imagined fur clad barbarians, stalking the empty fog covered moorlands, always ready to attack the order and peace of the mighty Roman Empire.   I walked the wall as a Roman sentry would have done, ready to warn my cohort of an impending attack with an aid of my basic Latin (yes Latin was still part of the curriculum then).  In later years of course, I developed the more nuanced and shall we say appropriate response to this monument– with the barbarians vs.  Romans interactions and the wall itself re-examined and readjusted.  Nonetheless, the more informed present day experiences of the Mithratic temple or the Housteads Roman Fort are as important to the ‘truth’ as the dreams of an eleven year old boy.  I can still take people to where I once marched the lovely, lonely stretch of the wall or ducked into the dark incense filled temple: these childhood experiences now added to the present more informed/educated knowledge. This does not take away from the site, nor change its interpretation, but only makes it more real to the individual. Put more bluntly: ‘Just because I believe Santa Claus does not exist, does not mean I stop enjoying Christmas’.



The big question that remains, of course, is whether this approach and methodology actually deliver meaning from meaningless?  Considering knowledge that lies outwith the living memory and accepting that even a memory can create an alternative reality itself, then the short answer is no.

Is this then a phenomenally phenomenological waste of time and effort? Once again, and seemingly contra to the previous statement, the answer is also no­– for two very simple reasons.

First reason concerns what we ‘know’ as archaeologists, which should and must be tempered by the knowledge that we do not possess. Put differently, we only create knowledge within the bounds of the cold hard fact.  The pot is red; the pit contains charred seeds; the knife is iron or the grave contains a skeleton; which is no more than a statement of the obvious.  What we then do with these facts is seek a truth, a reason, a meaning behind creation, deposition and function. Thus we have to be aware of our own hidden heritages to allow for a more open humanistic interpretation of the past.

The second reason relates to the very essence of what it is to be an archaeologist –  listening to other people. For the very act of listening, of seeing place or time through another person’s eyes and perception, not only lifts the heavy blinkers from our vision but more importantly connects us with other people. The very people we purport to be serving.

This approach then allows us to breath life and character into a space.

Acknowledge the levels of understanding we can achieve and most of all:

Try it…


Imagine exploring a stone circle or castle, a woodland or world war II bunker through the recent stories and imaginations that we or others create and life becomes a richer place.  A monument is allowed to have more than one narrative and can have a thousand voices telling it.  So  Stop – Look – Listen!















Heritage Matters both now and in the future !

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