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Interviewed for the Radio and Chapter 1 Draft handed in…

Two sides of my academic coin this week.

I regularly contribute to BBC Radio Cymru (Welsh language service) and BBC Radio Wales (English Language service) programmes. Usually it is to provide expert comment on an archaeological story which is in the news, and that has some kind of Welsh perspective or angle. This week, however, was a little bit special as on BBC Radio Cymru on Thursday morning I got to comment on a story which has a family connection.

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My great-great Uncle was Edward John Smith – Captain of the RMS Titanic.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-17513240

In 2012 I was fortunate to be asked to contribute to several news items, and a programme for the Welsh language television broadcaster S4C on the Welsh people connected to the story of the famous steamship.

This week, one of the most iconic items connected with the events of the 15th of April 1912 was auctioned after its provenance had been authenticated. The item was the violin played by RMS Titanic bandleader Wallace Hartley as the ship sank with the loss of 1,517 lives, including Hartley’s and my Great-Great-Uncle.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-wiltshire-24582739

The violin sold for £900,000.

Personally, I find it comforting that Captain Smith may just have heard this instrument being played that night, and that a tangible archaeological artifact floated rather than sank, safe in its protective cocoon and strapped to its owner, who unfortunately did not survive the experience.

This week I also collected my University identification card.

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Which makes it all official really doesn’t it?

To that end, Chapter 1 has gone off to my Supervisor for her to cast her expert eye over it…let’s see what polishing and preening, nipping and tucking, and padding and fleshing my draft requires.

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Hand Axis

Archaeology – and matters related to it, have been in the news this week. With the death of Mick Aston, we have lost someone who knew how to communicate his passion for several layers of informative dirt piled on top of each other to the public, in a way they found engaging and interesting.

Mick was part of a team, and we should remember that many of us in the profession have been involved with at least one show during its long run in one capacity or another. We, and the watching public are all part of that team and must continue to keep archaeology in the minds of the public, in whatever form it may take.

Announced in the Government Spending Review was that £80 million pounds will be provided by the Government to establish a charity to care for the historic properties in the National Heritage Collection of English Heritage on a self-financing basis http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/about/news/80million-boost-heritage/.

Also announced was £100 billion pounds to be spent on infrastructure improvements http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-23080965 including upgrades to the A14, a new Mersey Gateway Bridge and the first stages of work on the HS2 rail link.

By association, some of this money will have to be spent on the archaeology effected by these announcements. We should embrace the opportunity to do justice to whatever is found, whichever archaeological units secures the contracts.

At the same time as the commercial units will be opening up swathes of countryside in advance of the road and rail building programmes, or working with the new charity to better interpret the properties in their care, Heritage Lottery Funded archaeological projects will be opening their own smaller, but no less important holes in their towns and villages.

Answering specific research questions and aided by professional archaeologists, these focused pieces of work will in essence, fill gaps which the commercial units will never be able to reach. http://www.hlf.org.uk/HowToApply/whatwefund/Pages/Archaeology.aspx.

Publicising the findings, whether through personal Twitter accounts, newspaper articles or television programmes, we must demonstrate that this money was well spent and increased our knowledge of the island palimpsest we live on.

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‘To Begin at the Beginning’…or ‘Has Anyone Seen That Confounded Bridge?’

Lines from Dylan Thomas ‘Under Milk Wood’ and Led Zeppelin ‘The Crunge’. Which probably seem to be an odd way to start a blog on Medieval Parks, Gardens and Designed Landscapes. However, in their own way, they have led to this blog being written. So, I thought I’d attempt to explain why I feel I should blog on this topic (although I am sure other topics will find a place at some point).

My name is Spencer Gavin Smith and I currently work as an archaeologist in the contracts section of the Gwynedd Archaeological Trust, who are based in Bangor, North West Wales.

My blog will be about the research I have been carrying out for my PhD thesis entitled ‘Parks, Gardens and Designed Landscapes of Medieval North Wales and North West Shropshire’. As it is still a work in progress, the blog will highlight why I’m carrying out the research, and how the disciplines of Archaeology, History, Literature and Art all entwine to make this topic so interesting to study.

I’m from the town of Wrexham in North East Wales, (Latitude 53.045083; Longitude -2.9931521). I went to both Welsh Language Primary and Secondary Schools, so I’m comfortable using either language. I chose to read Heritage Conservation at Bournemouth University for my Undergraduate Degree, and during my second year, I was, like most other students at that time of their University lives, casting around for a dissertation.

One day, I was in the University Bookshop and I saw a paperback entitled ‘The Revolt of Owain Glyn Dŵr’, written by someone called R.R. Davies. I’d not done history at GCSE, and at A Level the curriculum I studied covered the 19th and 20th centuries. I was aware of Owain Glyn Dŵr – what school child, and especially one in North East Wales where he came from, couldn’t fail to have heard of him. But beyond a few basic facts I didn’t really know very much at all.

So I bought the book.

And within a few pages I was hooked. Not by any inherent nationalism fuelled by being in a University on the south coast of England but by the beautiful way the book was written. I ‘understood’ for the first time how history can be brought to life by the deft touch of someone who has a mastery of the sources at their fingertips. I curated that book – it became something I involved and devoted my time to in order to try and gain some understanding of a world which occupied the same space as I had growing up, but a very different time.

But, I found there was a problem with the book, and one I wanted to solve.  

Within the chapter on Owain Glyn Dŵr was a small section which dealt with his house, known as Sycharth (which probably translates as Sych ‘Dry’ and (g)arth ‘Courtyard’). According to R.R. Davies there was a contemporary poem which described the house and its surroundings, and the photograph of Sycharth published in the book showed that the site was still there and had not been built upon. In addition to the poem, in 1966 an archaeological excavation report had been published about work on the site.

Which all left me confused. If the poem described the site, and archaeologists had excavated there, why had R.R. Davies written so little?

I had my dissertation topic. Now to start on the research.