Being Present to Explore the Past

Standing on the smooth stones of Ballycastle beach in Co. Antrim. The sea spray makes the colors incredibly vivid. (Photo by the author)

Standing on the smooth stones of Ballycastle beach in Co. Antrim. The sea spray makes the colors incredibly vivid. (Photo by the author)

Following my first SuRGe blog entry about the goals and content of my research  during my travels to England and Northern Ireland in July, this second post is a more personal reflection on the experience of the trip and the mental processes I found myself engaging in that helped me draw meaning and form connections to what I was doing and learning. Though the full impact and relevance of the content of the trip on my work will take time to process, and will certainly change with additional research (and, hopefully, future travels!) writing this allows me to consider where I am now and how I got here, to express gratitude to some of the people who have contributed to my intellectual growth, and to consider how I want to proceed from here given new insights and perspectives I have gained in the past year and the past few weeks.

While recognition that “the past is present” in ways that are both subtle and complex, and also painfully visible, is not remotely new, it was a phrase that kept going through my mind during my travels that suggests a useful lens through which to consider comparative colonialisms from a broader, transatlantic perspective. Traveling and observing first-hand the ways in which the legacies of the early modern period—colonialism, plantation, resistance, and so much more—continue to play out in the north of Ireland for example, deepened my awareness of similar dynamics in this country, and of the connections between the two. Of course, I had learned this through my previous reading, coursework and conversations with my advisor, Dr. Audrey Horning, whose work emphasizes these themes. In fact, one reason I selected a site like the Bacon’s Castle plantation was to explore such connections, and to examine how knowledge and ideas from diverse parts of the Atlantic world came together through social and material relations. But (dearly as I love my books!), it is one thing to read and another to do, or to be in a place and experience it with multiple senses and full emotional, as well as intellectual engagement. For example, my thinking about Bacon’s Castle itself has been challenged and enriched this summer (though I have not yet so much as picked up a trowel yet) by merely spending time at the site and with the existing collection of artifacts. Similarly, walking through the Old City and port district of Bristol on the way to my intended destination at the archives, or noting contemporary expressions of Catholic and Protestant identity in Northern Ireland on my way to visiting plantation-era sites there afforded invaluable insight into both the historical context of the period I study, and also how this history is deployed and understood in the present.

Storefronts in the Stokes Croft arts district in Bristol, including the present-day home of Brunel Shipping & Liner Services, Ltd. (Photo by the author)

Storefronts in the Stokes Croft arts district in Bristol, including the present-day home of Brunel Shipping & Liner Services, Ltd. (Photo by the author)

Free Derry Corner in the traditionally Catholic Republican neighborhood of Bogside in Derry-Londonderry (Photo by the author)

Free Derry Corner in the traditionally Catholic Republican neighborhood of Bogside in Derry-Londonderry (Photo by the author)

Traversing cobbled streets, negotiating the narrow spiral stair of a tower house, or gazing out from an elevated point in the landscape and noting the reciprocal views it affords, helped me better reconstruct in my mind the experience of life in an earlier period. But observing how various places are cared for, interpreted, and contested in the present is equally informative in a different way—and perhaps even more evocative of the shared, yet distinct, legacies of the seventeenth century on both sides of the Atlantic.

In the research I conducted prior to the trip, I attempted to identify English and Irish sites contemporaneous with Bacon’s Castle’s construction, and/or with the early years of its founding owner’s life in England to explore possible architectural comparators and influences. However, the process often felt dry and somewhat fruitless. Just as I worried that my archival searches might not yield further evidence as to the inhabitants’ identities, origins, or mercantile activities, I was not sure I would be able to draw direct connections between extant seventeenth-century buildings there and this lone surviving—and somewhat peculiar—Virginia house from the same period. But, once I landed across the Atlantic, and actually began walking around, photographing, and experiencing various buildings, cities, landscapes, and the things within them, my perspective shifted—not only on the sites themselves, but on what the process of researching and understanding them actually entailed. I still had my list of places to go, and architectural features to look for, like a kind of academic “I Spy” game. But, instead of dismissing the curvilinear gables of Bristol as nineteenth-century revivals (and, thus, presumably not relevant to the use of this element two centuries earlier at Bacon’s Castle), or visiting the late-seventeenth-century palisade-style manor of Springhill in Co. Londonderry and ignoring everything but the rear-projecting stair tower and symmetrical façade (two other features of Bacon’s Castle) I learned far more by determining early on to remain open and interested in whatever I encountered.

Rear view of seventeenth-century Springhill House, featuring its rear-projecting stair tower. (Photo by the author)

Rear view of seventeenth-century Springhill House, featuring its rear-projecting stair tower. (Photo by the author)

Rear view of Bacon's Castle, Surry County, Virginia, featuring its stair tower. (Photo by the author)

Rear view of Bacon’s Castle, Surry County, Virginia, featuring its stair tower. (Photo by the author)

This kind of “beginner’s mind” attitude, which simply implies intentional, non-judgmental curiosity and remaining present and engaged, may seem counterintuitive or even anathema to those of us whose work is the production of knowledge and development of expertise (…and to those of us who like feeling in-control at all times) [1].  But the approach does not mean jumping to conclusions, drawing false equivalencies, or ignoring facts. Rather, by engaging fully with all my senses, rather than limiting my attention to what I already thought should be important—a crucial skill in archaeology and, I believe, good scholarship in general, especially in the early stages of research—I was able to actually see far more, and to be more open to comparisons and contrasts at different levels. By appreciating the look, smell, and feel (handled carefully according to guidelines, of course!) of a stack of three-hundred-year-old documents with their wax seals still tenuously attached, even when the entire box offered but a single reference to an unrelated “Allen,” I learned more about both the past and the process of archival research than I would have done if I simply scanned for relevant information in an index—though I did plenty of that, as well. By noticing the look and feel of the rain-dampened stone walls of Dunluce Castle on the Antrim coast as I moved through it, rather than lamenting the fact that the weather obscured the historically-significant view toward Scotland; and by having to look just in front of my feet to see the slight rises in the grass that indicated one-time houses in the landscape at nearby Goodland Townland, I both learned from, and enjoyed the experiences more than if I had worried what I was missing in the fog.

Dunluce Castle, Co. Antrim (Photo by the author)

Dunluce Castle, Co. Antrim (Photo by the author)

By allowing myself—at least for the moment—to be as charmed by finding a fragment of beach glass or a plastic LEGO brick found in a historic ruin as the more informative bits of older rubbish archaeologists typically care about, I was better able to see a place as it was and imagine its ongoing life and meaning through time. And by taking in the shocking colors of wet stones and seaweed on Ballycastle beach, or by the objectively stunning mountain views from the car, alongside the more focused inquiry directed at the sites themselves, I took in more about the materiality of each place, both as it existed in the present, and as it might have been intended and experienced in the past.

Seaweed on the pebble beach at Ballycastle, Co. Antrim (Photo by the author)

Seaweed on the pebble beach at Ballycastle, Co. Antrim (Photo by the author)

I was extremely fortunate to have as my (highly overqualified!) guides for the Irish portion of my travels my advisor, Audrey, as well as a number of other scholars and professionals, all with extensive knowledge of, and personal investment in the post-medieval archaeology of Ireland. They each took their own approach to the various sites we visited, and I learned a tremendous amount from all of them; but two of them, Audrey and Dr. Paul Logue, excel at what, in my former life as a museum educator, we called “inquiry-based” instruction. That is, they encouraged curiosity and learning by not telling, but asking me what I saw in a building or ruin, a view of a landscape, or, quite often, right under my nose. The questions they posed were not testing my recall of facts, but directing my attention to often subtle, yet significant or revealing aspects of a site and inviting me to engage with what was there, to ask more questions, and to make the connections myself—more useful skills in archaeology, and in life. Paul’s recent work includes re-analyzing well-known historical maps, such as this one, drawn by Richard Bartlett in 1602 (see caption of following photo for details) and looking at them alongside the landscapes they are meant to portray to arrive at new understandings of how and why these places were constructed and portrayed the way they were by various historical actors. The primary point I drew from our conversations was not necessarily the facts of what happened where, when, or with whom, but the process of actually looking at landscapes and buildings—both the real-world versions and the cartographic representations as they were, without assuming they needed to “mean” something different or fit previous interpretations. Again, this is not about ignoring facts or context or indulging in fantasy, but about engaging directly with what is, rather than what you think should be, or deciding that something is or is not important based on preconceived ideas that, for example, a stone castle always indicates a “more significant” site than a now-empty earthen mound.

View of a crannog (artificial island) site from Tulloghoge / Tulach Óg, Co. Tyrone. (Photo by the author)

View of a crannog (artificial island) site from Tulloghoge / Tulach Óg, Co. Tyrone. The same site is pictured in the 1602 Bartlett map, linked above. (Photo by the author)

Perhaps an even clearer illustration of why this mindset is not merely naïve or antithetical to critical scholarship can be expressed by describing one of the countless times when I forgot to apply it. During the same visit to Dunluce Castle in which I, eventually, relaxed into seeing what was in front of me despite the fog (and increasingly wet socks) Audrey posed a question about a part of the building to which I did not have a ready answer. Even though I was staring at and touching the textured mortar she had indicated, the anxiety I had about appearing to “not know enough” not only made my mind go blank, but inhibited my ability to be curious and therefore to both ask the questions or draw on the prior experiences that might have led me to understand it better. The feature in question was a low, vaulted ceiling in a portion of the castle attributed to the Ulster Scots MacDonnells that had been created using the typically Gaelic Irish method of wickerwork centring.

Vaulted ceiling at Dunluce Castle, Co. Antrim, showing evidence of wicker centring, in which a form of woven withes was covered in plaster to create an arch. (Photo by the author)

Vaulted ceiling at Dunluce Castle, Co. Antrim, showing evidence of wicker centring, in which a form of woven withes was covered in plaster to create an arch. (Photo by the author)

I had read about this architectural practice, but I had never seen the results in person before, so this also shows the power of travel and experiential learning. But in the moment, it was a reminder to get out of my own way and just pay attention—that it is okay not to know and that learning is actually the whole point.

Traveling afforded me the chance to actually be in and move through places that I could otherwise only have read about, seeing both parallels and distinctions across the Atlantic; to engage directly with material culture, documents, and landscapes on multiple levels; and talk with people who bring both extensive knowledge, but also uniquely personal perspectives to their study of the period. As I write this, nearly a week after landing back in Virginia, I have shaken off the jetlag; but half my brain is still across the Atlantic, and the other is struggling to assimilate so much learned and experienced so quickly. I have returned to my summer routine here, but when I visited Bacon’s Castle this week, and began my next project of analyzing the existing artifact collection, it was with new eyes. This trip helped spark new ways of thinking and opened up broader and deeper perspectives on the context of this project and why it matters.

[1] Suzuki, Shunryu. (2011). Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, p. 2. Boston & London: Shambhala Publications, Inc.