Autoarchaeology and what it means to be us: excavating the A380 without leaving the car.

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Get in the car

“If place can be defined as relational, historical and concerned with identity, then a space which cannot be defined as relational, historical or concerned with identity will be a non-place.” (Augé 1995: 77-8)

For Marc Augé roads are empty transit spaces, voids between places of departure and arrival. They are not places themselves, because they are not energised by attention, affiliation, community or continuity. Upon the non-place of the highway we are each locked into the confines of our own dulled, atomised, instrumentalist present.

Following my earlier blog here, this essay continues my problematizing of Augé’s ‘non-places’. It does so by pondering a one mile hillside portion of trunk road and finds that far from being non-place, this dual carriage-way can be shown to be deeply relational, very much wrapped up with histories and a very fertile ground for attachment and the formation and sustaining of identity and meaning.

Gravity and memory on the A380

We’re at the base of Telegraph Hill, a steep ascent for the A380 as it speeds out of the Exeter basin, and onwards towards the South Devon coast. The A380 starts as a spur, splitting off from the Plymouth-bound A38, at the base of this hill, just past the hamlet of Kennford, and its tired hostelries straining to catch the attention of motorists as they speed past.

I’ve travelled this road many, many times in my 48 years. It feels like it is etched into my very existence. Growing up in Devon, my family existed in two separate camps, which I was shuttled between. This road’s ascent to the summit of Telegraph Hill was the transition between two zones of experience, the topography acting as cues for my mental adjustment to suit the mores of the camp that I was journeying towards. That transition was mapped out by the course of this road, and specifically its ascent up this long upward climb.

Habitually you accelerate into a hill, because you know that it will drain your power as you climb. Embodied experience conditions precisely how and when I start to accelerate into this hill, and that point in the road takes on ironic significance on this summer 2015 iteration of my familiar journey, for at the point of habitual acceleration (or thereabouts) we ride over the extinguished remains of a Royal Observer Corps nuclear fallout observation monitoring post. This spring was dominated for me by hunting out these places, so it was inevitable that I would look to find them on my route towards my childhood home. This adds a new significance to my re-experience of this part of the A380, and in turn has triggered the ruminations that have led to this piece of writing.

The former Post’s location is somewhere beneath my car as I speed along the tarmac, the bunkerologists having told me that Exminster ROC Post (opened 1964, closed 1968) is:

“DEMOLISHED. No trace of anything. The site was probably lost during realignment of the junction to the east in the 1970s.” (Subbrit 2001)

I travelled this road regularly in the late 1970s, prior to this realignment. I try to think back to that time. But I can’t remember individual trips, the memory of the lumbering ascent upon rickety buses is an aggregate memory, a generalised montage. And in scouring my mind’s eye I see nothing of the extant, but already abandoned ROC post somewhere nearby. But I do recall the image of standing on the verge, by the back of a bus, sometime in the late 1970s, our ascent temporarily defeated by the demands of the hill climb. But all I can picture is the rear end of the coach, and a vague sprawl of trees and a sense of evening light fading. That’s it. Whilst I must have been close to that Post, but I never saw it. And I never saw Smokey Joe either.

Smokey Joe was a famous tramp who lived in a layby half way up the hill for many years, feeding off the land and the donations of passersby, until his death in 1976. The layby was testimony to the mechanical trials of this ascent, a place for lorry drivers to pull over and cool their overheated engines. Smokey Joe had chosen his pitch wisely, with an eye on gravity and the limitations of contemporary auto-engineering.

Even after 40 years the approach to that pull-in still compels me to glance into the shaded grove beyond the layby, a habituated action born of efforts as a young child to spot Smokey Joe’s encampment.

But that remembrance, and its accompanying reflex glance, is not – it seems – something unique to my experience of this hill, for South Devon internet forums testify to many whose childhood experience of this ascent was conditioned by the spectacle of this roadside dweller. And the character of these recollections, amidst some wistful nostalgia, is a remarkably consistent compound of memories that fuse the somatic strain of the hill climb with the hill-dwelling of Smokey Joe. This seems a specific manifestation of what Tim Edensor finds emergent in the shared experiences of regular travellers along familiar routes:

“we might conjecture that constellations of collective experience constitute something akin to a structure of feeling shared by motorway drivers in general and commuters along particular routes more specifically” (2003: 155)

This tramp, personifies the effort of the climb, thereby stabilising both a memory of this man, and a shared experience of both a time and place: the hill climb in the 1970s. Perhaps this gravity-connection is something that has emerged with the benefit of hindsight, otherwise Joe would have been called Layby Joe, or even the Crawler Lane Man, but the name that stuck emerged from an even more immediate material feature of his existence, for those who met him or the other two tramps inhabiting the Haldon Hills in the 1970s, testified to their amenability, and also to their odour. Smokey Joe was so-named because he and his wood fire, and its pervasive smoke, had become synonymous. And it was the plume of smoke from his fire that would be the looked-for sign of his presence as the layby came into view.

And then across on the North-bound, carriageway, another gravity-memory springs to mind, that of my father switching off the engine as he freewheeled downhill, inspired by the fuel crisis of 1974 and its aftermath, a global geopolitical reality expressed upon the conveniently steep incline of a South Devon hillside.

I was always relieved when he turned the engine back on, usually around the point at which we passed the sand-pit escape lane, kindly provided in the layby for the assistance of any motorist who discovered his brakes had overheated and failed after excessive use on the long descent.

At one point in a journey my father had asked me what I was thinking. I was pondering the virtual nature of the transfer of ransom payment monies as part of the US embassy hostage situation, following the Iranian Revolution. That family image now sits in my head (and maybe his), very much emplaced upon a random stretch of dual carriageway, the scene at which a distant geopolitical situation was suddenly uttered into our shared discursive world, as our car sped towards Exeter.

Augé’s critics point to the irrepressible creation of a sense of place by individuals. As Edensor shows, driving releases lines of flight both in the sense of velocities of travel, but also chains of association that link distant, seemingly unconnected themes, times and places. In contrast to Augé’s figuring highways as barren, linear ‘non-places’, Edensor revalorises them, highlighting their “complex, associational and folded geography” (2003: 156).

Furthermore, and stepping beyond a broadly psychogeographic salvation of autospaces based upon personal reverie and free-association, Peter Merriman (2004) has shown roads are sustained communal projects – they call together a cast of thousands, those who design, build, and maintain them plus those whose lives and journeys intersect with them. The shared experience of them as places is a result of the ideas and matter brought to those spaces in co-ordinated and sustained campaigns of civil engineering.

Roads are socio-material accomplishments, and as such they exist with, through and beyond us, regardless of our reflex to loath or rhapsodise upon them. Rosemary Shirley (2015) touches on this notion of roads-as-places-whether-we-like-it-or-not dimension, when she writes that roads are unequivocally part of the contemporary countryside. They are not alien encroachments from elsewhere – urban tendrils invading the picturesque purity of arcadia. Shirley persuasively argues instead that they are a feature of rural modernity, challenging our tendency to equate modernity with the metropolis. Roads comprise a core feature of both our environment and our modernity. We are creatures of roads.

So, how might we investigate this residual roadness, to take matters beyond cultural geographers’ saving roads from their non-place fate by showing us how we dwell within autoscapes, animating them as meaningful places by our presence and thoughts?

Excavating the layered remains

Here I want to consider what additional insight we might attain from archaeology – by engaging with the extant roadway as situated material culture. Importantly, this requires us to adopt a broad view of archaeology, and specifically to think about how we could investigate things-in-use, for the road is very much in use, and is very much of our time.

Rodney Harrison & John Schofield (2010) map out possible routes for engagement with the interpretation of modern roads within their prescription for an ‘archaeology of the contemporary past’ – arguing that an attentiveness to the time-depth and materiality of roads and their support infrastructure can further help to build a rounded picture of the phenomenon of contemporary auto-mobilities, and perhaps thereby to further assert the place-ness of autoscapes.

An archaeological analysis of my stretch of the A380 would show how this road has always been in a state of change. Its origins can be traced back over 2,000 years to a Roman road occupying the current course through the Haldon Hills. This continuity of route is attested by one of the first UK road maps, John Ogilby’s Britannia of 1675, and continues into the era of 18th century turnpike trusts and thereafter local authority stewardship. And yet that continuity is deceptive, for the precise route up Telegraph Hill has fluctuated in width, position and composition. To excavate these roads would be to work down through layers of different iterations of this highway, innumerable flexes and adjustments, repairs and reconstitutions. A road never stops being made.

Perhaps an archaeological eye would zero in on what the physical composition and arrangement of this road section tells us about how roads fit into our socio-technical systems. The escape lane would tell us of the limitations of our braking systems, the reorientation of road junctions at the summit of the hill would hint at our corrective attempts to address an accident blackspot, and to facilitate both safer and more fluid trafficking upon the A380 and its side roads. And looking to the surroundings, the highway facing 1960s chalet type buildings verging the highway at Kennford and the abandoned 1960s motel at the summit of Telegraph Hill would tell us of an optimistic era in which the challenge of the hill climb warranted rest or refreshment before or after the ascent, and the vacancy of this ruined plot would tell us of the marginal profitability of this autospace oasis in the early twenty first century. The crawler lane and Smokey Joe’s layby would also testify to the mechanical limitations of twentieth century motor vehicles. And analysis of changes to the road configurations would tell us material-tales of the cult of acceleration, the progressive excising of contour hugging bends to create a straighter road path, of the separation of northern and southern carriageways and of road widening to dual carriage. Meanwhile analysis of roadside litter, evolutions in lighting and ‘cat’s eye’ design, changes to crash barrier provisioning and the altered chemical composition of road marking pigments would all tell their own story (in the latter case, revealing our contemporary concerns with toxic substances in the disappearance of lead chromate pigment from the pigment of yellow road markings over the last decade).

But, much of this would require physical access to the highway, and would be ruled impracticable on cost, safety and disruption to the all-important flow. So what could archaeology add?

The drive by autoarchaeologist

“we can all be archaeologists of the contemporary past, because it is a critical inquiry into what it means to be ourselves” (2010: 12)

So write Harrison and Schofield in After Modernity, their contemplative manifesto for an archaeology concerned with making sense of the lived past – the past that exists within our present, because it has been lived by us. It is an archaeology that does not set out to encounter some remote Other, through its material remains, but rather the application of archaeology’s techniques (and its sensitivity to place’s flux through time) towards making sense of our own times, and our own sense of being.

Harrison & Schofield’s embrace of the subjectivity that lies at the heart of an attempt by us to study ourselves is refreshing, and positions their prescription for archaeology much closer to a phenomenological sensibility than we might expect of archaeologists, given that discipline’s efforts to align to scientific rigour and truth-seeking disposition built up during the twentieth century. Their prescription opens the prospect that all of us are capable of this critical enquiry (thus ‘autoarchaeology’), because the methodology is essentially a contemplative one:

“Thinking through and analysing the places we experience are normal processes that people go through often as a matter of course. And for us this seems to be the essence also of an archaeological approach. No digging required. Just observe, engage and think.” (70)

Indeed, Harrison & Schofield namecheck both Michel de Certeau and Georges Perec, in their avowal of the importance of studying our everyday existence – for:

“if we overlook the everyday, we overlook what it means to be us and we run the risk of remembering only the noteworthy, or the unusual” (11).

So, if we are being urged to co-opt archaeological methods to notice, and thereby remember the normal, the unremarkable, the prosaic – are we witnessing the point at which the archaeology of the contemporary past merges into something psychogeographic? I’m particularly thinking of Nick Papadimitriou’s ‘deep topography’ here, and his invocation to foreground everything, to background nothing. To scavenge in order to multiply, rather than to reduce our experience and its world to certain marked, salient points.

This may be pushing Harrison & Schofield’s argument too far – but it certainly opens up further bridgework between the academics and the lay meaning-makers roaming out there, enchanting and energising the supposedly prosaic phenomenon of the contemporary world like the A380 at Telegraph Hill, giving it a longer-than-normal stare, and glimpsing something else to remember, something else to take into the future as part of their own lived past. And there are plenty of people already out there doing precisely this, whether reminiscing about crawler lanes and old tramps in laybys or ‘researching’ the evolution of local road systems. In preparing this essay I’ve drawn upon the products of such labours, I’ve explored the A380 through the online resources assembled by a number of enthusiast groups – the Chudleigh History Group, the Devon Milestone Society, Torquay United Fans Forum, the ‘This is Exeter’ web-forum, Facebook, Wikipedia (on escape lanes, tarmacadam, the history of speed limits and Telegraph Hill), the BBC Domesday Project, Subterranea Britannica, CBRD (Chris’ British Road Directory) and the Society for All British and Irish Road Enthusiasts.

We are indeed all contemporary archaeologists.

References

Augé, M. (1995) Non-places: Introduction to an anthropology of supermodernity. Verso: London.

Edensor, T. (2003) ‘M6 – Junction 19-16, Defamiliarizing the Mundane Roadscape’, Space & Culture, 6(2): 151-168.

Harrison, R. & Schofield, J. (2010) After Modernity: Archaeological Approaches to the Contemporary Past, OUP: Oxford.

Merriman, P. (2004) ‘Driving places – Marc Augé, Non-places and the Geographies of England’s M1 Motorway’, Theory, Culture & Society, 21(4/5): 145-167

Shirley, R. (2015) Rural Modernity, Everyday Life and Visual Culture, Ashgate: Farnham

Subbrit (Subterranea Britannica) (2001) Royal Observer Corps – An on-line survey of the UK’s ROC and UKWMO Monitoring Posts at: http://www.subbrit.org.uk/rsg/roc/db/988399666.011001.html

Links for Smokey Joe reminiscences:

http://torquayfansforum.co.uk/thread/3476/unknown-person

Image source: www.sabre-roads.org.uk – Junction_of_A380_and_A38,_Haldon_Hill_-_Geograph_-_1537146

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About lukebennett13
Reader & Course Leader, BSc Hons Real Estate, Sheffield Hallam University, UK. I TEACH: built environment law to construction, surveying, real estate and environmental management students. I RESEARCH: metal theft; urban exploration & recreational trespass; occupiers' perceptions of liability for their premises. I THINK: about the links between ideas, materialities and practices in the built environment. I WAS: an environmental lawyer working in commercial practice for 17 years before I joined academia in 2007. I EXPLAIN: the aims of my blogsite site here: https://lukebennett13.wordpress.com/2012/02/15/prosaic/ LINKS: Twitter: @lukebennett13; Archive: http://shu.academia.edu/lukebennett. EPITAPH: “He lived at a little distance from his body, regarding his own acts with doubtful side-glances.” James Joyce, Dubliners

One Response to Autoarchaeology and what it means to be us: excavating the A380 without leaving the car.

  1. I quite agree with the quote about ‘ignoring the everyday’. Too often our surroundings become taken for granted until they are threatened or (these days) simply demolished.

    Roads in particular are always seen as a blight in some way. I like how you have given them back meaning and significance by putting them in a context of ongoing historical development and progression.

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