RIP Mick Aston, 1946-2013

Mick Aston died yesterday, June 24, 2013.

I never met him, never spoke to or corresponded with him. Those who knew, worked or studied with him will have their own stories. Though I saw some episodes, I was not an avid watcher of Time Team.

But I do want talk about Aston’s influence as an archaeologist.

Mick Aston with Time Team producer Tim Taylor in 2005. Photo by Time Team historian Guy de la Bedoyere, who has released it into the public domain.

Mick Aston with Time Team producer Tim Taylor in 2005. Photo by Time Team historian Guy de la Bedoyere, who has released it into the public domain.

Before I left the UK, and with the support of and frequent collaboration with my nightschool archaeology tutor, I carried out small research projects into medieval villages and their landscapes. Professor Aston, though he did not pioneer this area of archaeology – he routinely cited WG Hoskins and Maurice Beresford as his inspiration – was one of a small number of early proponents who developed the use of geographic techniques in archaeological studies.

Aston didn’t get me into archaeology. Growing up near York during the Coppergate dig and an enthusiastic teacher at school did that. But his books did get me into landscape archaeology.

As I began my own forays into understanding the English landscape, Aston remained one of my three main guides – the others being Professor Brian K Roberts and Dr Oliver Rackham.

Both Aston and Roberts began their academic careers as geographers. Roberts has remained one, and has long held a chair as Professor of Geography at Durham University. Aston moved into archaeology, becoming the first county archaeologist for Somerset, and teaching at Bristol, Birmingham and Oxford. Rackham is a botanist. Hoskins and Beresford were historians. The study of the landscape is a broad field.

Aside from his reports and papers, and away from his popular works, Aston’s two greatest contributions to landscape studies were his two synthesis works, Interpreting the Landscape (1985, revised 1997) and The Landscape of Towns, co-written with historical geographer James Bond (1976, revised 2000).

General works covering wide periods on a national scale must, of necessity, skip many details, but Aston managed to paint a sufficiently comprehensive picture of trends, methods of investigation and techniques. Though I now live far from the fields and deserted villages he once guided me through, his books are never far from my hand.

In his own words, from his introduction to Interpreting the Landscape: “The past is all about us… a truism which deserves to be repeated because it is so true; whether we like it or not, in this country we do live in a museum. Yet how are we to disentangle and interpret it?”

Aston not only disentangled it and interpreted it, he explained it and taught people how to read it. Many’s the time I’ve stood on a hill, looking down into a dale or valley, noting the patterns of the walls and hedges and tracing the outlines of medieval strips, 16th or 19th century enclosures, traces of square prehistoric fields. Aston’s work taught me to differentiate medieval ridge and furrow from Napoleonic ridge and furrow, to read the humps and bumps revealed by shadows or by more intensive survey with theodolite and staff, with resistivity meter and magnetic resonance.

Aston closed his introduction to Interpreting the Landscape with these words: “When Professor W. G. Hoskins wrote The Making of the English Landscape in 1955, he said (p14) ‘The English landscape itself, to those who know how to read it aright, is the richest historical record we possess.’ Since then, study after study has shown how much can be learnt. We now know that the landscape as created and used by people is much older than we thought, with perhaps as much as 12,000 years of intense activity represented. We know that its development has been more complex than we ever imagined, with many combinations of and interrelationships between the factors mentioned above. Change, rather than stability, has been the order of the day. The idea of an unchanging landscape since time immemorial has had to be replaced now by one of great dynamism. If we could see the English landscape developing over the last 6,000 years in a speeded-up film, it would certainly resemble an ants’ nest, with not only the ants moving about at a great pace, but the nest itself being shifted continuously!”

Aston may have been an eccentric, wild-haired caricature of an archaeologist, but his passion and enthusiasm shone through his writing and his TV presentation, and was tempered with professionalism, honesty and academic rigour. Archaeology could not have had a finer poster boy.

And as to the influence of Time Team, I remember doing a resistivity survey with a colleague around the remains of Beauchief Abbey in Sheffield, which lies on the edge of a golf course (those ridges across the fairway are from Napoleonic steam-ploughing, golfers, and are not medieval). We were looking for a grange (a monastic farm) which was thought to lie close by. Lacking the high-tech computerised add-ons of Bradford University’s geophysics, we were working in a taped grid, recording results the old-fashioned way, on a clipboard with a pencil, when a golfing party walked past. Thanks to Aston and co, they knew exactly what we were doing.

“Eyup, it’s Time Team,” one called.

“Nay, lad,” replied my colleague. “It’s Saturday – we’re t’Time-and-a-Half Team.”

The golfers chuckled, and continued their game. A few years earlier, we’d likely have had to stop the survey, or assign a dedicated volunteer, to explain to passers-by what we were doing, how the equipment worked, and reassure them we weren’t developers planning to build over their golf course.

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