29 September 2016

European Association of Archaeologists 2016

This year the European Association of Archaeologists (EAA) met in Vilnius. This was my first visit to Lithuania, and I enjoyed it thoroughly; I always find eastern Europe to be vibrant, forward-looking and positive and this was no exception. The EAA is a wonderful forum for bringing together archaeologists across Europe, facilitating dialogue across a range of boundaries. This year's conference took place in the aftermath of the creation of a new boundary - the result of the UK referendum on EU membership.

'Brexit' session at the EAA. Photograph by Felipe Criado Boado.

Indeed there was a special 'Brexit' session, hastily convened and well-attended. Interestingly, UK archaeologists have always comprised the single largest bloc of EAA delegates (estimates ranged from 30-40%); naturally as archaeologists we tend to see the broader temporal and geographical commonalities rather than differences. After all the British Isles only became an archipelago about 8,000 years ago.

The session effectively fell into two halves.

The first was a discussion about Brexit. This covered territory that was familiar to UK colleagues - essentially a hand-wringing self-therapy about the loss of academic funding and contacts, the loss of free movement, and the potential loss of free exchange of ideas and ways of working; as well as the depressing expressions of xenophobia, racism and insularity which seem to characterise present-day public discourse in the UK.

However the second part of the session was much more interesting and indeed positive. Several delegates reminded us that the EAA had unwittingly conflated itself with the EU: the timetabling of next year's meeting at Maastrict to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the eponymous treaty was emblematic and symptomatic of this. We were reminded of previous conferences in Russia (2003), Norway (2011) and Turkey (2014) as examples of the EAA reaching out to a wider Europe that was culturally defined, rather than politically defined. The feeling seem to be that we had the opportunity to redefine 'European' archaeology on much wider terms.

The outcome of this session was therefore a very positive one. Ultimately there will be a rethinking of the role of the EAA as a mechanism for inclusivity of all archaeologists working on, in and around the continent of Europe as broadly as it can be defined. A working party has been established to consider how this might be achieved, and some very positive post-conference conversations have been had around this.

Archaeologists have a very important voice in the development of future society. We have an understanding of the long-term social changes that have taken place, and recognise the wide variety of environmental, territorial, technological and economic influences that give rise to those changes. Past performance is not necessarily a guide to the future, but there is a lot that our policy-makers for the future could learn from an understanding of the past. We need to be more self-confident in articulating some of those lessons.

There were other interesting sessions, of course, including one on climate change that was very challenging... the subject of a future post. The social events were fabulous. Many thanks to our hosts, and to the EAA committees who organised another memorable meeting.

12 August 2016

Archaeology and archaeologists in a new Europe

Another month has passed since the EU referendum, and whilst things are still unsettled it is now possible to see consequences for archaeology other than the immediate negative impacts which I described in my previous post - namely a loss of public and private funding from all parts of the sector.

Offa's Dyke, near Oswestry, Shropshire. Once a fiercely contested border on the edge of Europe; 
now just a dotted line on a map and a place for nature, relaxation and togetherness.

That will of course still happen. Many of the economic consequences were detailed by Doug Rocks-Macqueen in his excellent pre-Brexit blog post (which has had a number of post-Brexit addenda). I think Doug's analysis was basically correct - economically it will be at best bad, or it could be very bad, or worse.

Additionally there is the Brexit dream of cutting 'red tape' - specifically 'streamlining' the planning system to enable development. Since most UK archaeology is undertaken as part of the planning process, this represents a very real potential threat. 

In the longer term the greatest danger is a diminution in European archaeological co-operation, particularly when the frameworks for much of that co-operation are multi-partner projects with European public funding. Any restriction on freedom of movement will massively hamper the ability of archaeologists in all countries to continue meaningful research, and to share best practice.

However, positivity is essential, and we need to proactively and enthusiastically fight our corner. In this context I was delighted that the CIfA met with the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport last week, and argued that:
  • the UK needs to retain is heritage legislation
  • new funding streams must be established to mitigate for the loss of EU ones
  • free movement of accredited archaeologists is essential

We need to think positively about how to develop new and potentially more interesting and flexible frameworks in the future. After all there are also active and very constructive collaborations going on all the time with our colleagues in non-EU European countries, as well as with those in the US, Africa, Asia and elsewhere.

It is also the case that the Brexit vote is likely to have an impact on the EU too. There will be reconsideration of processes, policies and funding streams; and in particular much soul-searching about the relationship of EU structures to national and regional populations.

It is perhaps ironic that UK archaeologists are among the most enthusiastic and numerous participants in the annual European Association of Archaeologists meetings, and have consistently strongly influenced the direction of travel for professional archaeology across most of north-west Europe and elsewhere. We are all well aware that modern national boundaries are essentially meaningless in the longer durée of archaeological time.

So I am very much looking forward to this years' EAA meeting, which is coming up in a few weeks. Indeed there is a special session on Brexit and its implications for European archaeology, which will be fascinating. This is a critical time for engagement with European and global colleagues, to refresh existing networks and create new ones.

What is done is done. This is not a time for regrets, it is a moment to create and enjoy new opportunities. When nothing is certain, anything is possible.

16 July 2016

The EU referendum and UK cultural heritage

It has been a turbulent few weeks, politically, personally and professionally, and only now have I found the time to reflect on one of the most momentous political upheavals of my lifetime.

On 23rd June 2016 a referendum was held in the UK, which asked whether voters wanted to 'remain' or 'leave' the European Union. The referendum was a consequence of a manifesto commitment by the Conservative Party which had not expected to win the 2015 General Election, and had been made to appease a minority of its backbench MPs. Like many colleagues I went through a 'grieving' process - utter disbelief, followed by depression and anger.

Flags outside the Welsh Government buildings in Aberystwyth, on 12th May 2016.

Friends will know that I am a passionate enthusiast for European unity. I see the EU as the best mechanism for maintaining peace, equality and prosperity across most of a continent which has been in almost continual warfare for all but the most recent 70 of more than 3,000 years. I welcome open borders, and I am happy that a small part of my taxes goes to support citizens in other EU countries. In my lifetime the existence of the EU has helped Spain, Portugal and Greece to emerge from fascist dictatorships, and has helped large parts of eastern Europe to emerge from behind an 'iron curtain'. 28 democracies working together - not always in agreement, certainly, but working together constructively.

Archaeology does not respect modern national borders. Indeed it is only relatively recently that the British archipelago was separated from the mainland. Whilst there is no doubt that co-operation will continue with European colleagues, there will be some very serious impacts in archaeology and cultural heritage which are deeply regrettable.

Firstly, academic colleagues will lose an enormous amount of funding, and it will be much more difficult to co-operate internationally. Already long-term projects with European funding and EU partners are under threat. There is a danger of increasing insularity, isolationism and ultimately the marginalisation of UK academia.

Secondly, with arts and cultural heritage funding already very much at the bottom of the list of priorities for any UK government - particularly the current one - a diminution of funding in particular areas threatens those of us who depend to a greater or lesser extent on public funding. Wales receives a large subsidy from the EU; when that money is no longer available then other budgets - such as heritage - will be cut to make up for the loss in areas such as health, infrastructure and employment.

Thirdly, the uncertainty during the period between the referendum and the eventual moment of leaving will create at best economic stagnation, and at worst a deep recession. Archaeological colleagues whose funding relies largely on the construction industry - whether it is housebuilding, industrial expansion or infrastructure - will also suffer.

It is less than a month since the referendum, and the political situation is still unsettled. But the next few years are going to be tough for archaeology, and archaeologists, in the UK.

27 April 2016

Urbanisation: an interdisciplinary perspective

It has been a privilege to spend a few days in the beautiful lakeside city of Lausanne, at a symposium on urbanisation in the British Isles. This was a remarkable meeting of academic and professional linguists, historians, geographers, sociologists (and one archaeologist!).

Stepping out of my archaeological 'silo' was refreshing, and discussions from a range of perspectives about life in industrial urban spaces over the last 500 years were very illuminating.

Switzerland in the foreground, France in the background.

Organised by scholars in the department of linguistics at the University of Lausanne, the symposium developed from their 'Emerging Standards' project which began in 2013. This project aims to shed light on the 'complex processes that are involved in the emergence and development' of language - specifically the period c.1400-c.1700, using the written records of non-metropolitan England to trace the formalisation of English.

The symposium was a very brave venture into uncharted waters by scholars seeking the broadest possible context in which to situate their work, and as a result was a stimulating meeting.

The deliberately broad topic and date range gave everyone very free rein to describe their work and to discuss a variety of themes. Everyone agreed how refreshing it was to have a genuinely interdisciplinary experience - so often we use the phrase 'interdisciplinary' when we are really still in the comfort zone of our own specialism.

The programme is on the symposium website, along with abstracts.

Contributors explored the dark underbelly of Victorian London, the liguistic complexity of late-medieval England, the post-colonial geography of 1960s New Towns, the impact of new world urbanisation on rural Ireland, suburban house names in the nineteenth century, and the social life of park benches in contemporary London.

My own contribution was a slightly random paper providing an archaeological perspective on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century urbanisation in England, using Sheffield, Birmingham, the East Shropshire Coalfield and the Black Country as examples.

Sheffield Canal Basin and the 'Sheaf Works', February 1992.

Despite the disparate range of perspectives, we all had a great deal more in common than perhaps we might have expected. And because of the disparate range of perspectives, we all learned a great deal from the understandings that emerge from different disciplinary developments.

The archaeological approach most obviously overlapped with historical geography, but linguistic scholars - working in a discipline which was the least familiar to me - are also mapping social geographies of time and place. There was a strong colonial/post-colonial narrative running through all of the papers which was particularly interesting.

Speakers at the symposium.

Discussions around the formal programme were - as is often the case - also illuminating: touching on present-day meanings of ethnicity, the politics of identity (and politics generally!), urban planning and civic engagement, and the role of academics in modern social and political discourse. It was interesting to observe that the pendulum swinging between archaeological 'theory' and 'practice' over the last couple of decades had been swinging very similarly in other disciplines too.

So, many thanks to Anita Auer and Marije van Hattum and their colleagues at the University of Lausanne, and to all of the delegates for interesting conversations. Discussion is already continuing, publication is being planned, and a follow-up meeting would be very welcome. I have been inspired to look at my work in different ways, and this was a wonderful opportunity to provoke new ideas and directions.

21 March 2016

Historic Environment (Wales) Act 2016

Today is an historic moment in the history of UK heritage legislation. After years of consultation, debate and political manoeuvering, the Historic Environment (Wales) Bill today received Royal assent and so has become law.

This picture - taken from the Twitter feed of Deputy Culture Minister Ken Skates - shows some of the people whose hard work has resulted in this important piece of legislation.

Photograph from @WG_CultureMin on Twitter. Copyright probably Welsh Government.

As a relative newcomer to the historic environment scene in Wales, I have found the process of preparing the bill and consulting on it to be refreshingly open and honest. Many of us have had more than one opportunity to comment in detail about the provisions in the legislation. I would have preferred stronger mechanisms to deal with damage to Scheduled Monuments, but - given the complex political circumstances, and the fact that the Act seeks to modify existing legislation - the Act is to be welcomed.

The full text of the Act can be found on the 'legislation.gov.uk' website; and more detail about the process of the creation of the Bill, some of the background and key changes are available on the Welsh Government website.

For me the Act brings about two main improvements.

Firstly - for the first time in the UK, and almost certainly the world - it is a statutory duty for Welsh Ministers to maintain an Historic Environment Record (HER). Placing the duty on Welsh Ministers rather than local authorities (as was originally intended) gives greater solidity to the present system in Wales, and is certainly a much better position than the rest of the UK

Secondly the powers of Welsh Ministers - exercised through Cadw and to some extent sometimes discharged through the Welsh Archaeological Trusts - to stop unauthorised works to Scheduled Monuments, and to compel owners to rectify the damage (as well as enabling access without permission) have been increased. Whilst the full 'defence of ignorance' which was a feature of the 1979 Act has not been eliminated entirely, the new Welsh Act certainly makes it more difficult.

It will be interesting to see how the divergence between English and Welsh systems which this Act represents will actually manifest itself on the ground on monuments that are both in England and Wales - such as Offa's Dyke, for example.

It is of course early days. Some provisions of the Act won't come into force for a while, and much of the underlying regulations and guidance are still in preparation. Nevertheless this is a positive piece of legislation which reinforces the role of the Welsh Archaeological Trusts, and places the historic environment in an important position in Welsh cultural life.

29 November 2015

Some thoughts on corporate governance

I have been thinking a lot lately about corporate governance in the heritage sector, and particularly how relationships between non-executive directors (the Board) and the executive (CEO and others) are managed.

This stems from my current roles on both sides of that particular fence - firstly in my day job as the executive Director (ie. CEO) of the Clwyd-Powys Archaeological Trust (CPAT), and secondly as a non-executive director (ie. Board member) of both the Black Country Living Museum (BCLM) and the Chartered Institute for Archaeologists (CIfA).

The trick is to strike the balance between having the support and advice of the Board, without micro-management. The Board also need to have a long-term strategic vision, and each member of the Board needs to have as wide a perspective as possible on the issues facing the organisation.

There are two things which need to be in place to make it work well: people and protocols.

Firstly, it is important to have a range of people on the Board whose experience is not entirely from within the sector within which the organisation operates. It is clear from recent events that the Boards of some charities have not worked as they should have done, and I suspect that in the cultural heritage sector we could do with improving the ways in which business is done.

Past and current experience is that archaeological organisations in particular tend to draw from a very narrow pool of people. The same can also be true in the museum sector, and perhaps elsewhere. This may not matter so much in the context of a learned society - where in fact focussed expertise from the discipline or sub-discipline is arguably more important - but even there the value of an outside perspective is perhaps under-rated.

Recent recruitment to the BCLM Board, for example, has been through an open and transparent process. Gaps in the skill set of the Board have been identified and a selection panel manages the recruitment of new members. This has resulted in a transformation of the Board in recent years - former members had been very long-serving, and some posts were 'institutional' ones. Some of these worked very well, but others were occupied by disinterested individuals who weren't willing or able to contribute to the strategic development of the organisation. Now we have a diverse board of people with a general heritage background, people from other independent museums, people from the broader arts and cultural sector, and people from business and industry in the region. We are still bedding down as a 'team' but every meeting is extremely interesting and I think we all feel that - whatever our background - we are making a valued contribution to the governance of this very successful educational charity and visitor attraction.

Secondly, protocols are important. Lines need to be drawn so that the CEO feels supported and respected, and not undermined by the Board in day-to-day decision-making.

Here the example of the CIfA Board is worth noting. At a recent special Board meeting we received governance training from Andy Friedman of the Professional Associations Research Network. This was extremely valuable, and we followed this with a session which roughed out a 'responsibilities protocol'. We all broadly agreed where most of the lines should be drawn. Things like the long-term strategic plan and the financial plan should be designed by the executive but approved (and monitored) by the Board, whereas the Board itself should be responsible for setting pay and health and safety.

The CIfA Board (like my own Board at CPAT) is at the moment drawn entirely from within the profession, but I think we have recognised the need to at least consider widening the membership.

I think that there is a great deal that the cultural heritage sector, and particularly those organisations who are charities, could learn a lot from the experience of our counterparts in the for-profit world. Sure, there have been some high-profile failures (notably in banking and finance) but - in the Anglo-Saxon world at least - corporate governance in the private sector seems to be robust and efficient.

At the moment I have to admit that the governance of CPAT falls short of best practice, but valuable lessons on how it can be improved are being learned.

1 February 2015

Escaping fascism: my family's experience

Having recently moved house (again), all sorts of long-forgotten things are surfacing from boxes. This includes some family history. Today (1st February) would have been my late grandmother's 101st birthday. She led a fascinating life as one of four daughters of an expatriate British-Canadian oil prospector, growing up mostly in Romania but with periods of education in Turkey, Germany and Scotland - qualifying as a medical doctor in the 1930s. A remarkable woman; here she is in Romania in 1923 (aged 19).

One of the very interesting recently rediscovered documents is an account by her father (my great-grandfather) of his escape in 1940 from the Nazi invasion of Romania. It is a short typescript, and a remarkable insight into a world that is now completely lost - as well as an interesting journey that would not now be possible.

Leaving Constanta on 23rd October 1940, they travelled by steamer to Istanbul, then by train to Baghdad (via Aleppo and Mosul - 'we arrived in Mosul about 12 in the night where we were received by the British Committee who served us a very nice tea with sandwiches and cigarettes'). After refreshments in Baghdad (provided by 'a gentleman, Mr. Matheson, a bank manager') they took the overnight 'desert sleeper' train to Basrah, where they were hosted by the British Consul. Another steamer took them down the river past miles of date plantations, stopping at Bahrain to collect American oil workers and their families ('and also two very rich Arab pearl merchants'), arriving in Karachi on 21st December.

'Karachi is the capital of the Sind Province of India [it is now of course in Pakistan]. We went on shore and had tea and bought some tobacco. We left Karachi on 22nd December and spent Christmas on board the "Varela".'

Arriving in Bombay on 26th December they were met by the 'Committee of the McKereth Organisation for the Balkan Evacuees'. They stayed there for a couple of weeks and then went to a camp at Satara by train, where they spent the best part of five months, 'during which there were pleasant, but more unpleasant moments ... the food was wholesome and sufficient, but one must get used to the food of India.'

They then went by train and bus - 'a very tedious journey of four days' - to Naini Tal, where they were 'received by Officials and transported by "dandies" (a sort of chair carried by four coolies) to a big bungalow on the top of the hill'. This was one of several temporary accommodations whilst in India, before returning to the UK later in the war.

This is a map of the journey.

I hadn't mapped this before. For me the whole account and episode is very interesting for several reasons.

Firstly: although there were clearly hardships on the journey this appears to have been a well-resourced and at times relatively leisurely middle-class retreat through largely British-held (or at least British-friendly) territory, facilitated by officialdom. Some luggage needed to be left behind at various places, and several aspects of accommodation and transport were evidently distressing; their house in Constanta and possessions left there were subsequently destroyed. Nevertheless it doesn't really compare with so many harrowing accounts of others' escapes from fascism in other parts of Europe at the same time.

Secondly: I am astonished that train/bus travel was sufficiently efficient in 1940 to enable land transport from Istanbul to Basrah in only four days. Would that be possible today?

Thirdly: this is a journey I would love to retrace, partly because it passes through so many places of enormous historical and archaeological significance, as well as for its genealogical interest. Sadly there is no longer a ferry from Constanta to Istanbul. This is the least of the problems, however. For, despite the fact that - just like my great-grandfather - I have a passport which declares that 'Her Britannic Majesty requires and requests all those whom it may concern to allow the bearer to pass freely etc. etc. etc.' I suspect that just at the moment Her Majesty's word is not particularly highly regarded in places such as Aleppo, Mosul, Baghdad and Basrah.

More importantly, the situation in the various regions through which my great-grandfather passed in 1940 is massively and utterly horrific for the millions of people who have been affected - in many cases disastrously and catastrophically so - by the whole sequence of events in the last couple of decades. Certainly some of the outcomes are the result of UK foreign policy (which of course has its origins in the protection of the British interests which my family were helping to pursue at the time), but UK foreign policy is only one of a number of factors here.

The answer is not, of course, a return to British imperialism. I don't know what the answer is. The situation is massively complex. But part of that answer must involve dialogue and mutual respect.

Islam is a beautiful and compassionate religion; so is Christianity. Together with Judaism were are all fruits of the same Abrahamic seed. Fascism can root itself perniciously within any of those religious contexts, and it is to be regretted when it does so - whether it is the Crusades, Nazism, aggressive Zionism, or the 'Islamic State'.

I still hope to be able to retrace this journey in my lifetime. Meanwhile my thoughts are with those in Aleppo, Mosul, Baghdad, Basrah and elsewhere whose hopes and dreams and lives are shattered by fascists from whom there is no avenue for escape.

12 March 2014

Tŷ-uchaf: a post-medieval farm complex near Llangynog

I posted about this project last month when it was very much in the early stages. Last week the team finished fieldwork there, and are now busy dealing with post-excavation tasks (when other projects permit!). This very interesting project has revealed a great deal about the evolution of the post-medieval farmhouse and associated complex.

The floor of the byre. Photograph copyright CPAT.
The earliest of the more-or-less extant buildings were known to date from the mid-seventeenth century; the date 1665 had been carved on the stone lintel of one of the upstairs windows. The form of this phase suggested the possibility that this was the remodelling of an earlier house. However we found no evidence for any earlier buildings on the site, despite vigorous investigation beneath the post-medieval floor levels. Instead it appears to have been built new on fairly conservative lines.
The associated complex had its origins in the seventeenth century, but was enlarged and modified in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The byre (shown above) was subdivided and partly repaved at least once. In addition, the surrounding landscape shows evidence of partible inheritance; Tŷ-uchaf was one of three holdings in Cwm Llech whose small fields were divided between several descendants during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
The extent of clearance done by the CPAT team over the last four weeks is impressive, and this has of course gone alongside the conservation of the structure itself. Last year the lintel of the main chimney collapsed, and this needed to be at least temporarily repaired before we could begin work. These two photographs show 'before' and 'after', albeit from different angles.
The fireplace in 2013, before consolidation of the structure and rubble clearance.
View looking east. Photograph copyright CPAT.

The cobbled floor in the main house; note the bread oven in the fireplace. View looking south-west.
For another view of the same floor before cleaning, please see the earlier post. Photograph copyright CPAT.
The house is interesting for its association with a local poet, Cadwaladr Roberts, for whom Tŷ-uchaf is said to have been built in the 1660s. Roberts died in 1708/9; the photograph below shows his grave marker in the churchyard at Pennant.

Photograph copyright CPAT.

A full report will be posted on the CPAT website shortly, and we hope to be back at this site later in 2014 as the conservation and restoration project continues.

Meanwhile we have just begun another project where below-ground 'archaeology' and above-ground 'buildings' are being dealt with together as part of an ambitious conservation scheme. More about this next week...

2 March 2014

Problematic built heritage and dark tourism: Patarei prison

Patarei is an unusual 'attraction' in the picturesque Baltic city of Tallinn, which raises a number of questions about the presentation of problematic heritage. The story of the building reflects the complex relationships between Estonia and Russia over the last couple of centuries; its survival is delicately balanced between different narratives of the past, and different visions for the future.

General view of the first courtyard of Patarei prison from the entrance.
The original 1830s ‘lunette’ is in the background; to the right are later additions made during the 1860s;
to the left are later additions built by the prisoners in the twentieth century. Photograph copyright Paul Belford.

After almost two centuries as part of the Swedish empire, Estonia came under Russian rule in 1710. Russia planned an ambitious series of fortifications to protect all of its Baltic territories, although little was achieved on the ground in Tallinn in the short term. Grand plans were drawn up in 1791, but it was not until 1829 that work began on one of four intended forts; in the end Patarei was the only one to be completed (Treufeldt 2005). The main building was completed in 1837, with the rest of the complex operational by 1840.

It was a self-contained fortress housing over 2,000 people: there were officers’ apartments, soldiers’ barracks, an infirmary, bakery and kitchens as well as the various magazines and artillery emplacements. Officially called the ‘Defence Barracks’, locals came to call it the ‘Battery Barracks’ (Patarei kasarmud), eventually shortened to ‘Battery’ (Patarei). Problems arose almost immediately. Underlying springs caused damp, although ironically there was insufficient drinking water until a well was completed in 1847; steam and smoke from the ground-floor kitchens also damaged the ordnance (Treufeldt 2005). Consideration was given to abandoning the site altogether, but it proved to be a useful deterrent during the Crimean War. In 1854 and 1855 a joint Anglo-French naval operation attacked the Russian navy (and its forts and supply chain) in the Baltic; the Russian fortress at Suomenlinna (near Helsinki) came under heavy attack and the Russians were forced to retreat to land-based forts, of which Patarei was one of the most important (Greenhill and Giffard 1988). From 1864 Patarei became an ordinary barracks, and improvements were subsequently made to the accommodation. In 1869 the seaward gunports were converted to windows, improving ventilation. In 1892 the main semi-circular range (lunette) was raised to three storeys, and a Russian Orthodox church was established in one of the casemates. In 1899 a new bakery and kitchen range was built (Treufeldt 2005).

The later nineteenth century had seen a ‘national awakening’ in Estonia and other Baltic states, the pace of which increased after the first Russian revolution of 1905. Estonian autonomy was granted after the second Russian revolution in February 1917, but elections were thwarted by the third Russian revolution in October and the subsequent German occupation. The withdrawal of German troops in November 1918 was quickly followed by a Red Army invasion; Estonian troops eventually won the War of Independence, and in 1920 the Treaty of Tartu marked the beginning of the new Republic of Estonia. It was at this time that Patarei was turned into a prison (Kuusi 2008, 109). Extensions were built by the prisoners using limestone blocks and prison-made concrete and roof tiles; these comprised an eastern wing of 48 solitary cells in 1932, and a southern wing accommodating 500 inmates in 1934 (Treufeldt 2005).

Corridor on the third floor of the ‘lunette’ building. Doors give access to former artillery emplacements,
converted to barracks in the 1860s and then used as cells in the twentieth century. Photograph copyright Paul Belford..

Patarei’s most notorious period – and the one with which it is still most closely associated today – began with the first Soviet occupation of Estonia from June 1940. The prison came under the jurisdiction of the Soviet secret police, the NKVD (Hinrikus 2009, 520). Within months 8,000 people had been arrested and deported; a further mass deportation of ‘socially foreign elements’ began in March 1941, and it is estimated that around 100,000 people (nearly 10% of the population) were lost during this period (Rahi-Tamm 2005, 26-28). In June the German Army invaded, beginning a brutal occupation which quickly crushed any initial hopes of liberation. In 1944 the Red Army recaptured Estonia, and so began the second Soviet occupation, which lasted until 1991. There was considerable resistance, including the ‘forest brothers’ – a loose affiliation of up to 30,000 resistance fighters who remained active into the 1950s (Rahi-Tamm 2005, 31).

Patarei was one of two prisons in Tallinn that served in effect as clearing houses whilst prisoners were investigated before being sent to the Gulag. These investigations could last days, weeks or even months, but were extremely rapid in the early years of the occupation when the lack of accommodation in Estonia meant that it was preferable to send prisoners to Siberia as quickly as possible (Rebassoo 2008, 4). Interrogation mainly took place at the notorious Pagari Street in cramped, dark, filthy and poorly-ventilated cellars, with prisoners subsequently moved to Patarei. Hillar Tassar, a civil engineer, was in Patarei in 1948 and 1949, before being moved to Vorkuta to work in the mines: ‘The difference between Patarei and Pagari prisons was like day and night. In Patarei … the cell was a room with a vaulted ceiling in an old naval [fortress] with a window opening right on to the sea. In stormy weather the wind blew spray into the window’ (cited in Hinrikus 2009, 173).

1840s artillery emplacement subdivided in the 1860s, and then used as a cell –
containing 16 beds in 8 bunks, and typically housing 30 prisoners. Photograph copyright Paul Belford.

Nevertheless conditions were cramped. Cells with 16 bunk beds were often made to accommodate 30 people (Anon 2008, 2). Hilja Lill was in Patarei during the winter of 1945-1946: ‘…up to 25 people were crammed in a cell meant for seven. We slept like herring in a tin, heads against the wall, feet jumbled together. For food we were given 400 grams of bread a day, a teaspoon of sugar, fish-head soup’ (cited in Hinrikus 2009, 49). Another inmate, one of the ‘forest brothers’ recalled that in solitary confinement the daily ration was only 300g of bread and cold water (Hinrikus 2009, 136). Heljut Kapral, a musician in Patarei during 1945, remembered shaving using a piece of glass, and ‘we made needles from a piece of bone salvaged from our soup, also using a piece of glass … After the evening roll-call a regular feature of the daily schedule was mutual delousing’ (cited in Hinrikus 2009, 135).

Despite the conditions, prisoners in this early period had relative autonomy. They tended to be housed together with people from their own areas or groups, and were able to make use of the open yard for exercise (Anon 2008, 5). Kapral recalled how the majority of men in his cell ‘had a university education’ and put together a schedule of lectures and discussions: ‘my assignment was to familiarise my cellmates with the basic principles of making an atomic bomb, since I had just passed my examinations in physics and chemistry’ (cited in Hinrikus 2009, 134).

The death of Stalin saw a change in the climate of the relationship between Estonia and the USSR, with many deportees being allowed to return home. Policy adjusted from mass repression and deportation to more targeted approaches (Rahi-Tamm 2005, 32). For the inhabitants of Paterei the consequence was a hardening of the regime.

The formerly open courtyard, viewed through later twentieth-century guardhouse windows;
the yard below is enclosed and subdivided into small, closely-observed cells. Photograph copyright Paul Belford.

Whilst prisoners in the 1940s were able to say that interrogations there were ‘rather polite’ (Hilja Lill , cited in Hinrikus 2009, 49), or even ‘polite and reasonable’ (Heljut Kapral, cited in Hinrikus 2009, 134), it is clear that later questioning techniques involved psychological and sometimes also physical violence. It is possible that sexual violence was also deployed as an interrogation technique against women (Kurvet-Käosaar 2009, 76). Despite the installation of central heating and flushing toilets in the 1970s, this period also saw the formerly open courtyard partitioned into small cells, and freedom of movement curtailed (Anon 2008, 5).

Tallinn hosted the sailing events for the 1980 Moscow Olympics; the sea-facing windows of Patarei were clad with steel ribbing to prevent eye contact between prisoners and foreign sailors (Treufeldt 2005). Executions were frequent; by shooting and by hanging – the last execution took place in 1991 (Anon 2008, 4).

The hanging room. The trapdoor and stepladder (the hook in the ceiling is out of shot)
provide a grim reminder of the function of this room, last used in 1991.
Photograph copyright Paul Belford.

In 1988 the Estonian Sovereignty Declaration was issued, and the next few years saw a flurry of activity as a new ‘national awakening’ sought to revive the Republic of Estonia. On 20th August 1991 Estonia’s independence from Russia was ‘confirmed’ (the argument that this was a continuation of the 1919-1940 Republic was a powerful tool in avoiding Russian reprisal); and three years later the Russian army withdrew.

Patarei prison closed in 2002, although the infirmary remained open until 2005. This period saw considerable debate around a plan to use the building as the future home of the Estonian Academy of Arts – for some an ideal solution, but an expensive one which was politically contentious (Treufeldt 2005). Instead, in September 2005, the complex was opened as a temporary museum by the Museums of Virumaa; however it almost immediately closed after safety concerns, and although re-opened in early 2006 the Museums of Virumaa withdrew from the project in July (Kuusi 2008, 109-110). The site has subsequently been operated under a public-private partnership as a ‘Culture Park’.

Under the ‘Culture Park’ regime the site has been used for music and arts events, with the main building complex largely left untouched. Initially tourists were offered a variety of lurid ‘prison experiences’, but more recently this has been toned down; there is an optional guided tour, but most visitors pay a simple €2 and undertake a self-guided ‘urban exploration’. There is no formal interpretation or guidebook, little in the way of signage, and an almost total absence of any health and safety. In many ways this is a refreshing approach, and results in a haunting and ultimately moving visitor experience. However the emphasis is very much on the ‘Soviet prison’ aspects of the history of the site, with former roles as barracks and fortress very much downplayed.

The long-term future of Patarei remains in the balance. At the moment it offers a unique ‘dark tourism’ experience, providing a brooding and haunting symbol of Soviet occupation and repression which in a way echoes the role of Auschwitz-Birkenau in relation to the Nazi regime. Clearly it cannot remain abandoned and unmaintained forever – it will either fall down, or become unviable as a tourist destination – even if for the very niche ‘dark tourism’ market which it currently attracts.

However development of the site needs to proceed with caution. The authorities are keen to upgrade the area (they have recently built an excellent new maritime museum next door), and are actively trying to sell the site. It failed to attract a buyer earlier this year, and has been withdrawn from the market whilst interest is sought from the public sector (Ilves 2012). Various suggestions for future uses have been put forward, including any or all of a communist crimes museum, an Estonian War Museum, police, security police and firefighting museums; the Defence Minister has also recently suggested that the complex could ‘also include catering services and a creative incubator … it will open up the sea to the city, clean up the urban space and improve the seaside city's image’ (Ilves 2012). However buildings archaeologists should be concerned; already significant elements of the post-1940 complex have been demolished without record to enhance the site’s perceived value to future developers (Roman 2011).

At the moment Patarei remains a unique and largely unexplored document which encapsulates much of the last 200 years of Estonian history. It is a delicate and remarkable testament to some very painful aspects of recent history. It would be a shame to see it lose that patina altogether, but it is also crying out for sensitive and nuanced conservation.

This is a mildly edited version of a short article originally published as: Belford, P. 2013, 'Patarei Prison, Tallinn: problematic built heritage and dark tourism', Institute for Archaeologists Buildings Archaeology Group Newsletter, 35, 49-54.


Anon. 2008, Patarei, Tourist Brochure, Tallinn: Sihtasutus Mänguväljaku Fond.

Greenhill, B. and Giffard, A. 1988, The British Assault on Finland 1854-55: A Forgotten Naval War, London: Conway Maritime Press.

Hinrikus, R. (ed.) 2009, Estonian Life Stories (trans. Kirss, T.), Budapest: Central European University Press.

Ilves, R. 2012, ‘Ministry Envisions Communist Crimes Museum for Patarei Prison’, Estonian Public Broadcasting website: http://news.err.ee/culture/a74b9e2b-d37c-41cd-9b0a-dfdd7eebc98b

Kurvet-Käosaar, L. 2009, ‘The Traumatic Impact of the Penal Frameworks of the Soviet Regime: Pathways of Female Remembering’, in Clancy, M. and Pető, A. (eds.), Teaching Empires. Gender and Transnational Citizenship in Europe, Utrecht: Advanced Thematic Network in Women’s Studies in Europe / University of Utrecht, 69-80.

Kuusi, H. 2008, ‘Prison Experiences and Socialist Sculptures – Tourism and the Soviet Past in the Baltic States’, in Kostiainen, A. and Syrjämaa, T. (eds.) Touring the Past. Uses of History in Tourism, Savonlinna: Finnish University Network for Tourism Studies, 105-122.

Rahi-Tamm, A. 2005, ‘Human losses’, in Salo, V., Ennuste, Ü., Parmasto, E., Tarvel, E. and Varju, P. (eds.), The White Book: Losses inflicted on the Estonian nation by Occupation Regimes 1940-1991, Tallinn: Estonian State Commission on Examination of the Policies of Repression, 25-46.

Rebassoo, P. 2008, Long-term consequences of political imprisonment and torture on former political prisoners in Estonia, MSc. Dissertation, Der Universität Konstanz.

Roman, S. 2011, ‘Patarei Prison Tears Down its Soviet-Era Walls’, Estonian Public Broadcasting website: http://news.err.ee/Culture/e9d0a707-162c-4dc5-98a4-f809d0f83c39

Treufeldt, E. 2005, ‘Tallinn Patarei Barracks’, Estonian Art, 2/05 (17).

22 February 2014

The ruin

'The ruin' is an early-seventeenth century former house in the Severn valley, about three miles downriver from Coalport. It forms part of the Apley Estate and has been in use for many years as a shed for livestock. Over the last year it has from time to time formed part of a Saturday morning cycle route, and Facebook friends have been entertained - if that is the right word - with occasional pictures of it at different times of the year. I am now moving away from the area, so, for the record, here is the full set of photographs showing 'the ruin' through the seasons.

20th April 2013

30th May 2013

30th June 2013

25th July 2013

5th October 2013

27th October 2013

15th February 2014
The Facebook posts have generated quite a bit of discussion about the origins and future of 'the ruin'. Some favour a late-sixteenth century date on stylistic grounds, but I think the use of brick here is unusual before the early seventeenth century; moreover Shropshire is somewhat behind the curve of building fashion. The building is not listed (although arguably it should be); as long as it retains its agricultural function it doesn't seem to be under any particular threat. It has lost a few tiles during the course of the year but hasn't significantly deteriorated as far as I can tell from the roadside, which is quite impressive given the stormy weather in the autumn and through the winter.
Providing the estate keeps the roof on, the main threat in the longer term would appear to be subsidence - from which, as is evident, the building has already suffered. The southern (left-hand) end of the building is rotating away from the rest of the structure, although so far the massive separate chimney stack seems to be stopping this movement to some extent. The two sturdy buttresses appear to be of mid-nineteenth century date, and have clearly worked in keeping the front wall upright; however soil wash down the slope has partly buried the ground floor.
Of course as soon as a significant part of the roof is lost, or further subsidence provokes collapse of one or more elements of the structure, then deterioration will accelerate rapidly.
I shall miss 'the ruin', and indeed cycling around the Ironbridge Gorge generally. 


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