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By Dr Sandy Gerrard

The present can both inform and confuse our understanding of the past and help us appreciate the limitations of what we can deduce from what we see and find. When studying the past we rely on the tangible remains left by previous generations and skilfully manipulate this data to create a narrative. The passage of time inevitable erodes both our understanding of the cultural character of the people we are studying and the amount of surviving evidence.

This is especially the case with prehistoric studies where our understanding is inevitably severely compromised. Snippets of data are analysed, hypothesis created and conclusions offered. But just how reliable are these conclusions? We really can’t be sure.

Take the modern public bench. These are scattered in ever increasing numbers through the urban and rural environment. We all know what they are for and often why they are where they are. At the basic level they are all built to sit on, but there is much more to the humble public bench than this.

Thousands represent memorials to individuals as the plaques on them testify, others are carefully positioned to permit a spectacular view, whilst others are arranged neatly around places where sporting activities occur. Many others are strategically placed at the places where people congregate to utilise public transport and others are situated helpfully outside shops to provide respite for the laden down shoppers.

So the distribution of these single function items is varied and reflects a myriad of different factors, needs and aspirations many of which would be difficult to fathom out without their social and cultural context.  If one assumes that 90% are then removed leaving no trace, then the chances of understanding them is further compromised or indeed futile. As archaeologists we would look at the surviving distribution to help us understand them but we would also look at differences in their form. When it comes to public benches the variety seems endless. Different materials, sizes, shapes and layout are normal and indeed even within a limited geographical area, considerable differences in form appears to be the norm.

Do these differences mean anything? Again, as archaeologists we would probably try and seek reasons for the considerable variety in form and distribution and seek to analyse the evidence to see if it could tell us anything about them. Are they ritual?  The memorial plaques on some of them might suggest that they are. Perhaps monuments raised to commemorate certain people or events. Perhaps the horizontal surface was formed to received votive offerings. What about those without plaques? Did they have a different function or has the plaque been lost? What about associations can this help us?  Many are directly associated with litter bins. Were these bins built to receive further offerings and therefore do they denote benches of particular significance? Were those without bins used for something else or perhaps they belong to a different period?

Of course we have answers to all of these questions in the same way that prehistoric peoples fully understood the purpose and place of their structures. With the passage of time the social context of their built environment has been completely lost and we are left only with the material vestiges from which to attempt a reconstruction. Inevitably we fail and with every answer further questions follow.

We shall never really understand the prehistoric peoples who lived in the British Isles, but this should not stop us trying our best.  Providing we remember that our conclusions are merely hypothesis and that like ourselves people in the past were individuals living within a complex social system we should not go far wrong.

Raised timber walkway leading to a platform with a pair of benches. What would archaeologists make of the adjacent hearth? This pair of benches are positioned to provide sea views and the elaborate walkway to protect the sensitive natural environment. Archaeologically this site would survive as a double curving alignment of post holes terminating in a rectangular setting adjacent to a pair of contemporary hearths. Without documentation what are the chances that archaeologists in the year 6,000 AD would be able to accurately interpret this site?

 

The public benches at this location are built within a purpose-built shelter. Does this mean that these benches have a different function to the open examples? The answer of course is no but what chance would archaeologists of the future have?

 

An alignment of benches each with a view of the sea. Most are memorial benches does this imply a ritual relationship with the sea? These benches resolutely face away from the playing fields.

 

Four conjoined benches and a litter bin. Why so many together and why not four separate benches? The questions are endless and even with a full understanding of function and social context the answers are not always obvious.

 

Benches raised on an artificial mound and provided with a bin. The mound permits views of the sea. Without it the views would be hidden behind the sea wall.

 

Bench positioned with its back to the sea view. All the others areas have been positioned to provide views to the sea whilst this one has not. Archaeologists could see this as evidence that the sea played no part in the siting of the benches. They would be wholly wrong. Armed with the knowledge that this is a memorial to the owner of the model railway its position makes perfect sense.

 

Benches sited to provide pleasing views of the picturesque duck pond and mock castle.

 

A bench with no view at all. When built this bench would have views across a pond to a picturesque island. Subsequent remodelling of the area means that it no longer serves the function it was built for.

 

This bench is an integral part of the landscaping works. A recess was formed in which the bench was placed.

 

The form of the benches varies considerably. This does not reflect any difference in their purpose. We need to try and remember this when studying the past.

 

A bench that would be more at home in a back garden than in a public space. The purpose is however clear.

 


 

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