Thursday, November 17, 2011

"...and we've got just three days"

June 1977 - December 1978

Recent conversations brought to mind a profoundly influential episode in my early years that originated from one of my earliest trips.

I had been on the usual trajectory (birth - school - university - career - death) when a hiatus occurred in my first semester at art college in early 1977. Being faced with the proposition by my lecturers of "expressing your experiences in life through your artwork" I came to the conclusion that my only experiences so far with life were school. And I didn't fancy making artwork about that.

So I upped and offed to the UK to try and get me some experiences.

After a disastrous start as a trainee manager at the Metropole, a business hotel in Leeds, an altercation with a piano saw me quit the position for a brief spell of unemployment.

hotel metropole

Leeds is one of Britain's largest cities in the north of England and is very close to the historic city of York of which I frequently visited.

On one of these visits I found myself captivated by the viking archaeological excavations of Coppergate that were in progress at the time and which subsequently became known as Jorvik.

coppergate viking dig 1977 (image courtesy of the web)

I spent a good hour and a half leaning over the fence watching the diggers in action. On the way back to my home base in Leeds I began chatting to the woman sitting next to me on the bus. I began telling her how amazing I found the excavations and she suggested that I contact the local archaeology unit to see if they wanted volunteers. I was surprised as I expected all of the people on site to be trained archeologists.

The following morning I rang the West Yorkshire Rescue Archaeology Unit as it was then known and offered my services as a volunteer. I was surprised when they accepted.

So the very next day I was at their headquarters at 08.30 am. I was taken out to their main site in a small old mining town called Castleford, or Lagentium as the Romans would have known it.

Almost immediately I was assigned the task of dismantling a section of old Medieval wall. This entailed removing each stone one by one and checking carefully for any finds that might be lying amongst the clay mortar. I was thrilled to be, on my first day, on a dig up to my elbows in mud and clay actually taking apart a Medieval wall! Yee hah!

It wasn't until several months later that I realised this was one of the crappy jobs the real archeologists didn't want to do!

But my enthusiasm was, as they say, unbridled and I was regularly first on site and last to leave. So keen was I that after 4 weeks of volunteer work and an injection of council funds I found myself being given a paid position. Suddenly I was being paid to do what I was more than happy to do for nothing. And ironically, after 3 months I was put in charge of volunteers!

The Castleford dig had been in operation for almost a year when I arrived. The Archaeology unit had been given permission to try and clarify a series of early Roman forts that had been found in the town before the whole area was to be destroyed by a major road bypass.

The site as I first saw it consisted of a lot of holes in the ground with almost no visible structures. Early Roman forts were built of wood with clay and turf defence ramparts. This left little behind except for post-holes and patchwork quilt-like colourations in the soil.

defence ditch in cross section

turf rampart

But it was during a lunch break in the final stages of wrapping up the site that a team member, whilst digging in an area of the site not scheduled for excavation, suddenly discovered a small section of finely dressed (i.e. chiseled) stonework wall foundations.

This piqued the curiosity of the digging team and we immediately began to use our own spare time to uncover more. By chance, this small section of wall turned out to be the corner of a Roman 'Natatio', or cold plunge bath, belonging to what would turn out to be one of the finest examples of Roman Bathhouse complexes in the North of England.

the natatio or cold plunge bath - centre foreground of the photo is the rectangular drainage ditch for the bath. The entire floor surface is the original and is made of opus signinum a form of Roman cement.

It was this discovery that led to the Councils cash injection and my ensuing employment. Suddenly the dig's life was extended, the entire bathhouse uncovered and the road bypass was ... well ... bypassed!

bathhouse foundations

stone channel to carry water to the baths

pilae stacks - small columns to support the bath floor for underfloor heating

yorkshire evening post coverage

here I'm excavating a chunk of wall plaster that collapsed into the room

far corner of the excavation

clay metalworking kiln I discovered and uncovered

showing how close to the present day surface was some of the archaeology

bathhouse complex photo

complete bathhouse site plan

artists reconstruction of what the bathhouse perhaps looked like

Having had some background in the Visual Arts I found myself being useful for other activities apart from digging. I was trained to use surveying equipment for site planning, I was also involved in site photography, and section and finds drawings for use in later reports. (The following photos are drawings I made back in 1978 for my own report of my experiences and not for the Archaeology Unit.)

carved bone pin

brooch and ring drawings

hypocaust (underground heating) section drawing

roman trumpet brooch

small copy of a large section drawing

diggers adrian tindall and steve wager using a planning frame - this frame was 2 x 1 metres with 10cm gradations in elastic. It was laid over the ground and each 10cm square corresponded to a single square on graph paper. The elastic allowed the squares to 'mould' themselves over objects.

A slow and laborious job was planning. The above site plan drawing is therefore an exact reproduction of every stone in situ of the entire bathhouse complex.

Apart from Castleford, during my 18 months with the unit I also worked on their other more long term excavation: Dalton Parlours, a hill top site comprising Stone Age, Iron Age, Bronze Age, Roman and Saxon settlements superimposed over an acre of farmland about 18kms North East of Leeds.

dalton parlours saxon skeleton

dalton parlours hypocaust

Also on rainy days I spent time cleaning finds and glueing potsherds together, assisting the 'beetle man' separating and classifying insect parts, and in mid winter when the ground was frozen I worked for several months with 16th Century tithe maps from the city archives scouring them for potential archaeological information which could then be transcribed onto modern day constraint maps.

When I finally returned to Australia 2 years after I had left, and re-enrolled in Art College I had me a sack full of experiences!

My time with the West Yorkshire Rescue Archaeology Unit was quite an extraordinary and powerful experience which had a very positive and lasting influence on my early sculpture work.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

another year bolder

bagan birthday ritual

bagan panorama

*click image twice to get panorama full sized

beaut bagan and brillo b/day

It was a 6 hour bus ride from Mandalay to Bagan in a comfortable air-conditioned bus. There were only 3 seats across the width of the bus so plenty of room for corpulent Westerners to spread out. Pedro and Claudia were on the same bus along with another couple of lasses who we met in Mandalay, Claire (OZ) and Anna (Canada).

But there was still the ubiquitous karaoke tv and the appalling road to deal with. We seem to be taking the back road to Bagan because surely this cannot be the main Mandalay - Bagan thoroughfare?

bus karaoke

and it was ka ka. (instant coffee, powdered milk and sugar all-in-one)

Once in Bagan Claudia, Pedro and myself hired a pony and trap to take us around several of the guest houses to see what was on offer.

We finally settled on the New Park. They wanted $16 for a single room, but when it looked like I was about to go elsewhere, they suddenly admitted to have 'economy' singles for $10. The room was ok but the bathroom was extremely shabby. I had to move from the first one as the ceiling fan sounded like the incoming choppers on Apocalypse Now. I felt a beheading was imminent.

The second room's fan was quieter - but was jammed on the lowest setting. So I was supplied with some pliers and had to take the knob off the switch and use the pliers to adjust the fan setting. There was also a fight to get hot water.

When they turned on the heating element, it took a full 10 minutes for the hot water to run through the warren of pipes to reach my shower rose. Not so much a rose - rather a skanky thistle that sprayed water in every direction but downwards. I had to stand a metre away from under the shower head in order to get wet.

That evening we celebrated Claire's birthday at a nearby restaurant serving excellent food.

anna, claire, terry, pedro and claudia

The following morning o casal Português and I hired bicycles for the day and set off to explore the fields and temples of Bagan.

Bagan is wonderful. Really really wonderful. One of my absolute favourite places so far in my world travels.

Almost 42 sq kms in size, it is a fertile green plain (at least it is now at the end of the monsoon season) nestled in the crook of the Irriwaddy River. Originally consisting of over 5,000 pagodas this number has been reduced to around 2,200 after a severe earthquake in 1975. The majority of these were built in the 11th century to 13th century.

ananda temple

ananda temple

ananda temple

Whilst out riding we accidentally found ourselves in the grounds of a wonderful expensive looking hotel down on the riverfront. It had a wonderful setting, beautiful gardens and a swimming pool and on an impulse I booked myself in for one night on my birthday eve. The standard room cost $28 including buffet breakfast. (NB: a buffet breakfast to backpackers means a lottery windfall!!)

Pedro and Claudia soon decided they deserved a treat after having been backpacking on the road for the previous 6 months and also booked in for the night.

bagan thande hotel

reception notice board!!

eating outside the hotel as it was too expensive inside

local postcard selling girls

The photographs can't possibly do justice to how incredible the Bagan scenery is. It is the range and scope of the pagodas that is breathtaking. Once you have been inside several there isn't the need to enter more. But all over the plain there are excellent vantage points with which to absorb the splendour that is Bagan.

So I spent my birthday in a fantastic setting with wonderful companions, and later on my birthday afternoon I flew back to Yangon for one night before leaving to return to Sydney.

Trip over!

* click to enlarge

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

head for the hills

It was a pleasant afternoon bus ride to Hsipaw heading quickly as we did, into the hills outside of Mandalay. The weather cooled, and the scenery was an interesting distraction from the ever pervading karaoke on the bus tv.

I arrived after sundown and quickly found a cyclo to take me the several blocks to a guest house I had picked out. Hsipaw has only about 3 choices, and one of them I deliberately avoided due to its monopolising (by way of intimidation of other hoteliers) of tourists.

It was a very basic, tiny room with a table fan on a rickety bedside table next to the single bed. There were no en suite bathrooms - in fact there were no inside bathrooms at all. One centralised communal bathroom was downstairs and out the back.

I was the only guest in the hotel. Checking on the supply of hot water for my morning ablutions, they promised me one of the hotel workers would be up at 6.30 am to switch on the hot water.

There was little to do for the rest of the evening except go out on a hunt for food.

The streets were very quiet and I couldn't see any other foreigners, so I walked around the town for a while and I ended up wandering into what looked like a stock standard Chinese restaurant for some veggy noodles. That done it was off to bed.

Hopes for a good nights sleep were dashed when at about 3.30am my table fan vibrated itself off the table and crashed on the floor, breaking off one of the fan blades and making a frightful noise in the process. By the time I tried to fix it, it was close to 4am so I returned to bed sans fan. As I began to drift off the roosters started. I could count three of them having a loud conversation with each other. Just as I thought they'd grown tired the nearby mosque began its morning call to prayer. Then the big trucks began rolling by on the main road outside, and staff members began yelling to each other from opposite ends of the hotel. (The walls are single layer masonite thin). Finally on top of everything else, several pigeons starting shagging outside my window.

Consequently I was up early so I went for another wander around town after breakfast. Little held interest for me so I decided on the spur of the moment to head off to another town called Pyin Oo Lwin and see what that place had to offer.

I was in time to catch the 9am train - more so because it was delayed an hour and a half. It took about 5 hours to get to Pyin Oo Lwin and was a really great train journey.

It passes over the Gokteik Viaduct.

The viaduct was the highest railway box tower and girder type steel trestle when it was built in 1901 and stands 102 metres high.

gokteik viaduct

In Pyin Oo Lwin I found a conventional hotel to stay in - quite luxurious and as I was (one again) their only guest it was quite easy to haggle them down from $15 to $13 for the night. (And this was only because for some inexplicable reason I had set $13 as the maximum I was going to pay for a room!)

My breakfast the next morning was quite amusing as the entire roof terrace was the dining room and they had set up one solitary table for me to have breakfast. It looked both comical and pathetic.

Pyin Oo Lwin was built originally as a British military garrison then a hill station and a place for people to escape the heat of Mandalay in summer. I spent an afternoon and following morning walking around the town, checking out the temples and monasteries, and then by early afternoon I was ready to head back to Mandalay.

pyin oo lwin wild west

It was very quick and easy to find a share taxi for around $8 and the trip only took a couple of hours (as opposed to 5 or more by train)

Back in Mandalay all I had left to do was to hire a motorbike taxi to visit a couple of well known monasteries and temples. The first was the Mahamuni Temple of the gold Buddha. Wandering around the opulently decorated temple and angling to get a good photo of the gold Buddha, an attendant suddenly grabbed my arm. Thinking I had overstepped some sensitive boundary of some sort I went willingly.

But he actually guided me into the inner sanctum and up the stairs beside the Buddha statue. I was presented with several sheets of gold leaf and instructed to apply them to the statue. I was also told to bow my head and touch it to the statue. My over eagerness to oblige led to me getting a small cut to my forehead. A Buddha-bash if you like.

From here my driver took me to the Shwe In Bin Monastery, one of the most revered in Myanmar which has some beautifully carved teak decoration.

tough day at the office

harry, ron and hermione must be nearby

Back again at the guest house I found one of the best reasons for me being in Mandalay: meeting two wonderful Portuguese backpackers Pedro and Claudia. They were both incredibly friendly and delighful company and I feel very lucky to have met them. They invited me to go for ice cream at the oddly named Nylon ice cream parlour a block away from the guest house. (Dangerously close!)

pedro and claudia

One other thing I did while in Mandalay was to drop by the Mandalay School of Art for a sticky beak. I met the school principal and several of the teachers and was graciously given a tour. It was a very small school with few students, and much of the work was fairly conservative and tradition based. But it was nice to meet some of the students and watch them working.