A culture:nature journey

As part of the 19th ICOMOS General Assembly and Scientific Symposium in Delhi I am co-covening a session with Chris Dunn on A Spectrum of Culture and Nature – From Abandoned Buildings to Wilderness” This session will explore the nexus of culture and nature by considering how ideas of wildness,  wilderness, authenticity, and decline form important counterpoints to reconstruction and restoration, from both cultural and natural heritage perspectives, as well as how culture fits into wilderness landscapes.

An example of the former is the gradual process of change on abandoned archaeological sites, which is often considered an acceptable conservation approach. Here cultural heritage ‘returns’ to the earth, and from a natural heritage perspective nature ‘reclaims’ landscapes and sites. However, this approach is contrasted by post-disaster recovery (from both natural and manmade disasters) in which reconstruction is seen as an important element of the ‘healing’ process (and is a current focus for both ICOMOS and UNESCO). An example of the latter is the rich symbolic and material relationships that people form with wilderness landscapes, settings where parallel debates surround ecological restoration and maintenance of cultural resources. The session will consider the broad implications of these different approaches within the culture:nature nexus.

The aims of the session are to:

  • Consider the different approaches to abandonment and conservation of cultural and natural heritage
  • Engage critically with approaches to authenticity, materiality and ecology – considering how they impact on the processes of cultural and natural heritage management

and to:

  • Reflect on philosophical considerations relating to values of wilderness and cultural landscapes, considering the conflicts and issues that arise within the broad culture: nature nexus


Beyond the session I’ve been struck by the connections between culture:nature and nature:culture from my very preliminary explorations of Delhi over the last few days – for example wildlife in historic buildings, graffiti on trees, and trees growing through and now part of streetscape and buildings.


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Habitat – Vernacular Architecture for a Changing Planet


I am delighted to be amongst the contributors to the landmark publication Habitat – Vernacular Architecture for a Changing Planet which has just been published by Thames and Hudson.

The gloriously illustrated book celebrates humanity’s ability to create buildings that are  adapted to their cultural and environmental conditions. I’ve contributed an entry on vernacular buildings in Turkmenistan, which looks back on work I was involved with in the mid-2000s.

The vast volume (it runs to 600 pages) is an invaluable addition to the literature on buildings and sustainability. Rather than adopt a regional (or materials-based) approach the editor, Sandra Piesek, has adopted a climatic categorisation to vernacular buildings around the world – considering tropical, dry, temperate, continental and polar zones.

The launch event last week was a great reflection on the different disciplines that are concerned with sustainability and the built environment (anthropologists, architects, plant and material specialists, builders and engineers etc) and then me, as someone who started out as an archaeologist and is now teaching building conservation.

Much more information available via the Thames and Hudson website and it is of course available to purchase in all good bookshops.

(snaps are from the Thames and Hudson review via the Thames and Hudson website).



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exploited landscape stories

For the last 31 months (or since April 2014) I’ve been working for the North York Moors National Park on the development of the This Exploited Land HLF Landscape Partnership Scheme. In the time I’ve been working on this project my blog fell quiet – but the National Park conservation blog was regularly updated with highlights from the project – of which there were many.


When I joined the project it was focused primarily on the physical remains associated with a century of ironstone exploitation  from the 1820s through to 1920s – and so through the development of the scheme I developed a ‘before, during and after’ narrative to contextualise the physical remains and extend the project from an archaeological focus to a broader, heritage landscape focus.

Alongside the stories of how the landscape has been used, it also contains amazing stories of people who lived and worked in the landscape in the past and those who value and use the landscape today. The landscape and the exploitation of its mineral wealth is also interwoven with a number of famous and influential lives, including Gertrude Bell.

In many ways the rural industrial landscapes remind me of the distinctiveness of earthen cultural landscapes (characterised by upstanding ruins in ’empty’ places) and so switching from the very ‘old’ archaeological sites of Central Asia, Middle East or South America through to much more modern landscapes in the UK was an easy transition. The conservation problems are similar, so the methods and approaches that can be applied are remarkably similar but are applied to different materials and from different time periods.


I’m now handing on the reigns to a new project team who I hope will share my delight and passion for the former industrial landscapes of the North York Moors. In the meantime I’m returning to more teaching and more freelancing.


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melting earth

Landscapes are made up of lots of different things and one of the most fascinating aspects of earth buildings is the cyclical ways in which they are made, un-made, remade and un-made. The process of making is linked to the geology of the landscape and the unmaking creating the ‘product’ of those human:nature interactions – cultural landscapes.

This year’s Earth Building UK conference (Clayfest) ran in partnership with the Tay Landscape Partnership and so lots of different activities and events took place to celebrate the vernacular building heritage of the Tay Landscape. One of these, un-melting is a series of interventions in the landscape undertaken by The Red Field (a community interest company). It explores the process and loss of habitation – here the sense that buildings ‘melt’ back into the landscape from which they were made.


This ‘melting’  lies at the very heart of the creation of landscapes. This ‘process’ of earth buildings is explored in my chapter in The Future of Heritage as Climates Change: Loss, Adaptation and Creativity (edited by David Harvey and Jim Perry). Taking very different evidence from this Scottish example, the chapter reflects on work in Turkmenistan and Abu Dhabi to consider the ways in which we look at earth buildings, and how ‘looking’ allows us to understand the process of change in different ways and can enable us to challenge conventional approaches to conservation.

Earthen cultural landscapes can be on such a vast scale they stretch our perception of the culture:nature debate (such as the example below from Peru) – but they are clearly ‘re-making’- ‘melting’ into a landscape that is changed and changing as a result of the past and present human uses.


A hillside in Peru scattered with stone and earth buildings.



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Archaeology and shoes in the Vale of Pickering

This is a brilliant ‘new’ find not of really old archaeology – but of the material culture left behind by archaeologists.

This is a pair of boots left behind by archaeologists at some time between 1978 and 1984 when the Cook’s Quarry site was backfilled. They have just been found again in starting up further excavation.

Here the boots have another afterlife as a demonstration of 3D modelling of archaeology, and represent the ’embeddedness’ of archaeology in the Vale of Pickering due to to lifetime(s) of engagement with excavation and research undertaken by the Landscape Research Centre.

These boots were made for digging – enjoy

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Women and mothers

International Women’s Day and Mothering Sunday just got me thinking about some of the remarkable women I’ve encountered when I have been researching earthen architecture around the world.

With some lovely images of women doing what women do in Bairam Ali, Turkmenistan …

Baram Ali Market

And I’ve always been intrigued as to where this young girl was going in Bukhara.


If you want to be inspired by words rather than images follow this link to the North York Moors National Park Conservation Blog – to my blog post on another remarkable woman, Gertrude Bell.


I like to think Gertrude Bell also provides a tangible connection between my time spent in the Middle East and my time spent now working on cultural landscapes of mineral extraction in North East England!

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15 books …

In the style of Caitlin Moran ‘the lists of my life’ 15 books I’m thinking I should crack on with right now seeing how I haven’t written them this year!

  1. The little book of mud
  2. Materialities of Earth (the academic version of 1)
  3. Homes not quite for Heroes: how sustainable building emerged in the aftermath of the first world war
  4. “An archaeology of …,” “Curated by ….,”: lost words in an interdisciplinary age
  5. The transition movement and heritage: how communities got a voice
  6. All the houses: production, consumption and afterlives of buildings
  7. After Downton: the creation of the English Country House in the 21st century
  8. From space race to conservation race: how concrete didn’t make the past last forever
  9. All Creatures Great and Small: the creation of a ‘Yorkshire’ Landscape
  10. The Gruffalo’s child: the reinvention of heritage destinations in the Mumsnet era
  11. Location, Location, Creation: ‘places’ and the impact of the film industry on heritage
  12. Walking down the lane: repetition, commitment and understanding how places work
  13. Toast: vernacular buildings, crumbling plaster and selling pyjamas
  14. Face cream and other miracles: women conservation of the past
  15. Cardigan: a social history

one of many possible illustrations from the little book of mud …


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