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Margaret Jones (living in the now)

December 4, 2015

Several years ago, before Dr Sheltering Memory and I became proud parents, a good friend of ours told us we needed to live in ‘the now’. He felt we were getting too stressed by possible future events, we needed to kick back, relax and enjoy the moment. I think he was joking, he’s from California, he often does make these new agey kind of pronouncements and then sits back and smiles as we fizz at him with British/European/East Coast indignation. In case he wasn’t joking I’d just like to say publicly ‘Dave, I now live in ‘the now’ and I have to tell you, it sucks! Having children is great fun but they’ve pushed us into ‘the now’ and this means nothing ever gets done in time, we’re constantly running around trying desperately to catch up with where we’re supposed to be and to make sure we have what we need for that given moment. Appointments/birthdays/anniversaries/meetings get forgotten. Assignments don’t get marked. Essential shopping doesn’t get done. The cats go hungry. The nine-year old doesn’t do his homework. We don’t do any research. The three year old runs around naked laughing maniacally (ok, she’d do that whether we were living in ‘the now’ or not). Turns out living in ‘the now’ is incredibly stressful and, frankly, you can stuff it!’

What, I hear you ask, does this have to do with anything? Especially, what does it have to do with Margaret Jones? Well, Jon sent me an email the other day telling me that the  new Mucking report, Lives in Land, was published and I thought ‘Oh? That’s interesting, I must have a look at that, if I remember’ then I read the rest of his email which said could I send him a copy of the appreciation of Margaret Jones that Anwen and I wrote? This would be the appreciation of Margaret Jones that we wrote for Lives in Land. To make it worse, I knew that Lives in Land had been published because I’ve been invited to the book launch on the 17th of December, and I’ve accepted the invitation. That’s what you get from living in ‘the now’ – amnesia and stupidity!*

Anyway, Margaret Jones, who was she? Those of you who’ve been paying attention will remember Monica Barnes piece in which she said:

After earning my A.B. degree in 1971 . . . I went to Mucking, attracted by the site’s multi-period components. Many people were intimidated by Mucking’s excavator, Mrs. Margaret U. Jones, B.A., as she signed herself, but I saw her as a role model, a strong, dedicated, no-nonsense woman of great professional skill, with a very complex and important project. I felt that earning Margaret’s trust was a real honor.

When Margaret realized that I was serious about my intention to become an archaeologist and wanted to stay in Britain for a while longer, she sent me in the direction of G. W. Dimbleby, professor of the Archaeology of the Human Environment at the Institute of Archaeology in London.

It was only years later, when I read some of the Mucking publications, that I learned that she had never managed anything of that scope before, and was, by her own admission, figuring things out as she went along. She did a splendid job.

That pretty much sums up Margaret Jones: indomitable, formidable, disinclined to suffer fools but very kind to those she considered worth helping, dedicated and inventive. But maybe a bit of back-story is needed to explain how she came to be in charge of the multi-period excavation of Mucking.

Margaret Ursula Owen was born in Birkenhead in 1916, her family were comfortably middle-class and she attended the local girl’s secondary school before studying Geography at Liverpool University under W.J. Varley (remember him?). Unsurprisingly, given Varley’s interest in archaeology, Margaret became involved with Varley’s excavations and, while volunteering for him on his Cheshire hill-fort digs, met her future husband Tom Jones (no, not that Tom Jones!) Tom was a keen rower and Varley the coach of Liverpool University Eights (Jon told me that snippet) which is how they knew each other. Where was I? Excavating with Varley. Yes. Anyway, Margaret and Tom married in 1940 and were almost immediately separated by the war; Tom’s infantry regiment was posted to Palestine while Margaret remained in Liverpool and worked as a postal censor.

Post-war they ran a freelance photography business in Birmingham, Tom took the photos, Margaret marketed them and wrote articles for the Birmingham Mail. They continued to volunteer on excavations and in 1956 Margaret began freelancing for the Ministry of Works, directing excavations in Buckinghamshire and Yorkshire (see Paul Barford‘s chapter in Great Excavations and for a description of the life of an itinerant MoW excavator Philip Rhatz’s Living Archaeology 2001). This was a time of enormous urban renewal and expansion, the few archaeologists there were in Britain were hurtling around the country excavating ahead of buildings, roads, gravel and stone extraction and desperately trying to keep track of the archaeology that was fast being dug away. In 1965 Margaret was asked to carry out a brief exploratory excavation at a gravel quarry site in Essex, she and Tom worked that site for the next 13 years assisted by countless volunteers, including many now established figures such as Paul Barford, Mike Pitts and our own Monica Barnes.

Mucking became legendary for many reasons, not all to do with the archaeology, although this was very impressive: as the publishers say it was the ‘largest area excavation ever undertaken in the British Isles, involving around 5000 participants, recorded around 44,000 archaeological features dating from the Beaker to Anglo-Saxon periods and recovered something in the region of 1.7 million finds of Mesolithic to post-medieval date‘. 44 acres were dug revealing prehistoric, Roman, Saxon and medieval remains, including a major Saxon village and two cemeteries.

Take a look here to see the scale of the project. The Jones’ dug Mucking all year round, including during the winter months, previously unheard of in British archaeology, and with the minimum of funds. Their staff of young archaeologists and volunteers took pride in their ability to survive the austere conditions. Being a Mucking survivor was a badge of archaeological honour – Mike Pitts wrote in his obituary of Margaret Jones: The conditions were tough: accommodation ranged from your own tent to leaking huts; food was the cheapest line from the cash and carry, creatively supplemented with wild gleanings (I once asked the cook what was for supper, to learn she had spent her afternoon removing, as instructed, mouse-droppings from a sack of rice); and entertainment consisted of a night-time drive round one of the uncannily-automated oil-refining stations along the coast.

Unfortunately, despite the Jones’ years of work, Mucking has never been fully published – that’s about to change. The Saxon areas of settlement and burial were published first, now the Roman and prehistoric features are being dealt with by the Cambridge Archaeological Unit and two volumes are planned, the first of which is Lives in Land. While this is primarily an archaeological report – again quoting Oxbow – ‘presenting both the detail of many important structures and assemblages and a comprehensive synthesis of landscape development through the ages: settlement histories, changing land-use, death and burial, industry and craft activities‘, it’s also a history of the Jones’ excavation:

Lives in Land begins with a thorough evaluation of the methods, philosophy and archival status of the Mucking project against the organisational and funding background of its time, and discusses its fascinating and complex history through a period of fundamental change in archaeological practice, legislation, finance, research priorities and theoretical paradigms in British Archaeology . . . The authors draw on archival material including site notebooks and personal accounts from key participants to provide a detailed but lively account of this iconic landscape investigation.

So far I’ve only read the 3rd chapter, that’s where you’ll find our (short) appreciation, but I will buy a copy at the book launch and a review will appear here. Subject to me remembering to actually go to London on the 17th, obviously.

In the meantime, have a great weekend, avoid ‘the now’


*It’s entirely possible we are doing this ‘now’ business wrong and that living in the moment can be peaceful and relaxing. However, Dave hasn’t mentioned it since he became a father so maybe you can only live in the now if you’re childless and exceptionally well organised?


One Comment leave one →
  1. Monica Barnes permalink
    December 4, 2015 7:44 pm

    I am delighted to learn that so much is being published about Mucking and its indomitable excavators, Margaret and Tom Jones. I’m pretty sure I was one of the people Margaret had in mind when, in one of the Mucking reports, she praised American cook-excavators and mused on fresh baked bread and honey. I hadn’t realized I had made a major contribution to her food fantasies.

    In the early 1970s we were probably in a bread nadir, both in Britain and in the United States. In the 1930s and 40s my grandmother made bread several times a week to feed her family of ten. It was cheaper than store bought, and really delicious, but my mother tells me that she and her siblings were ashamed to eat their thick, homemade sandwiches in the school lunchroom. All the cool kids had delicate slices of store-bought loaves.

    In the 1960s my mother only made bread on rare occasions as a very special treat. It was food of the gods and never lasted long enough to go stale. Home baking, especially bread baking, was becoming uncommon.

    In 1977, when Elizabeth David published her influential English Bread and Yeast Cookery, over seventy percent of the bread consumed in Britain was produced in factories, not in homes or in artisan bakeries or tea rooms. Mrs. David strove to reduce that trend, and my impression is that she succeeded to a large extent.

    However, back in 1971, after the Depression but before bread machines, at the dawn of the whole food movement, even a simple loaf of soda bread, warm from the oven, was a rare treat. But not at Mucking, because Margaret persuaded a manufacturer to donate large, catering size bags of “scone and doughnut mix”, essentially self-raising flour, and because good cooks, both American and British, used the stuff with imagination. Life at Mucking was harsh, but there were compensations.


    P.S. I still have my grandmother’s sandwich loaf pans and they still get used.

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