The Archaeology of Peepo

“…and the nursery rhymes are different!”

I was commiserating with another translocated mother; she’s British and raising a son in Hawaii with an American husband, while I’m exactly the opposite. (Yes, I’m fairly sure that York is the opposite of Hawaii, alas.) We had been speaking about the subtle but substantial differences in nomenclature for British and American babies–everything from nappies vs. diapers to how the wheels on the bus go round and round, either all day long or all through town. London Bridge is rebuilt with different materials (silver and gold??) in the UK, whereas in the USA you take the key and lock her up…my fair lady. Needless to say, this all feeds into my shonky, blinkered ethnography of the UK, with this particular instance falling into the chapter on raising children.

Many of Tamsin’s books are from her grandparents who amassed a wealth of literature through teaching and having four children of their own. These are well-loved, disintegrating, and taped-together but remain compelling and most are still in print today. My favorites are the decidedly psychedelic Meg and Mog books (late 1970s):

From Meg’s Veg, sorry for the tipsy photos, I was battling a toddler

Though The Tiger Who Came to Tea (1968) is a close second–its ambiguous (anti-fascist?) narrative of a very large furry tiger who eats all the food and all the drink in a house occupied by a little girl and her mummy while daddy’s away is oddly chilling, and requires a greater literary scholar than I to unpick.

OH GOD WATCH OUT FOR THE TIGER AAAAAAHHHH

Janet & Allan Ahlberg’s Peepo (1981) is another classic British children’s book that I was not familiar with. Without getting too much into the literary devices in the book, it is told from the perspective of a little baby boy who peeps through a hole cut into the next page at various scenes of family life.

While it is not stated, the book is set during WWII, yet portrays a happy domesticity during a devastating war. This would have probably been obvious to any British readers, with the barrage balloon/anti-aircraft blimp in the background of an image of a park, a bombed-out building in the distance, gas mask on the bed, and the father is shown in uniform toward the end of the book.

This is obviously a idealized, heteronormative vision of the British past, one that probably feels true and right and comfortable. Dan tells me that a lot of children’s books are set during this time; my sample and experience are still relatively limited. What caught my attention is the architecture–we live in a similar Victorian terraced house that backs onto a small, paved yard with a tiny garden.

I started noticing the period-specific features of the house, ones that are mostly gone from ours, like the big stove in the kitchen and the outhouse tacked onto the end of the shed. The traces of these remain in our house, and some of our neighbor’s houses still have the back shed.

I realized that you could figure out the interior of the house and the location of the various rooms from a generalized knowledge of the architecture of these houses. This is how ingrained and ubiquitous these terraced houses are in the UK. In fact, after reading the book at least 1,000 times, I reckoned it was close to this set up:

This layout is from a house a block away from ours, stolen from a real estate website.

In this modern version the back shed has been converted into a kitchen and the former kitchen is now a dining room.

The interior scenes in Peepo are remarkably consistent, with objects (artefacts) appearing and reappearing as the everyday things interwoven into life. I wondered if the house was based on one from the Ahlbergs’ past, or if terrace houses were so generalizable that elaborate planning of the various scenes was not required. Of course the kitchen is there, with the stove just so, and the clothes horse in the corner.

I also love the book as potential inspiration for archaeological illustrations and reconstructions. It’s not messy, just full, rich with materiality and every object has a used and purposeful feeling to it. Small piles of toys are a playtime interrupted, but not quite cleared away. According to an interview in The Guardian, the illustrator Janet Ahlberg used The Army and Navy Stores Catalogue, 1939-1940 for reference and “would get waylaid in it and sit for ages looking at bread-bins and kettles.”

The book is from a baby’s perspective, watching his family move around him and the details he picks up that might go unnoticed by adults. It also evokes the “daily round,” of waking, daily activity, then bath and bedtime. Out in the back yard he sees:

A bonfire smoking
Pigeons in the sky
His mother cleaning windows
A dog going by

Here’s a video of Allan Ahlberg reading Peepo:

Archaeologists Making Libraries: Di Hu

After working for several years near Pomacocha, Ayacucho, Peru, UC Berkeley archaeology PhD candidate Di Hu was approached by teachers at the local school. They needed quality books to help educate their students. In Di’s words:

High in the Peruvian Andes, the historic village of Pomacocha is nestled among high cliffs, rivers and volcanic mountains. With a population of around 800-1000 people, Pomacocha boasts a preschool, a primary school, and a high school. Despite the curiosity and enthusiasm of the students, Pomacocha does not have a public library. The schoolchildren have only basic textbooks that emphasize memorization of facts. Because of the lack of resources in Pomacocha, the schools cannot afford to buy non-curriculum books.

With all of the high-tech public archaeology and community outreach going on in archaeology these days it is easy to forget that some of the communities we work in still need basic amenities. Things that we take for granted. To serve this relatively low-tech need, Di started a crowdfunding campaign last April on Indiegogo:

https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/first-public-library-for-schoolchildren-in-a-rural-peruvian-village

She did incredibly well, beating her goal by $350! I was happy to contribute a little bit to the project, and I’ve been getting updates as Di has made back to Peru. I was very touched when she sent me a photo of the books that I sponsored, with a specialized nameplate:

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The books are:

Muerte en la Vicaria by Agatha Christie (I asked for murder on the Oriental Express, but it was taken already!)

La Mujer en el Tiempo: Cronologia ilustrada que abarca mas de 20 siglos de personajes y eventos que marcaron la historia

500 Años de patriarcado en el nuevo mundo

Good stuff. Thanks, Di!

Mission Life

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“He woke in the nave of a ruinous church, blinking up at the vaulted ceiling and the tall swagged walls with their faded frescos. The floor of the church was deep in dried guano and the dropping of cattle and sheep. Pigeons flapped through the piers of dusty light and three buzzards hobbled about on the picked bone carcass of some animal dead in the chancel.”

(…)

“The mission occupied eight or ten ares of enclosed land, a barren purlieu that held a few goats and burros. In the mud walls of the enclosure were cribs inhabited by families of squatters and a few cookfires smoked thinly in the sun. He walked around the side of the church and entered the sacristy. Buzzards shuffled off through the chaff and plaster like enormous yardfowl. The domed vaults overhead were clotted with a dark furred mass that shifted and breathed and chittered. In the room was a wooden table with a few clay pots and along the back wall lay the remains of several bodies, one a child. He went on through the sacristy into the church again and got his saddle. He drank the rest of the bottle and he put the saddle on his shoulder and went out.”

From Blood Meridian, by Cormac McCarthy.

The photo is actually from El Morro, in Puerto Rico. I have a picture of the Mexican-American battlefield survey I was on, but it didn’t seem to match the passage.

Blood Meridian is a horrible, violent, crushing mass of a book. I enjoyed the hell out of it. Sometimes the nice story is not the one that should be told.

(Poems, prose, and comics that remind me of archaeology, pt 7)