Tuesday, 7 July 2009

George Carter and the archaeology of east Devon

[To mark the forthcoming East Devon Pebblebeds Heath Week (26-31 July 2009), the following article by Chris Tilley, Professor of Anthropology & Archaeology at University College London, celebrates the life and work of former Budleigh Salterton resident George Carter, pictured left.
An archaeologist who was clearly ahead of his time, George Carter retired to live in his home town on North View Road; his unorthodox views on the pebblebeds upset many people in the local community.]

George Carter is the pioneer and founding figure in the archaeology of the east Devon Pebblebeds, carrying out extensive research in the area from the early 1920s into the late 1960s. He was most active during the twenties and thirties before the outbreak of the Second World War, carrying out many excavations of pebbled mounds on Woodbury and Aylesbeare Commons and elsewhere.

He did not have much time or patience with establishment archaeological ideas and positions and fell out with some of the leading archaeologists of his day who did not appreciate the value of his work. Sadly he is now a forgotten figure in British archaeology. He was a man with ideas and interpretative approaches well ahead of his time. His work is central to the Pebblebeds Project because nobody else has ever excavated a pebble cairn before or since or tried to interpret their meaning and significance.

Spurned by the archaeological establishment, Carter may well have the last laugh from his grave! Eighty years later most of what we know about the prehistory of the Pebblebed heathlands is due solely to his efforts.

George Carter (1886-1974) was born in Exmouth, east Devon, the son of John Carter a house builder who built a large estate of back to back houses for working class people on reclaimed land beside the Exe estuary during the period 1896-1934, an area known today as the ‘colony’.

John Carter worked by building a house and then mortgaging, it using the money to build the next. The houses were then rented out. At the time of his death John Carter owned some 550 properties, most of them in the colony, but also some of similar type in Budleigh Salterton.

John Carter was a prominent local figure, a councillor and Chairman of the former Exmouth Urban District Council for a number of years. John’s brother Harry ran a steamship company which imported coal into Exmouth, and the Carter family owned various brickworks in the town.
George was educated at West Buckland boarding school, ten miles to the east of Barnstaple in north Devon on the south-west fringes of Exmoor. Throughout his childhood during the school holidays he developed an intimate knowledge of the east Devon Pebblebeds which were within easy walking distance from his home.

In 1904 he went to Oxford for three years and took a degree in modern constitutional history. Subsequently he spent a year at Oxford studying geography before applying to the Indian civil service. In 1909 he went to India and was posted to Bombay and spent two and a half years in the Ahmadnagar district near Poona. There he met his wife, Ruth Wakefield, daughter of a third generation of Anglo-Indian colonial administrators. From there he was transferred to the province of Hyderabad Sind (in present day Pakistan) being appointed as Municipal Commissioner.

He had an extraordinary wide range of interests but was particularly interested in the archaeology, anthropology, history and folklore of Sind province. He carried out archaeological excavations, documented houses and other material forms, customary practices and cosmological beliefs, collected, recorded interpreted and translated myths and stories, writing a string of published papers on these subjects. He also left behind much unpublished material in the form of manuscripts, notes, photographs, sketch maps and diagrams (now kept in the manuscripts room of Cambridge University Library) - see Links http://janus.lib.cam.ac.uk/db/node.xsp?id=EAD%2FGBR%2F0012%2FMS%20Add.%209456

Carter was eventually transferred back from Hyderabad to Bombay, where his second daughter Priscilla, was born in 1920. He did not enjoy this new posting and took early retirement in 1926 returning to England to live in Budleigh Salterton, east Devon. He studied to be a barrister at Gray’s Inn in London and passed the exams but did not practise. Instead his day job became running the family letting company in Exmouth and gradually winding up the estate, which had incurred large debts, but his passion was investigating the prehistory and geology of the east Devon Pebblebeds.

Carter’s extensive knowledge of the folklore and customs of Sind province was to have a lasting influence throughout his life and was fundamental to all his subsequent archaeological research on the east Devon Pebblebeds. For example, in an article entitled ‘Pebbled Mounds’ published in the Transactions of the Bombay Anthropological Society he discusses the elaborate instructions contained in the Satapatha Brahmana, one of the sacred Hindi texts, for the method of building a burial mound. He introduces this article with the following comment: “Increasingly efforts are being made to elucidate pre-history, but attention is often paid rather to the recovery of material objects which can be studied at leisure (often as works of art), than to the more laborious unravelling of contemporary ritual.” (p. 1).

Elsewhere he writes “the advance in the technique of fieldwork has outstripped the interpretation of evidence brought to light” (Carter 1942: 2). These are veiled and not so veiled criticisms of the kind of archaeology prevalent in the 1930s and since, in which the discipline becomes little more than a technical practice for recovering material remains from the earth rather than a field of study in which one attempts to understand and imaginatively interpret that material from a social perspective. Carter clearly had a keen interest in excavating the past and recovering things but he was equally passionate about the necessity for providing an interpretative understanding of what he had found. He used direct ethnographic analogies, drawn from his experiences and research in India, in order to understand the material he was recovering from the Pebblebed heathlands in an innovative manner.
Above: George Carter excavating on Woodbury Common with his dog Wolf

Some of Carter’s most important excavations are discussed elsewhere (see Background to the Project http://www.pebblebedsproject.org.uk/background-to-the-project.html and The East Devon Landscape http://www.pebblebedsproject.org.uk/the-east-devon-pebblebed-landscape-part1.html ). Here we want to mention how he interpreted the evidence that he found. He linked a diffusion of Indo-European languages in Europe with the movement or diffusion of either peoples or customs across the continent, suggesting that the earliest Ayrans in Britain were the Celts.

Diffusionist models of social change and development dominated archaeological thought at this time, and in this respect Carter’s ideas were not unusual. Stonehenge for example was thought to have been constructed as a result of Mycenean influences. Carter interpreted the east Devon material in terms of Indo-Ayran burial rites described at length in the Satapatha Brahama and elsewhere. The pebbled pavements he discovered on Aylesbeare Common with their double-headed axe shapes were likened by him to the vedi or sacrificial mound of the Indo-Ayrans. The vedi formed a material link between the worship of Agni as God and the performance of sacrifice as a holy rite. The prescribed rite was for ceremonies involving the use of fire as a purifying force, and Carter says that he found evidence of prolonged burning under many of the pebbled mounds and pavements he excavated.

In Vedic rites the fire bird was sacred and Carter interpreted the patterning of pebbles under one mound he excavated on Woodbury Common as representing a bird (see Background to the Project http://www.pebblebedsproject.org.uk/the-east-devon-pebblebed-landscape-part1.html ). Vedic mounds were constructed in layers just like the pebble cairns and in both cases pebbles themselves were sacred materials. In Vedic rites pebbles were used in the construction of the sacrificial fire as symbolic pegs on the edge of the ‘resting place’of the fire to peg it down and keep it steady. Carter distinguished a series of special stones in the mounds that he excavated calling them blue stones (see blue stones http://www.pebblebedsproject.org.uk/blue-stones.html ), and blue in Vedic rites was the sacred colour associated with Indra the father-god of the Ayrans.

Carter not only pursued these direct ethnographic analogies to interpret the mounds and pavements he had excavated, but he also made a strong claim that the builders of these mounds had a sophisticated knowledge of geometry which was used to lay out and site the positions of the mounds in relation to each other in the landscape. During his lifetime Carter only published in any detail some of the sites that he excavated on the Pebblebeds.

Early on during his work in the 1930s he had been an active member of the Devon Archaeological Society publishing work in their Proceedings in 1936 and 1938. He had acted as secretary to the excavation fund for the Hembury hillfort excavations directed by Dorothy Lidell in the early 1930s, and also took part in the excavation of the Neolithic settlement of Haldon Belvedere. It is probable that he learned archaeological techniques of excavation on these projects. He had extensive correspondence with Sir Cyril Fox, Director of the National Museum of Wales, and one of the leading British prehistorians of his generation, sending him some of his own research findings and interpretations of the pebble mounds. Fox responds in a letter dated 28 November 1932: “I do not wish for a moment to take up a superior attitude… Now the fact is that official archaeology which you are up against works on common-sense lines and eschews visionary significances and far-fetched symbolisms…It seems to me certain that it will never be accepted by reputable publications in this country” (Letter in Carter archive). However, despite this warning Carter did manage to get some of his work published in the Devon Proceedings but after 1938 he seems to have given up. Instead his excavations were reported occasionally in a local newspaper, The Exmouth Journal.

In 1949 the summer conference (actually held in September) of The Prehistoric Society was held in Exeter. The year before, Sir Cyril Fox, who had taken early retirement had moved to Exeter with his wife Aileen who had just been appointed to a Special Lectureship in archaeology at the university. Carter’s unplanned appearance and unorthodox positions led to Lady Aileen Fox and O.G.S. Crawford, two very prominent archaeologists of their day, leaving the hall almost immediately together with half the audience within five minutes. She must have known Carter well as she had also participated in the Hembury excavations directed by Dorothy Lidell. In her biography she writes: “The conference was not without incident. I remember the growing impatience of the audience listening to Mr G. L. Carter, a local solicitor, of ‘the lunatic fringe’, airing his theories about the significance of the blue stones in the geologically-mixed Bunter Pebblebeds on Woodbury Common until several people, including me, walked out. I felt the conference was important, because it had brought leading archaeologists like Stuart Piggott, Christopher Hawkes, Gordon Childe and Grahame Clark to Exeter, and had bolstered my position at the university.” (Fox 2000: 117).

Clearly Carter’s appearance was most embarrassing to her. But as Leslie Grinsell later pointed out, one of Carter’s “main points: that archaeologists are inexact in their terminology, often describing stone ellipses as stone circles, is now upheld.” (Grinsell in Current Archaeology Issue 95).

It is indeed curious how often Carter seemed to have been right, at least in some of his interpretative positions, when he was deemed to be so wrong by his contemporaries. In 1969 Carter wrote a letter to the BBC who were sponsoring an archaeological excavation to drive a tunnel into Silbury Hill in Wiltshire, the largest artificial mound in Europe. He writes: “I investigated the meaning and purpose of the hill thirty years ago and am prepared to offer you a talk for broadcasting, now, for demonstrating why the work will be a failure.” He was not invited to talk and the excavation did indeed prove to be a failure in that nothing was found. Carter’s thirty-year-old interpretation was that the hill was a viewing platform, or observatory, ideas which are very much current and living in contemporary archaeological research (e.g. Barrett 1994).

Grimp, as Carter was affectionately known in his family, undoubtedly had a somewhat prickly personality at times, but he was absolutely driven and dedicated to his personal research, a man who was extremely well-read with an extraordinary depth and breadth of interests. He wanted to make sense of the east Devon landscape in which he was born and grew up. In his retirement in Devon, just as in India before, he had a huge variety of research interests, from local geology, to folklore studies, to history, to archaeology, to numismatics. His daughter, Priscilla Hull, remarks of him: “He never stopped reading, writing, studying… He could be confrontational but that rather ran in the family…But my father was quite willing to be reasonable so long as you agreed with him!” she chuckles (Interview 31 March 2008).

Carter only published some of his excavation reports but much information survives in the form of unpublished manuscripts, notes, photographs, sketches and plans. He wrote a number of unpublished books whose intriguing titles include: ‘In the Tracks of Pythagoras: A Study of Certain Antiquities of the Bronze Age,’ ‘The Flank of Archaeology,’ ‘ISCA: Notes of an Original Preliminary Investigation of the History of Devon in the Late Bronze Age.’ In all of these works his Pebblebed research was prominent, which he wrote and re-wrote and worked into the texts in various different ways.

All these manuscripts gathered dust but Carter did not give up. As late as 1972, only two years before his death at the age of eighty-eight he was re-writing notes on his excavations of the Woodbury e pebble cairn for Leslie Grinsell who was compiling a catalogue of Bronze age barrows in the area.

Naturally Carter’s work can not be uncritically accepted today. His use of direct ethnographic analogies between Vedic rites in India and the material he was finding in east Devon is dubious. But some of the general ideas – that pebbles were things of spiritual power, that colour symbolism was important, that rituals at the mounds involved fire and notions of purification, that the pebbles might be carefully chosen and patterned in various ways – will be extremely important to the interpretations reached by the Pebblebed Project.

Like Carter we want to imaginatively engage with the past to produce an interpretive account, relevant to the present and not produce a dry-as-dust inventory of factual information. Ultimately Carter could not prove his case and we will not do so either. Anyone who thinks they can should not be engaged in archaeology since it is always an interpretive exercise, fragile, provisional and open to change. To think otherwise is delusional.

Carter’s work did not occur in a vacuum. It is obviously a product of his own personal experiences and his times, as indeed is our work. We need to situate the work of Carter in relation to the dominant ethos of both archaeology and anthropology in the period 1920- 1940. Here we need to remember that field anthropology was limited and very much in its infancy and that archaeology was trying to establish its credentials as a form of academic research to be taken seriously. In relation to Carter’s path breaking research the Pebblebeds Project aims to:

• Research Carter’s substantial archive and publish material from it relevant to the research project

• Produce a detailed account of Carter’s work and ideas situated in the historical context of the development of the disciplines of archaeology and anthropology in the earlier part of the twentieth century

Barrett, J. (1994) Fragments from Antiquity, Oxford: Blackwell
Carter (1942) “Bronze Age Chronology; A criticism” Exmouth.

Reproduced courtesy of Professor Chris Tilley
An exhibition about the East Devon Pebblebed Heaths and George Carter's work is one of the interesting displays at Budleigh Salterton's museum, Fairlynch http://www.devonmuseums.net/fairlynch

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