On being a homeless archaeologist, by Jane Hallam

29 Oct

When I first heard about the homeless heritage and archaeology project I thought it
sounded nuts! I was interested to know more about it but also quite shy because
a bit of me worried what other homeless people would think if I was doing it.

The time when it really clicked, when I became really interested, was when I
decided to come around with you [RK] one day, walking and looking at places I’d
skippered [slept rough]. I saw all these places – buildings and bushes and that
– from a new angle because of the questions you asked. Like, I’d always known
that some places I skippered were historic and sometimes I used to find old
possessions that other homeless people had discarded and even before I got
involved in the project, I did sometimes used to lie there and wonder what had
happened there all those years ago. I would think about who might have been
exactly where I was a hundred years ago and sometimes I wondered into the
future, would this place still be here? But I’d never thought about me being
part of its history and, now I think about it, that thought was important in
getting my curiosity going. Walking around the city doing archaeology, not just
normally walking around, made me remember how many homeless people used places
that no-one really thinks about much and I remembered how many lives have been
saved by these kind of places. Some of the places I skippered might have been
old and broken down or even totally derelict but they saved my life and the
lives of countless other people because it was a place to go and you could tuck
yourself in at night. In a way, the buildings that get called abandoned buildings
weren’t abandoned at all really because someone was living there, sleeping
rough, which is funny when you think about it.

I’ve  always been interested in archaeology and history but walking through it, making
a journey through the old buildings and talking about the places at the same
time made it more interesting than what it would be if I was just reading a
book in the library. I mean, it’s good to read books about history but it’s not
as real as when you’re actually pointing at things you can see in front of you.
I think you get more detail, you know, more of those little things that books
don’t tell you. I’ve definitely gained confidence and self-esteem from being
part of our team and Jude [Jane’s probation officer] said she’s noticed a big
change in me, said I seem happier and I am definitely that. I’ve learned a lot
from the project but also, I think we’ve taught each other new knowledge –
between the classes, we’ve built some bridges because it’s not all the higher
class telling us what is what. It’s like when we spoke at the conference in
Leicester (Postgraduate Conference in Historical Archaeology), after we did our
talk, that lady (Sarah Tarlow) said, ‘you’ve made me think’. Well, that made me
think a lot because I knew she was important in the archaeology world, she’s written
all these books about it, and so for her to say to us that we’d made her think…it
made me feel really good. It made me think maybe I could have a go at writing
about my life like a journey – from kid’s homes and childhood abuse to
Stonehenge and the Battle of the Beanfield and being a New Age traveller all
over Europe, to homelessness and addiction and it has a positive end, my story,
because I’ve come right out the other side by getting into archaeology. I don’t
use drugs these days and I’m only drinking a couple of cans at night, not all
day like I was. It’s quite a story really and if I wrote it down it could be
helpful to other people who are stuck in their lives and it would be something
good to leave for my kids. I never would have dreamt that people like that (Sarah
Tarlow) would have even spoke to people like us but after the conference when
we were all having a drink with the other people who were there it was like
there was no difference between the classes at all which is a nice thought. I
left Leicester thinking maybe I could write a book which is a crazy idea to
most people I know. In fact, I mentioned the idea to my neighbour when we got
back from Leicester and he said ‘are you really that bored?’ and I said, ‘it’s
not because I’m bored! I want to write a book because I’ve done all these
things and writing them down would be a project of my own to get stuck into’.

I think the opportunities that this project has offered us should be more widely
available – there are so many incentives to realise there is more to life than drugs
and drink (which most people do because they’re bored or because they’re trying
to block out how bad life is) and there’s this wealth of information that I
never even knew about before. Because it’s practical, it gets you out and about
and it makes learning much better than if you were just sitting behind a desk
at college. Because the way we do archaeology involves walking about, talking
and seeing things, you start to see places with this new knowledge in your mind
that makes it seem not the same old places, same old people. When you’re an
archaeologist looking at these places, it gives you incentives.  I think school trips would be better if they were more like the way we go around places – going to places and learning about them while you’re actually there. This kind of learning makes it easier to get
involved and it isn’t even just suitable for school trips, it’s good to do whatever
age you are. I’ve even written the prologue for my book!

One Response to “On being a homeless archaeologist, by Jane Hallam”

  1. Thank you so much for this Jane. You’ve not only made me think, you’ve reminded me what’s really valuable in archaeology, refreshed me. I hope you do write your book, I bet it will be a cracker.

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