Soundscapes and a Japanese take on East Anglian archaeology

East Anglia has some of the most important archaeological sites in the country, all of which are of international significance. And yet none of them has achieved recognition through inscription as UNESCO World Heritage. They include: the earliest evidence for human occupation in northern Europe, footprints left just short of a million years ago on what is now the north Norfolk coast; exceptional Neolithic sites including the flint mines at Grimes Graves in the Brecklands; astonishingly well preserved prehistoric settlements and sacred sites  such as Flag Fen and Seahenge; striking Roman remains at Borough Castle, Caistor St Edmund and Stonea Camp; and the riches of Sutton Hoo overlooking the River Deben. Both individually and as testimony to people’s long engagement with East Anglian landscapes as they have formed over time, these sites are worthy of protection and understanding. Sometimes it is tempting to take these traces of the past for granted, familiar landmarks along of the well-trodden path of history. This can result in overlooking the very significant contribution engagement with the past can make to understanding diversity. These sites are replete with cues about not only various ways of inhabiting and experiencing apparently familiar landscapes, but also different ways of being human. The Centre for Archaeology and Heritage at the Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts and Cultures has added an additional dimension to this search for difference, and is investigating new ways of engaging with these sites through a Japanese lens, an approach which is delivering some intriguing insights.

The renowned Japanese archaeologist Tatsuo Kobayashi has suggested that some of the most ancient languages used by the predecessors of the current populations of modern Japan quite likely made extensive use of onomatopoeia: words that sound like the things they represent. He has also written of the role of music in prehistoric Japan, using drums, flutes, and doubtless singing – which we know has a human attribute since at least Neanderthal times as described by Steven Mithen in The Singing Neanderthals – and of the significance of what many western archaeologists term landscape. Landscape is the in-between of sites and monuments, where dwelling meets environment, often structured through a cultural lens. The intertwining of words, music and place-making, each with their own sounds and rhythms, offers linkages between the ancient past and the present through thinking about how our ancient forebears experienced the worlds they inhabited. They can also suggest ways to begin to access very different pasts, from distant lands, which allows us to appreciate just how very different the past was: to borrow from L.P. Hartley’s Norfolk-set novel The Go-Between, ‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there’ – a sentiment that preceded the motto (with its own burr of Norfolk linguistic distinctiveness) of the university where I am currently privileged to work, the University of East Anglia, which exhorts us to ‘Do Different’.

Over the years I have come to know Tatsuo Kobayashi well. He helped me with my research into Japanese prehistory during my days as a PhD candidate and I have translated some of his writings into English. We have had many adventures exploring the archaeology (and gastronomy) of East Anglia, often in the company of groups of his Japanese friends who enjoy the opportunity to travel in the company of so distinguished a specialist as Kobayashi. Like the prehistoric Jomon foragers who inhabited the Japanese archipelago (they did not cultivate crops, but do seem to have relished various condiments) Kobayashi is something of a gourmet. I enjoyed many evenings in his research laboratory in Tokyo, where students he had placed in jobs around Japan regularly sent consignments of the local delicacies in which Japan delights, accompanied by the best regional rice wine, or sake. In translating his book, which we entitled Jomon Reflections, I became fascinated by the accounts of the diversity of foods consumed by Jomon people prior to the advent of rice farming in Japan. We are currently working on a new book inspired by the late Disney Professor of Archaeology Glyn Daniel’s volume A Hungry Archaeologist in France which deals with some key sites in Britain and Japan in a comparative perspective, with tips on what local specialities to eat and drink while enduring the rigours of archaeological fieldwork. Encounters with Professor Kobayashi combined with an early career working on the archaeology of East Anglia have in large part shaped the way I have come to experience the landscapes with which I am most familiar.

Must Farm

East Anglia has a tremendous range of archaeological sites, including some of the most ancient evidence of human activity (or at least of beings ancestral to modern-day humans) in Europe. A poignant series of footprints left behind by a family strolling along the muddy banks of a river. An activity enjoyed by many East Anglians today – only these footprints were left behind some 900,000 years ago, when it was possible to walk from what is now Happisburgh on the north Norfolk coast to what are now Belgium and the Netherlands. We may never know to what extent what we would regard as children in this party enjoyed the squelching noises the mud made between their toes, or whether they would have had a word or some other distinct sound for it. Painstaking archaeological investigations led by Nick Ashton of the British Museum in recent years allow the reconstruction of a very different landscape, populated by animals and people very different from modern day fauna. For example we know they are of such yawning antiquity due to the presence of the teeth of a long-extinct species of vole. During a stroll along the beach at Happisburgh today, we encounter solid lumps of black deposit eroding out from beneath the crumbling cliffs, giving up their geological secrets in the face of relentless coastal erosion spurred on by the ever-increasing heating and cooling since these antediluvian footprints became fossilized in the surface of one of these rocks. Like a much rougher hewn version of the black obelisks of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 A Space Odyssey, these black lumps are ancient dollops of time emerging to remind us of the persistence of things.

Japan lays claim to a particular sympathy for the transience of things. Impermanence, imperfection and the inevitable ravages of time inform much in Japanese aesthetics, from an appreciation of the fleeting glories of the famous cherry blossoms to the high regard paid to humble broken ceramics repaired with gold, using the technique of kintsugi. Much in the East Anglian landscape speaks to such an aesthetic. Take the Fens, vast tracts of now land, but for long an in-between landscape of meres, swamps, rivers, levees and islands immortalized in Graham Swift’s Waterland. For many decades now, a different type of erosion to that in evidence at Happisburgh, set in motion by the human draining of the wetlands and massively compounded by the industrial extraction of peat, gravels and clays, has revealed evidence for ancient occupation, exceptionally preserved in anaerobic, waterlogged conditions preventing more normal decay. A few years ago, I took Kobayashi to an open day for archaeologists at a place once called Must Farm, where a flotilla of wooden canoes was discovered along with a cluster of remnants of waterside constructions that allowed people on the cusp of bronze and iron technology to exploit the resources of their watery landscape: jetties, moorings, eel traps. Gaggles of archaeologists in high-viz yellow jackets ogled the remains on show, fascinated by these snapshots of lives long vanished. Lapping, gurgling, clinking, slopping, burbling: watery sounds framed these lives, just as they do a stroll along the waterside at any of the multitude of East Anglian coastal towns and villages today.

Japan also has a particular association with disaster. Tsunami, earthquake, volcanic eruption, typhoon, flood, fire, landslip and mudslide. These are disasters borne of one of the most active environments on the planet, and which are an ever-present reminder of the fragility of human occupation. I recall an enjoyable dinner with Kobayashi in Tokyo, shortly after the terrible triple disaster of March 2011 – shaken by regular aftershocks. I had been in Tokyo intending to attend his final lecture marking his retirement from Kokugakuin University in fashionable Shibuya, right at the heart of this great megacity. I was browsing in a bookshop high above Tokyo Station when the strongest earthquake in a millennium struck offshore the coast of northeastern Japan, just a few hundred kilometres from Tokyo. The rumbling, shaking and groaning went on for several minutes. I was one of several million people who had to walk long distances home that night as the trains and buses had stopped running. From the safety of my hotel room, I watched in disbelief as the buildings at the Fukushima nuclear power station exploded on the TV. I phoned Kobayashi to apologize for not being able to get to his lecture. It had been cancelled and his many former students from the northeast all ended up staying at the university and having a party instead – another opportunity to enjoy the local delicacies they had all brought with them. This was before news arrived of the huge wave that devastated the coastal regions.

Clearly visible from Southwold and Aldeburgh is the Sizewell nuclear power plant. The construction of nuclear facilities is a confident statement in the ability of contemporary humans to control both technology and the landscape, as well as being able to mitigate risk. Doubtless the people who built the important port town of Dunwich in Medieval times did so in the belief that their town would withstand the forces of nature. All that remains today are folk tales about the ghostly tolling of the Dunwich church bell, supposedly audible from the watery depths. I am writing this on the bullet train speeding past Mount Fuji, at 3776 metres twice the height of any other Japanese mountain (and utterly dwarfing any East Anglian hummocks), and inscribed as UNESCO World Heritage in 2013 in recognition of its impact on Japanese art and culture. Think of all those woodblock prints by Katsushika Hokusai. Nothing could seem more permanent – but we know that even this seemingly timeless landmark that has come to symbolise Japan is a mere 10,000 years old in its current form.

Deep in Thetford Forest is another exceptional site: Grimes Graves. In what is now a quiet clearing in the forest, Neolithic people some 5000 years ago dug out many hundreds of shafts through the chalk to extract shiny black flint, the most important material in the Neolithic technological repertoire, and of course continuingly central to the architecture of much of East Anglia. The soundscape of Neolithic Grimes Graves can be encountered at the annual Flint Festival, when modern-day knappers transform lumps of flint into artefacts of precision and beauty through flaking, chipping, grinding and polishing. A few years ago Grimes Graves linked up with the Hoshikuso obsidian mines in central Japan (also dating to around 5000 years ago) to create what we like to think of as the world’s first twinned archaeological sites. The tap, tap, tapping of the knappers is similar if working in flint or obsidian. Each year delegations of archaeologists, high school students and representatives from local government make bilateral visits, creating a close bond between two countries, now islands, separated by the Eurasian landmass, using archaeology as the common language to appreciate each other’s cultures and build new international understanding through conversation, music and a shared appreciation of place. This relationship is celebrated in an artwork made of flint and obsidian created by flint specialist David Smith for the new Nagawa-machi town hall.

Experiencing seemingly familiar landscapes through different lenses – including those of visitors from the other side of the world or of those who left such tantalising traces of inhabitation long past – encourages us to consider both the differences and similarities in human expressions of and responses to our lived environments. Sound, vision, taste, touch, smell and movement: all these and more begin to add up to an archaeology of the senses. Through these, along with an understanding of how we think through language, we can begin to appreciate how the experience of being human is influenced by the history of engagement with particular places, sometimes confirming and sometimes challenging our taken-for-granteds.

Professor Simon Kaner
Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts and Cultures
Centre for Japanese Studies

Written for the Aldeburgh Festival handbook in 2019

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