An Archaeologist in the Archives

(Brasenose Archaeology Blog III by Francesca Anthony)

This summer I was given the wonderful opportunity of spending a few weeks working in the college’s archives, alongside the archivist Georgie Edwards. I had been eager to undertake such experience as archives are always cited as a possible career path for those interested in the heritage sector.

I had not previously been inside an archive. My preconceptions were limited to the misinformed view that it would be a slightly chaotic, gloomy space full of old documents and books, a treasure-trove of history strewn across shelves. I was correct about the stores being a magic treasure-trove of insight into the people and buildings of the college, but I was entirely wrong about the level of organisation and protection afforded to the records. Currently Brasenose is in the process of building a state-of-the-art archive store on site, with many of the documents being held off site. And yet, even the small temporary store was crammed full of grey boxes of varying size, protecting information regarding the history of the college and its occupants, dating from as early as the 1500s. These custom-made boxes are acid free and designed to last several hundred years. From the very start of my work experience it became apparent that many of the ethical questions and decisions that we apply in the archaeological field are relevant to archive work. Much of Georgie’s work is devoted to ensuring the documents are afforded the greatest possible protection so that they can be accessed by future generations. This means that many hours are spent moving documents and objects from their original files, boxes, or cases, into those that are known to be chemically neutral and will not have a negative impact upon the condition. Whilst I was there Georgie focused some of her time on placing college photos into new plastic wallets. This allowed me to look at photos from the early twentieth century, including JCR matriculation photos. I was jealous to see that in previous years the JCR was encouraged to take an informal group photo half-way through their degrees, one of which was ‘silly’ (imagine beer tankards, large hats, cuddly toys), showing that for many decades at least, Brasenose has lived up to its moniker as the happiest college in Oxford.

One of the greatest delights of the Brasenose archive is its sheer breadth. The ‘documents’ refer to a vast variety of materials and records. One of my favourites was a map from 1601 which covered the area of Oxford where I now live. The map was laid out by basic ink lines indicating topographical features such as the river and meadow boundaries, and yet a few features, such as a gate, were drawn in three dimension. Another map from the same century revealed how such a document could be an important statement of wealth. The map of college lands in Lincolnshire was beautifully gilded and embossed, with ornate flowers and paintings of compasses. This map was especially interesting because it was created before the introduction of enclosure, so showed the specific land strips farmed by college tenants. I was also fascinated to discover that the archives include fabric records, namely clothes. My favourite was a mid-19th century stripped velvet blazer that had belong to a member of the ‘Vampires’. It transpired that the ‘Vampires’ were a college cricket society who became infamous for their drinking escapades. Another college society I discovered was the ‘Crocodile Club’. In a rather different vein they were a reading club. I was shown one of their society meeting minute books, which included a beautiful hand-drawn picture of a crocodile in the front cover. The society’s mascot was a stuffed crocodile which I stumbled across when helping to clear a tutor’s office. However long you are at college, there is always more eccentricity to encounter.

1600s-map-of-burrough

1600s Map of Burrough

In my two weeks Georgie allocated me a number of diverse roles, in order that I gain a comprehensive understanding of an archivist’s job. One of my first tasks was to sort out several hundred letters that had been found in a box in a basement room. This involved identifying any key figures or places in the letters so that they could be cross-referenced in the database, chronologically ordering them, and creating a catalogue reference. The letters transpired to be correspondence between/regarding John Arderne Oremerod, the Senior Bursar in college in the mid eighteen-hundreds (1848-1863). In contrast to the large quantities of minute papers that the college has stored, these surprisingly personal letters were a refreshing insight into the governing of college at that date. Once I had overcome, and learnt to decipher, the handwriting, they were also surprisingly funny. For example, the college was revealed to be exceptionally concerned about its venison stock! One cutting comment from the bursar to Principal Cradock remarked upon the University’s Vice Principal struggling to recover from his love affair with a woman who had married another man days after their dalliance. It really felt like I was reading a sitcom; the fellow Chaffers kept disappearing around the country and confusing the rest of the academic staff with his choices of residence; Ormerod regularly provided the principal with an in-depth description of his ailments, including his pulse-rate; Ormerod’s brother the Arch-Deacon was complained to be very “fat and weepy”. My favourite anecdote was Ormerod’s expedition to the river to prove a Brasenose fellow wrong about the presence of eels, but he himself managed to find one and killed it with an oar, upsetting his family by bringing such a trophy home.

My other tasks included organising correspondence from ‘The Visitor’, a nominal college position that initially allowed someone outside college to arbitrate on disputes. On hearing this, my housemates did question whether I was actually archiving for MI6. I also worked through a messy box merely entitled ‘Styler’. Styler was Brasenose’ Vice Principal in the 1960s. I organised a strange collection of personal effects, including his tutorial notes, holiday photos, diaries, correspondence and dinner invitations, once again showing how varied the material is that an archivist encounters. Styler’s box also included hundreds of photo slides, some in very poor condition. I had to attempt to put these into some form of logical order. To my surprise my degree came in useful because Styler had been a classics tutor, so many of his slides recorded classical sites or material remains.

I enormously enjoyed my weeks unearthing the college archives. Not only did it appeal to my historical investigatory nature, but it felt worthwhile helping to protect such an incredible record of the college that I call home.

Francesca Anthony

MSt in Classical Archaeology

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