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The Sex Pistols, graffiti, and archaeology

December 7, 2011

“I watch and understand that it don’t mean a thing
The scorpions might attack, but the system stole the sting” – Crass

It seems that the latest issue of Antiquity included a paper on “recent archaeology” in the form of some graffiti done by the Sex Pistols (Graves-Brown and Schofield 2011).  This has actually been out for a few weeks now, but I’ve been in the field, so it passed me by when everyone was talking about it.  Bill Caraher at New Archaeology of the Mediterranean World posted about it, focusing on their points about “anti-heritage” and the, perhaps unintentional, way that the paper highlights some of the contradictions of punk.

For me, though, one of the strangest things about the paper is how much justification the authors feel they need to do.  A full half of their abstract, for example, is devoted to stating that the paper is not a joke.  Perhaps part of this has to do with the “heritage” context the authors see the paper as coming out of, but in terms of archaeology in general, I don’t really see the issue.  The Garbage Project predates the Sex Pistols by two years, and at my alma mater, UMass Amherst, Martin Wobst fairly regularly teaches a course called “The Archaeology of Us” dealing with the material culture of the very recent past.  Likewise, the subject matter itself doesn’t seem to me to need justification.  There are already plenty of academic studies of punk.  The question really isn’t whether punk is a suitable thing for archaeologists to study, but whether archaeologists bring a lot to the table in studying punk.

I’m not really sure about the answer.  Certainly, I think we could, but this paper seems to miss the mark a bit.  Overall, the focus is on the Sex Pistols and the inhabitants of the 6 Denmark Street flat, which is fine, and there are some interesting insights.  None of these seem to have been revealed by the graffiti, per se, but the graffiti provide an interesting context for them.  In other places, though, the weaknesses of treating these as “archaeology” is clearer.  When the authors state that a portrait was “unidentified and cryptic” (Graves-Brown and Schofield 2011:1393), I can’t help but think of a comment my colleague Erez Ben-Yosef once made to me: “This is ridiculous.  You aren’t dealing with a 15th-century manuscript.  Just ask him what he meant!”  The big difference between the 6 Denmark Street graffiti and the cave art the authors compare it to is that John Lydon is still alive and playing.  Why not just ask him what it meant?  Maybe this isn’t the case, but it seems that the approach taken here excludes some productive avenues for studying the material.

And that’s really the problem, to me.  There are a lot of things that could be brought in and connected here, but instead the focus is on whether the site is important enough to be preserved, which is also a bit odd, since their ultimate recommendation is a “DIY” approach to heritage management.  In the end, I don’t really know how I feel about this project.  It’s cool, certainly, but the approach is missing something.

2011     Graves-Brown, Paul, and John Schofield
	     The filth and the fury: 6 Denmark Street (London) and the Sex Pistols. Antiquity 85:1385-1401.
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