Dented Pavement and Community





When I tell people I’m an archaeologist they always ask me about my most exciting finds. Excitement, the extraordinary and the beautiful are really important aspects of what people look to archaeology for. They can be really important for heritage too, helping people create pasts they feel proud of can support futures to look forward to. But most of what archaeologists deal with is far more subtle, and rarely beautiful. Do these things have a role in heritage as well? Of course!

One of the things that archaeology offers to heritage is a focus on change; on what happens after something is built. The evidence for how things are used give us more understanding of a place and its past than the monumental visions that may be more ‘exciting’. As a case in point I give you two types of dented pavement and what they say about community. Both examples are from Portsmouth.

First, lets look at this dented pavement which can be seen in most towns.



These slabs are broken by the weight of cars mounting the pavement. So they indicate places where drivers feel a need to park, but where planners don’t want them to. In this case, there was a public toilet on the corner. The public toilet has since been taken down, so in some ways the dented pavement acts as a record of the toilet in its absence. 

So, for me, this dented pavement speaks about the disjunction between local government and community. In the first instance, the public toilet was no doubt intended for use by pedestrians, so there was no parking near to it. But two groups were not considered in this. Firstly, the cleaning service for the toilets, who parked their vans close. Secondly, professional drivers, such as taxi drivers, who would park on the pavement while nipping in. At this point the dented pavement also reminds us of the closure and demolition of the toilet. The loss of public toilets is a hot issue in Portsmouth at the moment, and this piece of dented pavement casts an interesting light on it.

This second type of dented pavement is unusual, perhaps unique to Portsmouth and tells a more positive story about people in Portsmouth. Its a record of the winter of 2009-2010.


It snows rarely in Portsmouth and when it does it almost always melts within a day. So when it snows there’s a real carnival sense. Snowball fights, hot chocolate and desperately looking for a slope to sledge on. No one thinks of clearing a sidewalk and no one worries about ploughing the roads. But in 2009 it snowed and didn’t melt. The same was true for all of the UK and very quickly there was no salt left in the country.(–10_in_Great_Britain_and_Ireland#Effects) Not only no rock salt, no salt at all. Even the corner stores were out of the little table salt canisters. People quickly realised that compressed snow is ice and is very difficult to clear without salt. So after about 3 days, many people cleared the ice on the pavement by hammering at it with a spade, leaving these dents in the pavement. 

So, for me, this pavement fits with the ‘Strong Island’ ( trope of Portsmouth identity. People getting on and using what they have to deal with a situation. Also in contrast to the other dented pavement it shows people thinking of their neighbours. There is a perception that people in the UK are anxious about clearing their pavements of snow because it leaves them liable to being sued if someone slips anyway. These little dents are evidence of people putting in a lot of effort in defiance of that view.

Regular readers will know that I am not suggesting for a moment that dented pavement should be preserved, simply that they contribute to heritage and sense of place. An archaeological eye looks at subtle things, at evidence for use over planning. Sometimes we see the workarounds, how people get out of a tight spot. That heritage may be increasingly important as we work together to deal with changing climate.These little dents are what resilience looks like to me.



4 thoughts on “Dented Pavement and Community

  1. Great piece on contemporary archaeology! What strikes me is the “Reality Effect” in your take on this heritage. Your story is true because you really know the underlying circumstances and it all falls into place. But do you really really know? — Which and whose stories do we trust? Could an invented story accounting for the dented pavement be as convincing as your stories are? Might they illustrate change just as well, and with as much subtlety and beauty?

    • Thanks, glad you liked it. As for the ‘reality effect’ I suppose that the first type of denting could be explained by this 🙂 I’m in an odd position for an archaeologist in this because I watched the formation processes. A few other things strike me. Firstly, few people other than archaeologists would notice these features and look to explain them. The more dramatic features are more likely to see multiple explanations. Further, if the dents were down to Transformers fighting in the street, there would be memory of that. – these stories prick the memory, which is one of the strengths of heritage. So, to extend that to things there may not be memory of, the stories chime with existing perceptions (this makes it more difficult for heritage to challenge current perceptions, but that’s a matter for another post). Of course, I could go into experimental or engineering ‘proofs’ of spades and cars, but I suspect once you get to that its a bit like explaining a joke.

  2. Hi Sarah,
    This is one of the most interesting posts I have read in a long time and it’s about pavements and public toilets! It seems that sometimes we as archaeologists hope to excite the public imagination with ‘the biggest, the best preserved, the unique, the unexpected’ and so on. I recall while on excavation in the Near East that the tiniest thing would suddenly be a tomb with all that that image inspires (gold, treasures, curses?), that a small chunk of road would suddenly have witnessed the passing of Alexander the Great. Both of these theories were proposed by the dig directors themselves, so it’s not surprising when the public want such wonderful stories from us. We tell the public to be excited about such ideas.

    What I find so exciting about archaeology is that evidence of so-called ”ordinary’ lives can be found in the material record as easily as those of elites if we choose to look for it. Your thoughts about the relations between the community and local government illustrate that very well. There’s a very particular reason why the pavement is cracked up which, as you suggest, does indicate a response, even a resistance, to who should use those toilets. Local councils would do well to listen to archaeological interpretations such as the ones you have presented here.

    • Thanks so much, I really agree that we feed the ‘exciting’ stories to the press and the public and forget that they may be just as interested as we are in the details and the stories of everyday life.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s