Monday, 7 January 2013

The Archaeology of Christmas

Escaping from archaeology is difficult (if not impossible), even, as noted in my last post, if recommended by the doctor (and even if only for a short period). Archaeology is inescapable: at some it will creep up on you and drag you back into its own peculiar little world. Once you have dipped your toe in the archaeological sea, you will be forever frolicking on heritage beach.

Even tasks as simple (and ultimately as mundane) as the packing down, gathering up and sealing away of Christmas decorations (as twelfth night staggers blearily towards you), possess all sorts of archaeological connotations. The mind pauses for an instant and suddenly you are back in archaeo-world.

Relative dating

The removal of tinsel from the ceiling of the lounge reveals, from the collective number of drawing pin holes detectable at strategic points in the coving, just how long it's been since the room was last thoroughly decorated....

...nine years since you ask.


Moving the sofa to one side (to make room for the annual insertion of a tree) reveals a collapsing but compact slice through some of the more sci-fi, movie, music and (of course) archaeological orientated magazines of 2012. Right at the very bottom of the pile is the Christmas 2011 edition of the Radio Times TV listings magazine

Thus it is possible, not only to ascertain which months were more productive in their creation of magazine related literature, but also to calculate, should it ever be needed, the total depth of magazine production per 12 month calendar year (a nice, round 1.64 m since you ask).


The movement of strategic parts of the dining room reveals which bits of furniture are used more frequently than others and which pieces were introduced to the room first and in what order (judging by the relative levels of dust and debris secreted beneath each). Relative dating aids the resolution of phasing as it is possible (thanks to the careful examination of datable material caught up within the dust) to utilise the concept of Terminus Post Quem; one particularly memorable  pile of dust-bunnies, for example, containing two paper hats and a cheap plastic toy from last year's Christmas cracker collection. Thus a complete sequence of furniture (and book) use and movement can be plotted for the entire space.


Disassembly of the attic-stored Christmas decoration boxes provides a useful look at the changing nature and design of Waitrose, Asda and Sainsbury’s (other supermarkets are available) Christmas themed shopping bags (1995 - 2012), should anyone ever require such a dataset.

Importance of archives

 Oh yes, if anyone ever doubts the need (and importance) of archives for the understanding of Christmas in the UK throughout the last decade of the 20th and first decade of the 21st century, they need only consult the Russell collection: it's all there in a (semi) accessible form, preserved for eternity (well, at least until Christmas 2013).


  1. Of course, there's calculating MNI (guests and hosts) based on the number of empty wrappers left in the tin of Celebrations and allowing for deposition of the half chewed soft-centres.


    1. and I forgot to mention the stratigraphy of carpets (into which all the half chewed soft centres are deposited along with partially sucked After Eight mints and slightly gnawed chilli cashews)...

  2. After Eights are notoriously harder to date than the name suggests.


    1. Next you'll be telling me that the popular mixed fruit drink 'Um Bongo' cannot actually be sourced back to 'the Congo'

  3. Dear Dr Russell,

    Your impressive archives of Christmas past has been bought to my attention. I am studying the production locations of plastic toys, particularly concentrating on those that cost the least to produce.

    Assuming that you still have all your archive and have not donated some of its most important parts to your local council collection. Please could you confirm whether the cheap plastic toy, thought to have been part of a Christmas Cracker, if it was 'Made in Hong Kong" or "Made in China" or made anywhere else.

    Your response is much anticipated


  4. Fantastic research - Unfortunately, following my last posting, much of the Cracker archive has indeed now been donated to the local Council's 'recycle-an-archive' scheme, but I can confirm that the bulk of the cheap toy assemblage had 'Taiwan' stamped across it if that helps?