Angus Boulton, Archaeologist
Angus Boulton is an archaeologist. He may not describe himself as such, and his research practices may not fit within traditional conceptions of archaeology. But for me he is an archaeologist, studying material culture in the pursuit of understanding – picking his was through often baffling and enigmatic landscapes, documenting and attempting to understand empty buildings, and spaces, and the structures, objects and murals within. Like any good archaeologist, Boulton has an eye too for the subtler traces – the small things in which meaning is embedded and through which places are remembered. He captures the atmosphere, the essence of the places he encounters – the auditoria in Kino, for example; the woodland now engulfing Stolzenhain; the runways of Wittstock, Marham and Coltishall. His work reveals the character of these places; it gives them an ethereal quality; an enchantment.
And one senses people too. One shares with him the ghosts of place one imagines he must have encountered whilst filming. After watching Cood bay Forst Zinna, you feel as though you were there, amongst the occupants – that you know the place, personally, intimately. In 08/26 one encounters people, working at Coltishall, flying and maintaining aircraft – but just as quickly they are gone, fading into the landscape and memory, in the film as in reality. Like any good archaeologist, Boulton is aware of change. His films and imagery capture the sense of decay, documenting the natural and cultural processes by which these places are transformed from homes and work-places, to post-industrial ruins, the symbols of modernity. And it is important that these processes are understood and represented. More than any other places I can think of, these relics of the Cold War, in the words of Tim Edensor, enable us to escape the seamless conformity of our familiar worlds.
Archaeology is not only about ancient times and old artefacts. Archaeologists now routinely study the contemporary world, and in doing so draw upon a broader range of methodologies and theoretical perspectives than archaeologists investigating the deeper past: film and photography for example complement field survey and artefact analyses in the archaeologists’ repertoire. This contemporary archaeology is, by nature and design, inter-disciplinary and very new.
So it is easy to understand how archaeologists and artists come to study the same things, for the same reasons, and often from very similar perspectives. This is precisely how I first came across Boulton. Our worlds coincided over some Cold War murals, in the UK and eastern Germany, created at about the same time by soldiers and airmen serving NATO and the Warsaw Pact respectively. Some murals in the UK were created by American servicemen, far from home, as part of Project Warrior – an official attempt to encourage artistic representation and esprit-de-corps. Some murals were designed to liven up uniformly decorated and furnished living areas and to reinforce presence or ‘ownership’ within a space. Many of the images reflect contemporary culture and graphic styles, such as comic book characters. As archaeologists we study these contemporary representations just as we do prehistoric paintings on cave walls, representations from the deeper past. These paintings – prehistoric and contemporary – provide coded information about ways in which space is appropriated, used and re-used by a succession of its former occupants. It also provides information on the values attached to those spaces. This approach, archaeologists would say, represents a uniquely archaeological perspective on a significant aspect of modern material culture, within the context of a military culture that continues to shape global current affairs.
Boulton was doing the same thing as us, but in eastern Germany, photographing the murals of Soviet units, in abandoned gymnasia, cinemas and barracks close to Berlin. His representations of these images, though, are very different. Part of this is perhaps their projection and the imaginative use of exhibition space. They look different because of the context in which they are displayed. But they also capture something that other ‘documentary’ images do not. Because of the resolution, their ‘landscape’ quality and the emphasis on context, combined with their presentation, one could easily be viewing these murals in situ. They have a three-dimensional quality about them. Every detail of the image, its creation, and subsequent decline can be read in the photograph or film, as it can in the original. The peeling paint, the crumbling plaster – and in his films, the sounds of abandonment, and the conditions in which he found and investigated these paintings: rain, the creaks and whistles of wind … and bird-song. After experiencing Cood bay Forst Zinna, one feels the need for a hot bath, to dry out and warm-up. At Stolzenhain, one wishes one had binoculars to identify the song-birds. In Kino, I just wanted to sit down and wait for the film to start.
A further aspect of Angus Boulton’s archaeology is spatial awareness. Archaeological surveys usually result in a map: a depiction and interpretation of an earthwork or structural remains visible to archaeologists on the ground. Boulton’s work provides no such maps, though one does get the impression of an appreciation, an understanding of the meaning and significance of space. The types of space are clearly represented in Cood Bay; as is the size of this settlement. But precisely how one building or room links to another is unclear. In Stolzenhain, the landscape is more obvious, and appropriately so, as it is more significant for understanding the base’s functionality as a nuclear warhead bunker. Visually representing the site’s plan-form is critical for constructing his ‘commentary on the art of building for protection’. Boulton succeeds in giving the audience a clear impression of visiting Stolzenhain, stumbling upon it while strolling in the woods before wending their way in from the periphery to the central bunker.
But the absence of mapping is not a criticism. In fact it is a recognition in part of artists leading the way: creating a methodology that suits the aspects and ambitions of contemporary archaeology. Why map contemporary sites like these when Google Earth and other web resources provide this aerial/spatial perspective? Aren’t these contemporary places more about perception and experiencing the place, than understanding precisely how the location and orientation of building X relates to building Y? Perhaps it is appropriate that a documentation of sites like Stolzenhain and Forst Zinna comprises a film, and photographs. Perhaps maps are too conventional here? Perhaps it took an artist such as Boulton to demonstrate this – with our formal archaeological training, maybe we can be a little too set in our ways?
As an artist, Angus Boulton creates works to be seen today: contemporary archaeology for a contemporary audience. Indeed, the experience of viewing his films is as a virtual visitor. For 20 minutes one is there, at Forst Zinna, in that room, viewing a mural with the artist; seeing what he sees, and beginning to comprehend its meaning and significance. And for all their academic rigour, this is something conventional archaeological records rarely achieve. As Boulton himself says:
“When artists choose to address sites from the Cold War, it can be assumed that a wide range of interpretations will result, projects that employ alternative methodologies and are undertaken from a somewhat oblique and often unforeseen standpoint. These differing approaches to the question of how and why places of conflict are recorded prove worthy of consideration within an important and growing field of study. Artists are frequently more concerned with the philosophical questions a site imparts rather than the physical nature it exhibits. From a personal perspective, creating photographs and films in such environments provides an opportunity to both inform and challenge an audience.”
But there is a longer-term view, which again draws on the archaeological perspective: that we record, preserve, document and publish interpretive accounts and analyses within the context of what has been termed ‘prospective’ memory – ‘creating realms of memory intended for the future’ [and] ‘creating elements in [and of] the landscape that will evoke a particular version of a (future) past’. Archaeology is not only about the past, as we have seen. It is also about documenting the present, which includes elements of the contemporary landscape that have persisted from the past. It is also about the future – what of the present landscape will survive into the future, as place or archive, and how will it contribute to understanding the world we have helped to shape and create?
The Cold War is a critical historical period which Angus Boulton and I both experienced from similar perspectives, our fathers being involved in the armed forces. We are of the same generation; almost the same age. We are, to a large extent therefore, on the same wavelength. But alongside us are thousands of other young adults with memories and experiences to match with and contradict our own. Some were the young conscript soldiers far from home at Forst Zinna, one of whom wrote ‘Cood bay’ on the barrack room wall before he left. Equally are those US servicemen, again of our age, who occupied the barracks of US bases in England, one of whom painted scenes from Dante’s Inferno on a barrack room wall. There were combatants and civil servants on all sides, and the civilian population whose lives were affected by the political shenanigans of the time.
At the point of writing, everyone over the age of say twenty-five, and living in the northern hemisphere (and some in the southern), will have experiences of the Cold War. That’s a lot of memory, an abundance of views and perspectives, most of which will never be captured or expressed beyond the intimate and safe confines of family groups and peers. Where these memories do often find expression is through place: the fabric and form that gives those memories and opinions a concrete expression. That is why one talks about the ghosts of place, and why we encounter them amidst the buildings, rooms and spaces of abandoned military sites. Angus Boulton’s films and photography capture this presence, this sense of humanity, a presence that will always be there on viewing his films, whatever happens to the sites themselves. Unlike the American bases in the UK, these Soviet soldiers, of diverse ethnic, cultural, linguistic backgrounds, and very far from home, will never return to tell us what it was like at Forst Zinna and Stolzenhain. And we have no documents, save the few photos, signs and memoranda on the walls of Forst Zinna. It is for all these reasons that this body of work matters, and why it stands apart. This is Angus Boulton’s archaeology.
 Angus Boulton, ‘Film making and photography as record and interpretation,’ Schofield, J., Klausmeier, A. and Purbrick, L. (eds), Re-mapping the Field: New Approaches in Conflict Archaeology, Berlin:
Westkreuz-Verlag 2006, pp,35-38.
 Cornelius Holtorf and Howard Williams, ‘Landscapes and Memories’, Hicks, D. and Beaudry, M. (eds), The Cambridge Companion to Historical Archaeology, Cambridge University Press, 2006, pp.235-254.
John Schofield © 2007
Dr John Schofield is the Director of Studies for Cultural Heritage Management, Department of Archaeology, University of York.
This text first appeared in the publication Restricted areas – Angus Boulton, 2007.