Conversations with strangers

Westminster_fog_-_London_-_UKThe last time I had a conversation with a stranger was on a train. As the train pulled out from London Waterloo, I pulled the hardback book I had bought out of its bag and started leafing through it. The book, London Fog: A Biography by Christine Corton covers the history, literature and art of the ‘Big Smoke’ (known by many other names including the ‘Pea Souper’ and the ‘Killer Fog’). Air pollution reforms were introduced before I was born but the man sat next to me on the train remembered the smogs. We struck up a conversation after he said ‘Can I see your book? I take an interest in what people are reading.’ The rest of the journey was spent talking fog, or rather I listened to his account of the smell, look and taste of the fog and the way that fog disrupted and brought amusement to a boy growing up in the capital (I realised after this that I take for granted being able to see from one side of the Thames to the other).  Fog is now history but can London fog be archaeological? Or, in other words, I automatically filtered the stories I was hearing for research potential – for unanswered questions. You see, I’m looking for the next challenge.

I have been asked: What are the next grand challenges for my archaeology?

At this point in time, I don’t know. Somehow I suspect that the answer is out there, rather than with me. That isn’t intended to diminish the expertise or knowledge of myself, my colleagues or the wider discipline. Rather, I believe that challenges are grand if they are ‘socially useful’ (Kiddey 2014), if they are supported by people from outside the discipline, if they involve the participation of people from outside the discipline. It’s the Science Shop model of crowd-sourcing research questions through a community-based participatory research approach that asks:

what is important to you?
what problems or concerns do you have?
how can we work together to find a solution?

Kiddey, R (2014) Homeless Heritage: collaborative social archaeology as therapeutic practice.  PhD thesis, University of York.

Note: A contribution to ‘The Grand Challenges for Archaeology: A Blogging Carnival’ via Doug’s Archaeology. Thank you Doug for inviting me!

Image: By George Tsiagalakis (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons


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