x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

The view from above

OGS Crawford used aeroplanes to study the ancient past and archaeology to make sense of modern England.

OGS Crawford left a spectacular collection of photographs but little trace of his interior life.
OGS Crawford left a spectacular collection of photographs but little trace of his interior life.

Contemporary glassware is not ordinarily a subject taken up by archaeologists, but OGS Crawford was not an ordinary archaeologist. "The chief function of a modern capitalist tumbler," he wrote in the late 1930s, "is not to hold liquid but to appear to hold more than it does." Badly designed drinking vessels and poor service in restaurants were among the topics that Crawford covered in an unpublished book called Bloody Old Britain. A pioneering British field archaeologist, Crawford made a sideline of what he called "Marxian anthropology". Enraged by what he saw as the shabby consumerism of interwar Britain, he applied the keen eye he had developed searching out Bronze Age burial mounds to the indignities of everyday life. By cataloguing these slights, he hoped to hasten the inevitable arrival of the next, better stage of history. Taking its title from his manuscript, Kitty Hauser's Bloody Old Britain is an elegant portrait of Crawford that casts his life as an allegory of "vision and blindness".

Born in 1886 to British parents living in India, Crawford was soon shipped back to England to be raised by his aunts and educated at boarding school, where he was so miserable that he later found detention as a prisoner of war to be preferable: at least in a German prison camp, he wrote to his aunts, one had a "chance of quiet reading". Happier memories of school life came from excursions in the ruin-rich countryside nearby, which inspired his love of archaeological fieldwork. At Oxford, he studied geography; no degrees were yet offered in the still young field of non-classical archaeology.

After the First World War, in which he conducted airborne reconnaissance, Crawford took a job at the Ordnance Survey, the British government mapping service, where he remained until retiring three decades later. His main task - updating the archaeological markings on OS maps - was straightforward enough, but the standards and methods he established helped turn archaeology from a recreation for tweedy gentlemen into a professional discipline. From his perch at the OS he also founded and edited a journal called Antiquity. Offering serious scholarship for a broad audience, it gave him even wider influence.

Crawford used Antiquity to popularise aerial photography, whose potential as a tool for archaeological prospecting he first appreciated during his war service. Crawford wasn't the first to imagine that it could be useful in the field, but he was its most effective exponent. Traces of ancient digging or building, it turns out, are often more easily discerned from the air than from the ground. As Crawford put it, the earthbound observer is like a cat on a Persian rug whose pattern is blurred by proximity; only from a distance does the design become clear. With a characteristic urge to document and explain, Crawford even took carefully angled photos to illustrate his hypothetical cat's perspective.

Among other refinements, Crawford classified aerial archaeology's targets into three groups. One was "shadow sites," those features - berms that marked the boundaries of ancient fields, for example - that are revealed when the shadows cast by slanting sunlight pick out small changes in the height of the land. The concept is simple, but the effect is almost magical, as traces too faint to make out from the ground emerge in crisp relief when seen from above.

Such views provide a dizzy whiff of omniscience, as anyone who's gazed down from a plane window can attest. Hauser argues convincingly that the special knowledge afforded by aerial photography informed Crawford's conception of history. In his book Man and His Past, he compared the historian to a traveller who, having "reached... the summit of a lofty pass," surveys "with eager eyes the new landscape opening out before him". Crawford had come to believe in a totalising, deterministic history through which the past would be completely knowable and would provide the key to understanding the future.

Little of this was original to Crawford. Some came from HG Wells, who was a friend of his. (Wells even immortalised him in his novel The Shape of Things to Come in the shape of a reconnaissance aeroplane named Crawford.) And similar ideas about vision and knowledge had been in the air when he was at Oxford, where he had met Patrick Geddes, a Scottish scientist and city planner. In 1892, Geddes had created the "Outlook Tower," a sort of vertical museum of Edinburgh that combined exhibits, a camera obscura and a panoramic viewing platform to situate the city in history and space.

Crawford's confidence in rationality and systemisation made him sympathetic to the USSR, and in 1932 he decided to see it for himself. His trip, which he recorded in a rapturous account called Tour in Bolshevy, provides the moral pivot of Hauser's allegory: for all his powers of observation, while in the USSR "sight failed him, for he had faith; and the will to believe was blinding". So sure was Crawford of what he would find, Hauser notes damningly, that he drafted the opening pages of Tour even before he left. Fortunately for his later reputation, his publisher rejected the manuscript. Hauser builds a devastating case against the stubborn but uncritical belief in science as the "supreme value" that made Crawford deaf to all other considerations. In a 1938 address to the Prehistoric Society, for example, he hopefully raised the possibility that the Germans' "eastward drive" - their occupation of Austria and the Sudetenland, that is - "may be accompanied by archaeological activities".

Still less marketable was the caustic Bloody Old Britain, which Crawford began in the winter of 1938-9. His mission was satirical, but like all the best satire, it was backed by genuine anger: in a letter written around the same time, he described the English as "too stupid to know what horrors they really are". As Hauser observes, Crawford's humour springs from a kind of cranky animism that sees household objects as determined to thwart their users. "The bowls of soup-spoons," Crawford wrote, "have altered their shape and become round and inconveniently wide," despite the fact that they, "from neolithic times down to the twentieth century, have naturally accommodated themselves to the size and shape of the human mouth". (As ever, he took the long view).

Crawford was far from alone in mourning a bygone Britain; there was a widespread sense of national decline, especially among intellectuals, of which Hauser gives a concise but excellent account. But by the time Crawford completed his manuscript, the war was on, and public dissent had become less acceptable. His publisher, understandably, declined it as "unnecessarily bitter," even after Crawford had suggested Bunk of England as an alternative title.

Crawford anatomised the present with photos as well as words. After his return from the Soviet Union, he began taking snapshots of religious institutions around Britain - possibly, Hauser notes, for inclusion as examples of "priest-craft religion" in an exhibit of "human folly throughout the ages". This display would be part of a Museum of Human Evolution that he envisioned as a pillar of post-capitalist society. He also photographed advertisements that he categorised by the base desire to which each appealed ("Militarism", "Beer").

In the end, Hauser's portrait of Crawford feels psychologically muted. This isn't entirely her fault, as Crawford deliberately left few traces of his interior life. Yet too often Hauser, lacking evidence, resorts to supposition - "There was surely a profound sadness" for Crawford when at last he acknowledged the failures of Communism - and the effect is underwhelming. For a story billed as a tale of "faith and its loss", there is too little sense of spiritual struggle. The arc from belief to bitterness about the Soviet project is a familiar one, well chronicled elsewhere, and Crawford's reticence denies us the kind of first-person vividness that would set his apart from similar tales.

In addition, Crawford was, in Hauser's words, "no great intellectual". He loved the small detail and the grand idea, but he lacked the ability to do the work of bridging the two. Hauser adduces a rich array of contexts and connections for Crawford's work, from the poet Cecil Day-Lewis to the German Neue Sachlichkeit movement, but we hardly see Crawford's own mind at work. One suspects that the "equidistant" quality that Hauser detects in his photos, however poetically suggestive, is as much the sign of a failure to distinguish the significant from the trivial, to make critical judgments, as it is the hallmark of a novel conception of history.

Crawford left the Ordnance Survey in 1946 but remained an eminence grise of British archaeology, conspicuous for his green bowler hat and hand-rolled cigarettes. Even in retirement he remained preoccupied with seeing the overall design. In the mid-1950s, only a few years before his death, he wrote, almost plaintively, "What is it all leading up to?" Tim Farrington's writing has appeared in the New York Sun, Wall Street Journal and The New York Times.