Revenant Archaeologies: Bligh Bond and the spectral excavations of Glastonbury Abbey

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About a month ago I came across a copy of Frederick Bligh Bond’s The Gate of Remembrance in Ealing’s Oxfam Books store. At this point I was drawn to the cover illustrations and binding of the book alone; Bligh Bond had the synapses working overtime, however I couldn’t quite make the connection. It wasn’t until I did my homework that I realized where I had heard the name; a few years back Channel 4 produced a three part series hosted by Tony Robinson which covered a different supernatural case study from British history. The premise being that Robinson and his obligatory skeptic, ‘science journalist’ Becky McCall – the Watson to Robinson’s defective Holmes – would attempt to authenticate (or debunk) historical claims of paranormal occurrences. Both the scripting and casting was weak and I remember cringing at Robinson’s ‘experiments’ with.past life regression even now, some years later. Returning to the Bligh Bond: the first episode of the series, ‘The Ghosts of Glastonbury Abbey’, dealt with the ‘truth’ behind F. Bligh Bond’s archaeological digs at the abbey and moreover the claims that he employed the use of automatic writing and seances to find the hidden remains of the building. The case was and remains of course, a far more interesting example of the relationship between place, heritage and haunting than the program had given credence to.

Having realized what the book (originally published in 1918) meant for my thesis (an interesting new angle on communion with place) and its disturbingly modest price tag, even for a third edition (1920), I returned to the store and purchased the fawn, cloth bound volume and headed back to the office. On flicking through the pages it immediately struck me that something was lose; not wanting to damage the leaves anymore than I thought they had been, I tipped the book on end and gently tapped the spine so as to release the detached pages from their hiding place. However, all was not as it seemed; what exited the body of the book were not the subjects of degradation or poor binding but a sealed envelope marked ‘Mrs Van Haunlen’. On opening the envelope, I discovered a collection of ten old photographs and postcards. The majority of the photos were field photographs of the abbey ruins, dated 1918 in pencil on the reverse. The postcards also detailed etchings of the remains and marked with similar dates. The true jewel here was however, a photograph inscribed with ‘Glastonbury abbey, View Through Choir (looking South), Please return to F. B. Bond’ with a subsequent forwarding address.

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The finding of the book paled in comparison to the discovery of the photos, and yet the two together had conflated to produce an uncanny archaeological find of my own.There was a sense of a bizarre reiteration of the dead informing the research of the present. Bligh Bond believed,as his book documents, that he had gathered information pertaining to the location of two lost chapels at the abbeys site from the spirits of both the architect of the Edgar Chapel and individual monks who had inhabited the space. And now, Bond had made his spectral return through the (I suspect lost) artifacts once of his own possession. Commissioned to dig the site of the abbey in 1908, Bligh Bond employed the occult skills of his friend John Alleyne (real name Captain John Allan Bartlett) to navigate, map and uncover the concealed foundations before being dismissed by the Bishop Armitage Robinson in 1921, supposedly for the use of necromancy at a holy site.The methodologies employed by Bond are the first documented instance of psychic archaeology, a fringe discipline which remains practiced today,

My interest in this case is not so much to validate the claims of the paranormal, of proving or disproving that the information gathered by Bligh Bond and his team had emanated from spectral sources,such endeavors are best left to the likes of Robinson, who I am sure cracked the case. No, the subject of my reflection is rather that of re-imagining our connections to the materiality of place and moreover, what this might mean for the evolution of terms such as genius loci – the spirit of place. Furthermore, what the implications for the geographic imagination might be through the explication of such a case. It appears that whether real, or figurative, Glastonbury Abbey retains its own unique spirits. Bligh Bond connected to these through a multiplicity of materialities; the masonry, the soil, grass, shovel, paper, the very ink which permeated through John Alleyne’s pen and of course the site proper. Through each of these objects, Bond was able to ascertain the location of the hidden chapels; he did so through an engagement with the immaterial. The tension between these two, the material and the immaterial, is what forces opens the space where new meanings, re-imaginings can take place. We might refer to such a processes as being the place where the (im)material comes to exist; where the immaterial (the absent from perception not the supernatural) inflects and works upon materiality. Ghosts like that of Glastonbury Abbey are only accessible through material entities, whether it be a tipping table, a pen and paper, a Ouija board, the fact remains that the spectral has to be corporealized, manifested in one way or another in which to speak. The (im)material accounts for this, it does not attempt to separate the being from the non being, the seen from the unseen, the perceived from the unperceived, rather it fuses such binaries to demonstrate the possibilities for enchantment in objects, things. The absence of the definite gives way to a place of exploration; the chapel remains were lost and present, both there (existing) and not there (unseen). Bligh exploited the tension between this absent-presence further through the replication of the process; he engaged with unseen subjects, using material things to bring their voices to life. Again, it was not so much that the ghosts might be real that interests me, but rather the unveiling of the physical through exploitation of (im)material agents.

Furthermore, it strikes me that in the interaction between the historical figures of the abbey (the architect and the monks), further developed the hauntological existence of the site.Ruins act as spaces for rethinking history of their own accord, they possess the affectual qualities that lead one to contemplate and imagine the previous acts of habitus that would have occurred within them, in this sense structural remains haunt, continually allowing the past to permeate the present. In bringing the ‘spirits’ of the ruins to life, Bond created a duel haunting; one whereby ghosts appeared both as detritus (the ruins) and as unseen agents. The spectralisation of such a site is amplified further through the retelling of Bond’s discoveries. The entire site is a wound upon the landscape, and one which shall never heal.The abbey, its ghostly narrative and indeed Bligh Bond himself will continue to occupy the space, the lives of all three in continuous repetition.

Finally, psychic archaeology as practiced by Bond, evolves the way we might think about the notion of the genius loci; the abbey appeared to Bond and Alleyne (Barrett) as having multiple sensed spirits, genii locorum. Moving away from the preternatural ‘spirits ‘ at Glastonbury in favour of (im)material agencies, does not necessarily mean disregarding their value in the determining of the abbey’s lost remains, but rather it augments them, repositioning ghosts as the unperceived matter of material objects. Furthermore, the case puts an interesting slant on how we might perceive places to exist; haunted geographies such as this one, change the nature of how we imagine place to exist, both temporally and spatially. The site of the abbey has been both richer, in terms of its own narrative and also in regards to temporality. To be sure, Glastonbury Abbey is both a haunted and hauntological landscape, it remains and repeats in both situ and in memory. Dismissing the case as Robinson would have you do, is in my opinion, to do a disservice to Bligh Bond, his commitment to the abbey and the archaeological  developments he made..

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