15-Dec-2009

Marc has probably one of the coolest jobs I can imagine; he is an experimental archaeologist in Hampton Court Palace's kitchens. When he was giving talks in the US, we mentioned that we'd visiting his location and were excited to see first hand what he was talking about. He graciously offered to show us his work.

I'm not sure what we were expecting. Maybe an hour of time? A quick show and tell? The day was more than we could have wished for or imagined. Via email correspondence we got the best directions ever; "cross the river and head for the big Palace on the right... instead of entering the Palace across the moat, head to the left ..." Also, turns out Marc is THE guy in the kitchens, an authority in his field, and a full time resident of the palace!

We went to our meeting spot, were given visitor badges, and met up with Marc. He explained that we'd picked a good day, it was a particularly slow time of year. He had once met up with a colleage for a similar show around and they'd gone straight to the office, never getting the full tour of the site. With this in mind, he wanted to show us in through the front and give us a grand tour of the place before we got to the fine points. Did that sound alright? Um, sure. ( OMG, hell, yes! )

In through the front gate... Acquired by Henry VIII, Hampton Court Palace is England's first royal palace. A palace differs from a castle it that it's not a military defense. Rather, it is a more luxurious residence and also a display of power. It says that the rulers are secure enough in their position that they don't need the traditional battlements to maintain their rule. Henry didn't like the relatively primitive conditions of the traditional castle.

The first thing Henry did when he moved into the palace was expand the kitchens, bless him. This is where we come in. Marc leads us down a side path away from the central finery and into a court yard. "This is the kitchen," he says, gesturing expansively to the yard. "Not just the buildings around us. People have a hard time with this, but this open area is also the kitchen. Goods would come into this open space and would disappear into all these doors, depending on what they were. Accounting is done on the floor up there and the stuart could look out that window and track deliveries. Oh, over here is one on my favorite places; they don't show this to the public. This is the only spot in the yard out of the overseer's line of site. See those game boards in scratched into the wall? Ever society has slackers and 500 years ago one of them stood here!"

Our entire day with Marc was like that. Enthusiastic pointing out of various tidbits that only history geeks might find valuable. And we were an enthusiastic audience, eating it all up, asking about everything. When we had explored every nook of the kitchens I figured our time with Marc would be at an end. Instead, we went back to his apartment and happily chatted for a while; my feet said thank you. Then, well, "you want to see the rest of the place?" And off we went.

To get to the first dining hall, we took a side stair that was closed to the public. This is would not be the last time we got to various rooms using short cuts with signs like "private" and "no entry". We popped out of doors that sometimes didn't look much like doors and regular visitors would look at us with surprise and curiosity. Little bits of architecture ( "no one ever gets to see this" ) where often pointed out. We felt privileged to be seeing the palace in this manner.

At times Marc would give expansive explanations of where we were, to the point that others would try to unobtrusively listen in, pausing the standard tour program on their head phones. In addition to well known trivial, we also got the inside story on various restorations and political dirt. There is a dichotomy to privilege that was reinforced by our host. While understanding the subtle, and not so subtle, trappings of power in the palace; Marc was most drawn to the humanness of the residents. Pointing out places where the mighty rulers hid and tried to just have relatively normal lives. The immense importance of a small drawing room, only seen by closest friends, mostly free of the need to impress outsiders.

The "public" looks to history for awe. To be impressed by the might and majesty of Ozymandias. Any historical site that wants to stay viable has to play to this. I think real history geeks, in some ways, are the exact opposite. We look to history, at times to an almost alien environment, to find ourselves. People have always been people. Perhaps that sounds mundane, or even depressing, but I find it reassuring.
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