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Sex Pistols graffiti found in London flat - what's its archaeological worth? [Print to PDF] [Print to RTF]

Typically, markings, writing or art left behind by our predecessors and discovered by archaeologists bring to mind hieroglyphics or cave markings from the hands of the earliest humans. We are probably less likely to think of British 1970s punk bands - until now.

Step in a gro...
Sex Pistols graffiti found in London flat - what's its archaeological worth?
Typically, markings, writing or art left behind by our predecessors and discovered by archaeologists bring to mind hieroglyphics or cave markings from the hands of the earliest humans. We are probably less likely to think of British 1970s punk bands - until now.

Step in a group of archaeologists from the United Kingdom. Their subject? Graffiti made by the Sex Pistols on the walls of a London flat the group rented in the mid 1970s.

Presenting their findings in the journal Antiquity, the team suggests this graffiti, found behind cupboards in a property on Denmark Street in the Camden area of the city, has just as much historical worth as markings made by early humans in the protected caves of Lascaux in southern France, for example.

Archaeologists Dr John Schofield from the University of York, and independent researcher Dr Paul Graves-Brown describe the graffiti found as 'a direct and powerful representation of a radical and dramatic movement of rebellion'. The team does, however, note that others might reject this description and consider the graffiti rude, offensive and uncomfortable.

After carrying out an analysis of the graffiti's content, the team concluded that its presence confirms that the Denmark Street flat is an important historical and archaeological site. Denmark Street is often described as London's 'Tin Pan Alley' - a reference to a Manhattan street in New York where many musicians and songwriters lived in the late 19th century and early 20th century in the United States.

Denmark Street became notorious for its links to popular culture in the 1950s and 1960s, as it was the locale where many songwriters and publishers were based. In the 1960s, the Rolling Stones recorded their first album at a studio on the street; in the 1970s, the street's place in rock 'n' roll history was sealed when the Sex Pistols moved in. Today the street is home to London's largest concentration of music shops. The flat where the Sex Pistols once lived is currently used as offices.

The researchers photographed and made a complete digitised tracing of the graffiti. Most of it is attributable to lead singer John Lydon, better known by the former stage name Johnny Rotten. It consists of eight cartoons depicting himself and his band members, as well as their manager at the time, Malcolm McLaren, and other people associated with the band.

Dr Schofield comments on the findings: 'The tabloid press once claimed that early Beatles recordings discovered at the BBC were the most important archaeological find since Tutankhamun's tomb. The Sex Pistols' graffiti in Denmark Street surely ranks alongside this and - to our minds - usurps it.'

The next question for the researchers is whether such an unconventional heritage finding should be treated and preserved in the same way as a more traditional artefact. The team believes that their site can be described as 'anti-heritage', as it contradicts with what heritage practitioners typically value or wish to keep safe.

Dr Schofield continues: 'We feel justified in sticking our tongues out at the heritage establishment and suggesting that punk's iconoclasm provides the context for conservation decision-making. Our call is for something that directly follows punk's attitude to the mainstream, to authority: contradicting norms and challenging convention. This is an important site, historically and archaeologically, for the material and evidence it contains. But should we retain it for the benefit of this and future generations? In our view, with anti-heritage, different rules apply. The building is undoubtedly important, and could meet criteria for listing or for a blue plaque, if not now then in time.'
Source: University of York

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Record Number: 34054 / Last updated on: 2011-11-22
Category: Miscellaneous
Provider: EC