Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Digging up the Past....and a 'Roman' Carrot!

I grew up in a little Dorset village on Cranborne Chase… a part of King John’s old hunting grounds. In the centre of the village stood an old ruined manor house surrounded by woods. Private of course…. but childhood curiosity meant that many of us would sneak in regularly to explore. Multiple French doors made up part of the façade, and the glass had long been broken leaving holes just big enough for a then seven year old to climb through! White dustsheets covered furniture, and old paintings still hung on walls. I was mesmerised by the whole thing, and rushed home to ask my father about it. After the scolding and subsequent grounding I received for trespassing on someone else’s property, he told me that one of the owner’s ancestors had fought at Trafalgar, and was buried in the local churchyard. Once my grounding period had been served, I went off to the churchyard to find the tomb. Leaning over the black railings that surrounded it, and pulling back the ivy, my eyes strained to read the lichen encrusted Romanesque script that told of bravery and heroism.

Outside the church, builders were working on the central heating system, and in a trench they were digging outside the church door I spotted some bones….not unusual in view of the location! Too shy to approach the builders at such a tender age, I went back later to study the bones in more detail….not touching…just looking. I trotted off to the rectory and told the Vicar what I had found. We went together, and he said it was OK to lift them carefully out…he had bought a box, and two pairs of his wife’s Marigolds! I remember how my pair were so big that they dangled off the end of my fingers, and made the task very hard! Today of course there would be huge ethical issues about such an event, and legislated ways to deal with it. Back in those days however, and in a little country village, folk tended to deal with things more simply….and in the way they thought best. There was a special church service for the remains a few days later, and the bones were duly re-interred. I pointed out to the vicar at the time that further skeletons beginning to appear in the trench had their legs partly under the church walls. I also noticed that in one adult grave there was a very small skull…a childs. I visited the building works regularly after that....fascinated by the discoveries…curious to see what else might appear. It did in fact turn out that the burials had pre-dated the church.

When I was eight I used to help my father in his vegetable plot. One spring when we were digging over the ground…getting ready for planting, I dug up an old carrot that had no doubt been missed during the previous years harvest. “That’s a Roman carrot” he said…joking of course…because I had been reading a book on Roman Britain for the last week. I only picked the book because I’d spotted pictures of skeletons in it and considered myself a bit of an expert on the subject by now!

Well, the carrot was a Eureka moment for me. After that, at every possible opportunity, I would pack my battered old school duffle bag….battered from previous duffle bag fights with the boys in the school playground! A strange ritual that seemed to erupt outside our infants classroom most mornings as we waited to go in for registration! For my archaeological expeditions I would pack a cheese or peanut butter sandwich wrapped in a neat greaseproof paper parcel, and placed in an old brown Tupperware. I’d also take a drink, spare pair of socks, a note book, map, binoculars, pencil and for some unknown reason a photograph of our pet Golden Labrador Trudy! Hoisting the lot onto my shoulders I’d head off over the style at the bottom of our garden and hike out across the stubbly flint strewn fields in search of dead Romans!! Friends laughed at my new hobby, and also at the little museum I had laid out in our front porch at home. I charged a threepenny entrance fee, and gave half of the proceeds to the Salisbury Cathedral Restorations Fund, and the other half to the Biafran Baby Appeal!

Amongst my prestigious collection (well I thought it was prestigious) were animal bones and teeth, heart urchins, flint arrowheads, fossilised shells, buttons, pottery, glass, iron pyrites and a rusty old horseshoe! All had been carefully labelled and laid out on green baize covered card tables!

When I was nine, my mother would occasionally help out on a friend’s farm. In the summer holidays I would accompany her. Well, imagine my joy when one day the farmer took me to see the contents of an old creosoted granary that stood on staddle stones. Their farmland (we discovered years later when parts of it were excavated), did indeed contain dead Romans…as well as many other things. The granary was packed to the gunwales with the most amazing objects….artefacts that the plough had turned up over the years. The farmer now had such a good eye for anything unusual, colourful or shiny which the ploughshares pulled up from the chalky soil that he rarely came home for his lunch empty handed. Oh so many pleasurable hours I spent just sitting and staring wide eyed at those beautiful things, trying to imagine what life would have been like when they were in use. In hindsight I now realise that there was gold, semi-precious gems, amber, Roman brooches, an exquisite intaglio….and many other amazing and important finds in that granary!

That was well over forty years ago now, and recently whilst taking students on a trip to that same area in Dorset, I tried to find out what had happened to the ‘Granary Collection’, but alas no-one knows. The farmer and his wife have passed away, and there have been several new owners at the farm since those days.

On that same field trip, I sat on the old familiar style near my childhood home, and watched as the students accompanied an old farming friend across a field. Occasionally, he or they would bend down to examine remnants of a Roman temple that is now known to have stood there.

It was quite an emotional moment for me…returning over forty years later to my beloved Cranborne Chase…but this time armed with enough knowledge to know a fake ‘Roman carrot’ when I saw one!

This blog might give the impression that my childhood interests were all about macabre voyeurism and treasure hunting…and I suppose at that young age there may have been an element of that. Today however I DO work in archaeology, and those two topics are hotly debated and controversial subjects, as we try to control looting, treasure hunting and unofficial excavation all over the world!

Dear Dad…you don’t know what you started that day in the vegetable garden…and it just goes to show how the effects of a small throw away comment can last a lifetime!

Saturday, November 8, 2008


At Chelsea Flower Show this year, the garden that held my attention for the longest time was the Leeds City Council entry. It was called ‘The Largest Room in the House’, and was constructed to create a cameo of the garden at Talbot House, Poperinghe, near Ypres, Belgium. This house was founded by two priests in 1915, and was a place where soldiers could rest and recover their health.

All the flowers in the Talbot House garden were especially chosen for their colour and scent in order to create an air of ‘comfort, peace and serenity’ (to quote from the accompanying booklet).

The Flanders poppies created such an impact around the central pond that I stood there for some time, just watching them move in the very slight breeze. They looked lovely, and I was delighted when someone handed me a packet of Flanders poppy seeds. It wasn’t just another show was somehow more than I slipped them carefully into my backpack.
I stood there in the sunshine, admiring the flowers, listening to the band playing, and sipping Pimm’s from a cardboard cup. How normal it would have been to admire the garden and move on as I usually do...but for some reason I felt that respect was due to this moving tribute. I lingered a while longer than usual...thinking about all the implications, and feeling awfully glad that I was in a position to enjoy the flowers and sunshine (and of course the Pimm’s!!!).

Remembrance always makes me feel like that, even though I have had little dealings with war in my lifetime. I once visited an American War Cemetery on the Normandy coast, and I can remember how I gasped on entering the gates because there were just so many crosses....row upon far as the eye could see. I walked along some of the lines reading the memorials...age 19, age,21, age many young men. I stopped at the boundary and looked down at the sandy beach below...I think it was Gold...not sure. I just couldn’t help crying, and I’m not normally a sentimentalist, or a very emotional person. I think it was just the sheer enormity of it many lost lives.

My packet of seeds were duly propagated, and added to our wildflower meadow.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow,
Between the crosses row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky,
The larks, still bravely singing, fly,
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago,
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.

John McRae May 1915

Friday, November 7, 2008


I’m walking home one cold evening....its dark, my feet ache, and I’m frozen to the marrow. The glow from the the sitting room window looks so inviting.
Once inside the door I make a dash for that room....still wearing gloves and coat, as I’m too cold to ‘cast any clouts’ quite yet. I look forward to warming the old derrière....back to the open fireplace....mmmm.....lovely.

Now I am well familiar with that strange division of labour that occurs at barbecues....gender roles and all that. I’m now firmly of the belief that it extends to the indoor grate as well?

Indeed, it was very thoughtful of him to light the fire for me...but picture this. There in the centre of the large grate is a little pyramid of black.....stacked so neatly that it reminds me of a Ferrero Rocher advert. I want to looks so comical....but I dare not.

I’m still shivering as I cast him an accusing look, inferring that it’s his fault that I am still cryogenically preserved. At the same moment I make a grab for the coal tongs but I’m intercepted.....they are snatched from my hands.

”The fire is perfectly OK so leave it alone”. “It always goes out when you start fiddling with it” says he.

“Goes out?”....“goes out?” I reply in a high pitched and quivering voice (no doubt due to the affects of cold on the vocal cords).....

....”who would ever notice if it did?”!!!!

At this point the primeval instincts kick in and Homo Habilis squats protectively in front of the fire and won’t let me have a look in. He starts poking around, and I’d swear pretending to add coal! All conversation dies, and I go for a bath to warm up.
Now I know we are supposed to conserve our dwindling natural resources.....but this is ridiculous.

Many years ago I was involved in some research into the possible uses of large tanks found on prehistoric sites...possibly designed to hold liquids ...... well I think I know the answer now!

The womenfolk had worked out how to keep warm when the man of the ‘house’ wouldn’t throw another turf on the fire. They’d start their own outside, throw a few heated rocks in and have a good old soak!!