Books & Our Landscapes

Books transport us, take us beyond ourselves- but to a recognisable place. Often we are ambushed by the words, words that touch us and unlock our heart.

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Blackmore Vale from Hambledon Hill, Dorset

We all view the world though our own unique experience and as an archaeologist I see the beauty of our countryside as the expression of the many generations that worked and shaped it, a precious jewel to be conserved. Writers evoke the many moods of places…places like Thomas Hardy’s Dorset or Winston Graham’s Cornwall .

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Hardy’s Cottage near Dorchester, Dorset: the birth place of Thomas Hardy

Through their writing, we are drawn to the locations that helped spark these authors into their creative genius – Hardy’s Cottage, Max Gate, Trerice. The buildings are the launch pad to their setting – the intricate majesty of the south west’s coast and countryside.

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Gunwalloe. Cornwall

The first book I recommend is by W.G. Hoskins. In his introduction, he tells the book’s story: he had searched in vain for a book which unravelled the intricate history of the landscape -therefore, in frustration, he created this pivotal work. He writes: ‘The English landscape itself, to those who know how to read it aright, is the richest historical record we possess. There are discoveries to be made in it for which no written documents exist, or have ever existed’ (The Making of the English Landscape).

At college, his book inspired me to go out and seek the myriad hidden stories held within ordinary farmsteads and fields.

However, landscape is far more than a museum of past lives: it is a work of artistry. The landscape has moods, light and shade, it constantly alters in weather and seasons, has memories.

How can our experience of it be captured? A book can guide us there, perhaps in a few pages describing an ordinary, though extraordinary, Mayday walk through fields to a village. ‘I seemed to capture everything together-medieval England, myself at ten, the summers of the past and the summer really coming….Dodie Smith writes a fabulous dream-like passage in ‘I capture the Castle’ such a surprising book… ‘Did anything as beautiful as this ever happen before?’

Our surroundings are so precious, internationally so. This was certainly the opinion of George Orwell who after escaping from the horrors of the Spanish Civil War wrote: ‘And then England – Southern England, probably the sleekest landscape in the world. It is difficult when you pass that way…to believe that anything is really happening anywhere’ (Homage to Catalonia).

Books grab us and encourage us to go and care for and experience our surroundings before it is too late. My last quote is from The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro. Stephens, the butler, is given leave to escape his gilded cage, a great house in Oxfordshire (Dyrham in the film).

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Dyrham, Gloucestershire

To take a journey across the south west to meet a love he cannot acknowledge. He stops in unfamiliar surroundings and an old man invites him to take a path ‘you won’t get a better view anywhere in England’. The incident is a metaphor for the book. Take your chances while you can. Stephens is persuaded to climb the steep and winding path…. and is not disappointed.

That evening in Salisbury he recalls the moment.

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Marshwood Vale from Lambert’s Castle, Dorset

‘For it is true, when I stood on that high ledge this morning and viewed the land before me, I distinctly felt that rare, yet unmistakable feeling-the feeling that one is in the presence of greatness. We call this land of ours Great Britain, and there may be those who believe this a somewhat immodest practice. Yet I would venture that the landscape of our country alone would justify this lofty adjective’.

Open a book today, let it beckon you down a new path.

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Bibliography:

Hoskins, W.G., 1955, The Making of the English Landscape, Penguin Books, 14-15.

Kazuo Ishiguro, 1989,The Remains of the Day, Faber, 24-27.

Orwell, G., 1938, Homage to Catalonia, Penguin Books, Faber & Faber, 220-221.

Smith, D., 1949, I Capture the Castle, Random House, 177-185.

Return to the Priest’s House, Muchelney


Heading south-west out of Wiltshire, along the floor of the Deverill valley. . and at Kingston, climbing out of the greensand, up, up onto the high curvaceous chalkland. The icy gloom giving way to bright skies with a first chance to see the potential of the developing day.

Not until the road came to the brink of the escarpment was it possible to appreciate what was unfolding. Over the brow of the downs, the land dropped away and as far as the eye could see… were flat-lands overlain by undulating mists. Networks of hedgerows were translucently visible but the isolated, conical Duncliffe Hill broke out of the fading milkiness high into the blueing sky.

Below lay the border town of Mere and beyond lay Dorset and….

Somerset:

At Lytes Cary we took the road to Huish Episcopi.

I remembered to turn left at the church tower and onto  the level, hedge-lined road which led across the flats to Muchelney.

The winter of 92-3 was wet and my car had struggled here. The road was flooded. The builders had told me not to wait too long, the water was rising and the village was becoming an island again.  I did the archaeology and thankfully made it back to the mainland that night.

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The Priest’s House in January 2018

Returning after a quarter of a century to this little hill with its church and ruined abbey, it seemed hardly to have changed. A few scattered cottages and there was the Priest’s House. Everything silvered grey with frost..the sun here still only a glowing orb above the mist.

The National Trust has owned this place since 1911. Rescued by the Society of the Protection of Ancient Buildings with work carried out by Ernest Barnsley, a master builder of the Arts and Crafts Movement.

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The Priest’s House after work was completed in April 1993

At the end, I had left it with its fresh yellow thatch ..but knew it in my time mostly as a scaffolded canopy, the skeleton of medieval timbers exposed for repair.

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The medieval common rafters of the hall after removal of thatch. Looking through these you can see the horizontal timber known as the purlin which supports them and below and attached to the purlin can be seen the curving wind braces which demonstrate that the hall was open to the roof in medieval times as does the truss with its principal rafters which the purlin is supported on. This truss has an arch braced collar which was built to be seen as a decorative feature from the ground floor.

This was the early 14th century vicar’s house. The priest was a paid staff member of Muchelney Abbey and took the services in the parish church, serving the village community.

Quite a lowly cleric and the size of his house reflects his status… but he and his home survived Henry VIII’s religious upheavals of 1538-40. At that time most of the Abbey was demolished and the monks were pensioned off. The great Abbey church is just a pattern of stone footings now.

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Muchelney parish church seen across the footings of the once much larger Abbey church. The Priest’s House lies just beyond. 

This priest’s house is too far from Ham Hill. This is the edge of blue lias country, the walls are of this grey slatey stone, only the windows and doors are of golden Ham stone.. though it has fenestration way above its pay-scale. I suppose, once the great Abbey had been pulled down there were plenty of opportunities to upgrade from the ruins.

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One of the large windows of the hall. Rather grand for such a small building.

One day the builders showed me 12th-13th century chunks of carved and painted stone they had found during the repairs. This was more re-cycled Abbey, reused as rubble to infill a redundant flight of stairs  up to the first floor.

The Priest’s House had been built with a cross-passage with opposing front and back doors.

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The medieval wattle and daub screen to the guest room under repair. This Tudor doorway was inserted into it when the the first floor was created over the hall.

Through the front door, on the right was a timber screen and beyond it the hall was  open to the roof  decorated with curving wind braces. Beyond the hall was the parlour with its moulded timber ceiling, a stair led to the solar or private room of the priest. Later, the hall was roofed to create a first floor above and a huge decorated stone fireplace was hauled into the room. Evidence of more of the Abbey salvaged from the ruins.

To the left of the cross-passage were the store rooms, the pantry for food and the buttery for drink and the now blocked stair which once led to a guest room above. The kitchen would have been a separate building. In medieval times it was thought sensible to keep the cooking fire from the main building in case of accident. In the builders’ trenches, I never saw evidence for this kitchen though it could have been a timber framed building which left little trace.

Examples of these medieval kitchens still stand at nearby NT places …Stoke Sub Hamdon Priory (‘Prayer for the Future’) and Treasurer’s House Martock (‘The Treasure beneath the Limewash’)… Their residents were grander than Muchelney’s vicar and could afford something more substantial.

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Frosty Muchelney Abbey last week looking across the demolished cloisters towards the Abbot’s hall.

But it was now time to leave Muchelney. There were other places to visit.

We climbed back in the car and continued our journey south between melting frost-spangled fields and sleeping winter-bare orchards …deeper and deeper into cider country….Kingsbury Episcopi, Martock, Stoke Sub Hamdon..Montacute.

 

Views From Hardy’s Monument

Last week I looked out and back from Hardy Monument ..in consideration of someone pivotal… now gone.

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The view south from the Hardy Monument to Weymouth and the Isle of Portland

Hardy’s is high up. The highest point of the vast Bronze Age cemetery of the South Dorset Ridgeway.

Looking distantly down onto a field… now, with dogs gathering sheep… but then, where my caravan was.

A September Sunday afternoon. After the excavation…. ordering the artefacts.

I was leftover. The vibrant dig community gone. A row of bleached grass rectangles. Just the finds supervisor’s tent against the Loscombe Copse.. two fields away.. and the HQ caravan, a little out of sight, beside the barrow …and the lone tree.

HQ was full ..of vegetarian beans, pulses and CND posters ‘do not walk gently…..’ With the blackberries and hazelnuts.. enough to keep me for a while.

From my window, rural Dorset, and just the tinny sound of Terry Wogan leaking from a battered transistor. All that it could manage.

On the table, a plastic bag containing one of the cremations from the barrow.

Each had a gift for the dead. One had a bronze dagger, another a stone archer’s wrist guard. But what of this one? The director had asked me to separate the bone from the charcoal.

That was my job.. on an isolated peaceful Sunday afternoon.

Soon, my survey contract would begin… me and my bicycle, visiting, measuring, researching every Ridgeway barrow… but the winter-let flat and marriage were still 2 weeks away.

So… place the contents carefully on the table and gradually separate the black from the grey-white while listening to the hits of 82.

As the hours passed…the necklace emerged.

The National Trust archaeologists have been to Sutton Hoo. Angus showed us the new visitor access route. How to evoke the wonder of the place from a few low mounds.. ringed with modern distractions? To reveal the very roots of the English…in a nice way.

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The NT Archaeologists on the site of the Sutton Hoo ship burial

What a story ! Local skilled archaeologist Basil Brown asked to excavate a mound…. on the utter brink of WWII. Britain’s Tutankhamun, emerging as the tempest clouds of war gathered. A sand long boat. The decayed planks carefully revealed as a beautiful and curving ridged mould, spaced with clinker nails. That long last peaceful summer…it never rained.

Amazing gifts for a king, gathered in Suffolk from across the known world. The find so great that Brown is edged out by the posh academics from the BM. A poignant photo in the cafe as he respectfully watches the experts at work.

We gather in the wood above the riverside. We imagine the 7th century long boat dragged to its final resting place. Was this Raedwald, Bretwalda, king of the Anglo-Saxon kings? His people gathered around him and the gifts and treasure bestowed in honour of his greatness. Memories and stories. The holy men guided the congregation from life to death and a life beyond his passing.

I stand at the stone tower and look back to the caravan… and beside me a large Bronze Age barrow. The highest of the 600 or so scattered along the ridge between Dorchester and Weymouth…from Abbotsbury to Poxwell.

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The plundered burial mound beside the Hardy Monument.

Presumably, the tomb of one the greatest Dorset barrow men but truncated and burrowed into long ago. Its contents taken without record. like so many of the barrows at Sutton Hoo… except Mr Brown’s wonderful discovery…

and mine in 1982…the amber and shale.. hidden but then emerging from the charcoal. Lozenges and cones, with holes drilled for the long rotted thread.

As the sun passed to late afternoon, his mini-van bumps across the field to meet me. I wait to show him.

Years before, the newly graduated Weymouth students had followed him to the shores of Poole Harbour and spent the summer easing a Roman pottery workers’ settlement from the stubble. We got food poisoning…the motorbike got a flat. His back gave out… but we tenderly carried him on the finds table to the trench edge. A battle stretcher but with cheesecloth and loons.

On a road to Emmaus, at his requiem mass, we gathered to honour him and remembered.

Look around you.

‘There’s a slow, slow train comin’ up around the bend’

Sunset 8.15pm Chedworth 2017

So the 5 year North Range research agenda is complete.

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Picture copyright Mike Calnan taken by mini-copter on Thursday. The North Range to the left with the green and blue gazebos in Room 27. You can just see our exterior trenches beyond the walls on the slope top left.

We had started backfilling on the previous day so it seemed unlikely that we would leave late for home on Friday.

Always the optimist. I had arrived at 7am to video the site amongst birdsong.

Carol crossed the corridor, climbed the bank and picked blackberries.

Fay squinted at the rising sun in the valley as I moved the pencil along the staff. Taking levels on the boundary wall.  ‘There’s a breathless hush in the close tonight’. The lull before the storm.
‘Ten to play and a match to win’

Nothing like a bit of imperialist poetry to steel one against the day but who would come to help us? So much recording to do…so many trenches to fill.

Then John kindly arrived despite his birthday, Nick and Nick and Alexander and Harry to join the rest of us stalwarts and we began the long day…

We loaded the last tools as the sun began to set and Amy remained with us until the end. Fabulous! Carol said that the last day on a dig was like childbirth… painful but worth going though again. We were so grateful to everyone for putting the site back together after all our exploration.

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Plan from an old guide book to show the numbers of the rooms in the north range 27-30. Our boundary wall and drain trenches were above 30.

What can be said.

On the north side, the boundary bank ran clear across the trench and was easily traced following the contour of the valley above the North Range. A heap of Roman debris lay over it and below the rubble a level stony area suggests a trackway though we did not fully excavate this.

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Detail of the Roman wall on the outside face of Room 30. This shows the time when the North Range had a new suite of rooms added to the east. The foundation trench for the old build is stony and has the ranging pole on it. That to the left more soily marked by the trowel. The courses above abutt except for one which cuts into the old build and ties the walls together.

Just below is Rob’s trench against the exterior wall of the kitchen. The beautifully placed 0.33m wide flagstones 0.3m from the wall face. We thought the stones covered a drain. We lifted one and the surface crumbled into hundreds of fragments. Below was only 0.1m of sand and charcoal above the natural clay.

The current story is that the stones were the firm foundation for a timber drain that was built along its surface. The wood had long rotted away but there are stories of iron linking rings being found here.  We still need to track down the source.

No doubt now about the later addition of the suite of rooms 30-32 onto the east end of the North Range. Both in Fay’s trench, within Room 30, and this trench, the abutting joints and change in foundation trench fills were clear.

Our two small trenches in the North Range Corridor showed that there was no mosaic left east of Room 26 but that the narrower and earlier corridor wall could be traced past Room 27. It was not found opposite Room 30 but the ground here has been badly disturbed. Sir Ian Richmond’s 1964 breeze block wall ran deep this far east.

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The two trenches in the north range. The one in the foreground had the stones of the narrower and earlier corridor in it.

Peter’s trench in Room 27 had now been backfilled and made  level with replaced turf….. but what had been the point of the deep dressed stone wall against the corridor. Was it an early pre-corridor wall. I am placing a lot of faith in comparative C14 dates from foundation trench fills. The fragments of charcoal have been helpfully plentiful in these but not an ideal dating tool …too crude really for Roman deposits.

We stopped for lunch and the discussions …over leaving cake …turned to mattocks. We admired the prize tool of the dig … the new yellow fibre-handled mattock which Nancy purchased specially. Mattocks are wonderful things… if deftly hefted. We told mattock stories……

We then faced Room 28. I moved forward with parallel tapes and ranging poles, drawing metre by metre and as each space was vacated, the terram, topsoil and turf followed.

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The topsoil and terram being placed.

The mosaic survived best in the north… though its gradual deterioration south documented its loss.. Down through the mortar bedding and limestone rubble hardcore. Even the hardcore disappeared in the room’s central zone… becoming a dark soil containing the two hearths and a foundation of rubble between areas of burning. These ragged remains are an exciting discovery. We need to search for comparisons and obtain radiocarbon dates from their organic deposits. I hope for a 5th-6th century date to reveal a time when the villa was still standing.. but had declined from a grand mansion house to a manufacturer’s workshop.

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Copyright Mike Calnan photo of Room 28 on Thursday. Peter’s trench in Room 27 bottom left.

The last trench was Peter and Alexander’s, behind Rooms 25 and 26. Peter had been digging there until the afternoon to understand it better. The trench showed that 25 had been added on but it had once had a different broader plan. This earlier phase had  been part demolished before being rebuilt. The foundation trench along 25’s  north side was clear but to the east the natural bedrock had be dug away deeply and steeply. I jumped down onto a loose mortar surface and slid the trowel under the lowest course of the earliest phase of 25. This cutting continued north-east through the trench section into the slope of the hill. Perhaps a drain or earlier stoke hole… but time was up.

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The deep trench cutting natural and the wider foundation under Room 25. Room 26 is on the left. The cutting continues under the section line to the right.

Fay shouted out the levels from the slope and I joined the backfilling.

but the story is not over until the samples are analysed, we have made cross-comparisons and the reports are written. What of our painted glass.. the pottery, the charcoal and other finds?… we will see what they tell us.

Day 18 and 19 – So long, farewell … and so to bed

Day  18 – the last chance to investigate those areas and layers that just need a little bit more excavation to glean the last drop of information from the site before recovering it with soil and turf.

A little bit more digging  in Robs drain trench, to look for any iron rings that may have been used to connect wooden pipes that the large stones may have been protecting.

We also sectioned part of the ‘hearth’ to see if we could recover any charcoal for dating, find any clues to its use  and also to see how it was constructed.

Part of the ‘hearth’ sectioned, under the tile was ashy soil and then more box flue tile

From the other ‘hearth we have taken a sample of the very burnt and fractured quern stone, we can then find out what stone it is and were it has come from.

Ashy soil can be seen in the section on the right

Day 19 – Today the back-breaking back filling of the trenches is going a pace with many called in to help, even an odd hour is very much appreciated.

Alex, John and Nick covering the boundary wall trench first with the breathable geo-textile then the soil that was taken out goes back in

We put down a breathable geo-textile on top of were we stop excavating, this stops plant roots but allows water through and is great if we do uncover it again as we can dig down to the cloth and then peel back to were we stopped last time.

Pete’s deep trench and Martins complicated wall phasing trench in room 27 all back filled

We put a bottle, from our celebration when we finished yesterday, with various objects in it, as well as a message to the future in the deepest part of Pete’s trench were the glass had been found. A kind of closing ritual we usually do when back filling trenches.

Our message to the future, the fizzy wine bottle with messages and coins and other objects inside it

Hopefully we will not have to stay into the evening to finish the ‘putting to bed’ of the site, a very heart-felt thank you to all who have helped us this year with special mention to the back filling crew Fay, Carol, Amy, Pete, Harry, Alex, Nick and Nick, John and John.

Farewell until the next dig, were ever that may be……………..

Some of the core team Harry, John, Martin, Fay. Amy. me, Carol and Pete

Day 17 – Rain, a long pole and a party

We were all up and out early as the laser scanner folk were due before 8am and we also had a lot of trenches to finish digging, with three days to go.

As well as scanning the guys took high-resolution photographs

The rain had made all the colours zing across the site, showing the contrast in the soil with areas of burning showing up red. But it was also frustrating as we could not get to work, as the rain made the site difficult to work on and the layers we would be digging would not be easy dig. The mantra is ‘if it’s raining and the site will suffer by working on it  (layers of soil sticking to boots and depositing the soil and finds on another part of the site) you don’t work, but if the site will not suffer you go out in the rain!’

Ready for the rain

Once the rain stopped, Rob headed for his possible drain, it was time to lift the lid, we all gathered round with thoughts of a lovely stone lined drain with just enough sludgy soil to hold all the goodies, rings that slipped of bathers fingers or glass oil jars. The stone came up, it was beautifully tooled on the underside, but no sign of stone sides of a drain. He troweled back underneath but only found more of the layer either side of the stones!

So what is/was it, it maybe the bottom of a stone drain missing its sides and top, or could it relate to what was found in an earlier excavation about twenty years ago a bit further down the north range.  They found what they thought to be iron rings that would have held wooden pipes, did they sit on the stone? The stones are very well worked, a lot of effort has gone into shaping them so probably not? its  yet another puzzle to ponder over the next few months.

Rob lifted the stone from his possible drain behind the wall of the kitchen

the tooling under the stone

We ended the day with a gathering of staff and property volunteers for a tour of the site and talk about what we have found, this was followed by a ‘bring a plate’ buffet and drinks to toast our efforts and carry on conversations about the villa. Thank you everyone for a lovely evening.

A good turn out for Martins talk and tour

Day 3 – glass half full ….

Today was a mixture of Romans and Victorians, the original residents and the original excavators.

All ready for the final clean, kneelers for the knees and kneelers for the feet so your toes don’t dig into the mosaic

We carried on revealing the mosaic in room 28, one strip at a time. Today started with a final clean off and then a good sponge to reveal the pattern, then towelling the next strip heading further into the centre of the room.

Angela, Carol and Sue very happy mosaic excavators

When we heard a loud ‘Wow!’ from Samuel we could not resist sharing our joy of digging the mosaic with him and his sister Anna hopefully helping nurture the archaeologists of the future!

Anna and Samuel doing a brilliant job  excavating the mosaic

Two happy diggers

In the opposite side of room 28 Rob had a trench all to himself, his task was to take off the soil and rubble hopefully to find intact mosaic. Amongst the loose tesserae, nails, painted plaster and mouse bones he found a glass object. Great excitement as we clean down and around it, was it roman? Looked a bit chunky for a roman glass vessel which are usually very thin.

The glass turned out to be part of a Victorian panel wine glass, perhaps dropped by a visitor staying at the  lodge or a garden party as Lord Eldon showed off the excavations to his friends. I wonder what it had contained?

The glass before we lifted it from its bed of soil

At the end of the day the mosaics had continued but there were more holes in the floor, will we get the next decorative scheme? what is beyond the knotted guilloche band? we hold our breath……..

The mosaic at the end of the day all clean and bright