Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Spitfires, Teetotums, and Crumbling Spires

Very early in life I became an avid collector when I discovered decorated Victorian clay pipes washed out of the mysterious mudflats of the Essex coastline at Mersea Island. The land has sunk below the sea there and across thousands of acres, thousands of years of gentle erosion has whittled down the accumulated layers of occupation to reveal secrets from the Bronze Age all the way through to spent brass shell cases and aluminium fragments of the aircraft destroyed by their lethal bullets during the Battle of Britain.

At the time though, I wouldn't have had clue about any of that... I didn't wake up to other possibilities besides pipes until I made perhaps the greatest find of my entire life under similar circumstances in Kent.

Fossicking way out on the lonely flats of the Thames Estuary in Kent, a friend and I happened upon an entire aircraft with just the wing tips and the top of the cockpit sticking out of the mud. Poking about inside we found a long belt of unspent 20mm cannon shell. We took it back to the caravan, his dad had purple fit, demanded we return the dangerous things back where they belonged, which was well away from him!

Decades later I reported to a group of enthusiasts putting on a display of aircraft relics at the disused WW2 Airfield at Hornchurch. They'd no record of a crash site at Allhallows though they took my report and my directions very seriously indeed... Located and finally excavated in 1998, it was the Spitfire flown by Pilot Officer J W Lund, who'd bailed out after a run in with a Messerschmitt on 15th October, 1940.

Mudlarking on the Thames Foreshore at age 13 taught me to get my eye in. I had no clear idea of what that might actually mean down there so all I ever looked for were more clay pipes for my collection but when you are that focussed upon white objects, as I learned much later in life, you'll miss out on a whole range of other things far more worthwhile than smoker's relics.

Bone and horn were used for all kinds of things in the past but they rarely appear on the surface of fields today. The Thames is more abundant though. A fascinating little spinning top engraved with old-fashioned capital letters was identified by John Clarke at the Museum of London as made of ivory and a 17th Century 'teetotum,' a piece for playing 'put and take' games with.

There were bone dominos too, three individual pieces of early woodwind instruments, one made of wood, flea combs, one painted, and lots of circular bone counters. Then there was perhaps the best find of all — a hand carved antler draughtsman dating to the Viking Age.

Late 12th Century Early English 'dog tooth' ornament. 
A 10 inch cube of Caen Sandstone from Normandy 

By far the largest and heaviest finds (apart from the Spitfire!) were made of stone. I used to ride my bike into the City of London the fourteen miles from home and was extremely fit, however, I'd need all the strength in my body to get these back to Romford because they were chunks of decorated masonry from a long demolished church building in the Early English Style of Canterbury Cathedral. 

I discovered five pieces in total and the latest just recently, but the largest of all was left behind because I couldn't even lift it. The rest were carried home in a rucksack, the weight of them nearly killed me, but I gained a new-found respect for Medieval masons!

Mudlarking taught me to use my eyes wherever else I go and spend valuable time bending down to pick whatever catches my eye. It rarely pays off with a complete object or even one that's worth taking home but every now and then a non-metallic find pops up that's well worth the backache.

I discovered a complete child's shoe in the spoil from a drainage cut made across a local meadow. The machine had scooped out the base of an old pond backfilled with domestic refuse and dumped the lot to one side. This fascinating 'rubbish' wasn't Victorian though, it was all from the Tudor period as was the little leather shoe. Its always worth examining such spoil heaps or even fly tipped piles of soil originating from towns and if there's oyster shell and animal bone to be seen, then it's bound to be worthwhile!

Open fields have never proven quite so good for making such finds and though there have been exceptions, in my experience anything better than abraded pot sherds are very rare indeed.

One particular place used to throw up lots of big chunks of Late Saxon 'shelly ware' but only one contemporary coin was ever found. Nevertheless I used to pick up every sherd I came across and this practice of scanning the surface also produced two lovely iridescent blue glass beads and a piece of what looks to be waste from glass bead production, also blue. A local Saxon manufactory perhaps?

As for the Romans, well, the sites I used to search had lots of broken pottery scattered about but hardly anything else besides. The list is paltry for so much time spent with my eyes wide open looking for such things as I did discover — the single pottery whorl or counter, a few beads, pieces of window glass and a semi-precious stone lost from the bezel of a ring. The best thing I ever found on such a site beside metal objects was a Mesolithic tranchet axe...

On the subject of stone axes. One day my dogs went into the local stream and I had to go find them. Jumping from the bank onto a gravel bar, there at my feet was the oldest find I've ever made and ever expect to. From the Paleolithic, the day of its discovery an astonishing three-quarters of a million years since its making, a handaxe so ancient it makes the Mesolithic example look brand new!

A Paleolithic handaxe — not just another piece of gravel!

Back to Mersea Island, and the place it all started. One day after a great storm I wandered down the beach and came across an astonishing sight on the flats just below the shingle. An entire working floor revealed by the scouring tide with collapsed wattle fencing, birch posts still with their bark, piles of oyster shell, a broken lava quern, long extinct hearths and here and there the remains that proved what the site once was — numerous fragments of rough red coloured 'briquettage,' the ceramic pans of an Iron Age sea salt factory.

Mersea Island Mudflats. Wiki Commons — Geograph Project Collection, Trevor Harris. Licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license.

The stormy sea had accomplished what no archaeologist could ever achieve which was to reveal the truth in incredible painstaking detail. It was as if I walked where other men once had. It was so fabulous I felt it necessary to walk across it barefoot... 

Sketch plans were made and I tried to get people interested, and they were but all too late. By the time they arrived the site was lost forever under thousands of tons of muddy sand. However, I returned myself and a little way distant found a wooden object sticking half out of the floor a little way away. A wooden food bowl later donated to Colchester Castle Museum — the only example they hold in their amazing collections.

Using my eyes as a matter of course I've learned that productive sites are often seen by eye long before they are heard in earphones. There's always a lot more pottery about than metal on habitation sites and as the frequency of surface finds increases, no matter how thinly spread amongst them are the accompanying metal finds. 

Bronze Age pottery is the most difficult of any period to spot

This rule was never brought home more forcefully than the day I came across a Bronze Age site. The first discovery was a sherd of pottery so similar in appearance to the surrounding soil it was almost invisible. The next was a similar sherd found half an hour later. They were that uncommon and that hard to see!

After almost an entire day's work without a thing to show for it beside the occasional aluminium cattle eye ointment tube and only small a handful of sherds, finally a chunk of green appeared in a spit of soil — a small copper bun ingot of late Bronze Age date. It had taken a day to find one piece of metal, that's how incredibly lean prehistoric sites really are...

Nevertheless, I kept going at it and through sheer slog managed to extract more bits and pieces. Another piece of ingot, a pin, a mouth fragment of a socketed axe and then the crowning glory of the site — the tip of a middle Bronze Age spear.

None of it was worth a light if money be the object of the exercise but from a historical point of view, Bronze Age settlements with associated metal working debris are very rare and point to the possibility that bronze working was performed not by 'itinerant smiths' as long thought, but by smiths living and working at established foundries. 

I thought the effort well worthwhile but without the unequivocal signs that pottery sherds undoubtedly are, nothing would have been found at all because there'd have been no reason to soldier on with the project.

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

A Chip off the Old Block

Judy attended a conference in Canning Town last Friday so I thought I'd hitch a train ride and visit a couple of places. The first was the Thames Foreshore because the tides almost fitted in with our arrival time and the second was Westminster Abbey where I hoped to photograph a Medieval tomb slab with its bronze letters still in situ.

I arrived at Queenhithe on the North Bank around one O'clock hoping to snatch an hour or two after the noon low tide but found the dock filling rapidly and the spots I wanted to search already below water. I really should have checked what kind of tide to expect not just the time of it because this was obviously a spring tide and that means exposed areas not seen for months but also a rapid tide that hides those areas away just as quickly as it shows them.

I couldn't find much in the way of iron and that's never a good sign on the foreshore. I became more interested in pottery sherds, pipe bowls and the chance of worked stone which means getting your eye out of looking for the blackened discs of hammered coins and into the big stuff. Its a micro and macro view you adopt for either, the first crouched over and the second from an upright stance. You can't do both at once, believe me.

A Post- Medieval floor tile fragment

I did find a piece of worked stone. Not a great piece but certainly an interesting one because it looked to be from the same building I'd already had four nicely decorated pieces from in the past. The difference was that this piece wasn't blackened with soot but clean. It was also relatively small so I could actually take it home in a carrier bag rather than have to come down by car to pick it up as I had to with the others.

I know it doesn't look like much and that's why on-one else had ever bothered with it. However, the style of the moulding may be plain but the stone it's made from tells a story. A dull grey when saturated this stone was a cream-white when freshly cut. It's Caen Stone, a white limestone from Normandy and the Norman's first choice building material. The Tower of London was made from it, so was Canterbury Cathedral. Old St Pauls was made from it too and I'm willing to bet that what I have found on the Thames Foreshore are parts of that great building.

St Pauls was originally built in the Romanesque style but was made over into Early English Gothic after the Great Fire of 1135 damaged the Norman fabric. The other pieces I have are Early English in style and come from a very impressive church indeed. One piece is carved with 'dog tooth' ornament and its large scale tells us that the arch it once decorated was very large in scale too, cathedral sized in fact. There cannot be many candidates, and St Pauls was not only one of the largest Cathedrals in Europe in the Middle Ages but also London's largest building by far.

In decline by the 16th century and decaying by the 17th, work then began on its restoration, however the Great Fire of London damaged it so badly that Old St Pauls was demolished. What the rubble was used for is a matter of conjecture but it would have been useless as building material and most likely used as ships ballast.

Early English dogtooth ornament.  Approx 10 inches square
Excepting today's piece all those found before were black with soot on the exposed faces, possibly from the fire itself. I had to scrape it off manually to reveal the beauty of the stone beneath but it was worth all the effort because they may be the only remains in existence of one of England's great buildings.

Of course there's no way of proving this because contemporary pictures of Old St Pauls do not go into the detail of the decoration, but the Early English style was standard for the times and the decoration of St Pauls would have been similar to Canterbury.

Later on...
Then it was time to set off on a short journey to a standing Early English cathedral at Westminster. The Abbey. I fully expected to have to pay a voluntary donation on entry but wasn't prepared for what the Abbey had in store for me. Right there in front of the entrance was a grey sign with numbers that even at a distance looked eye watering. As I approached, seriously, I could not believe what I saw!

The entrance fee demanded was simply astonishing. Yet tourists queued and paid up. While I stood there staring at these astronomical numbers my mind went into calculator mode. Twenty adults went through the portal in five minutes which is £360. I then walked all the way around the building in ten minutes flat and came back to be astonished a second time because just as many people were entering as before. They'd taken at least £1000 in a quarter of an hour!

It was not a busy time either...

I didn't enter. I couldn't afford it. I could have gone in to worship for free but with a piece of wet stone in a Tesco carrier bag needing to be vetted by a security guard before entry I really couldn't come up with a valid answer as to why I should have it on me, especially as it was very similar indeed to the mouldings visible just inside the portico... a chip off the old block!

So, wasted effort really and a research mission fail. I couldn't have taken pictures anyhow unless by stealth because the Abbey has banned that popular pastime and valuable research essential, presumably to protect even more revenue made in their own images. That the exit was not through a gate but via a shop didn't surprise me. How lovely for us to be forced to pay through the nose at one end and then have the pee extracted at the other. I'll bet there's a charge for the toilets too.

 Taken at probably the least busy time of the week.  £90 queued and more where that came from

I walked back to the City to meet with Judy at Tower Gateway Station. We then walked back to Embankment for drinks at Gordon's Wine Bar. The tide was as high as I have ever seen it at Custom House and was almost over the top of the wall. Gordon's remains one of the filthiest dives in town but because of its grubbiness and great wine is easily one of the most popular. Often you cannot move for crowds and getting seated like winning a prize. The bottle we shared cost £13. It was worth every penny.

Later we went to the late night opening at the National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery too. We walked through galleries containing untold trillions of pounds worth of the best art the world has to offer, yet neither cost a penny to enter and neither force you through a shop on your way out. How very civil. Let's hope and pray it remains that way...