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.