As an historical archaeologist, with a special interest in industrial archaeology, I spend a lot of time lurking around old canals and railways, or where these once were. Once abandoned, railways can disappear completely, built over or ploughed away. If the route has not been completely obliterated, there may be little remaining apart from the track bed (overgrown or turned into a footpath or bicycle trail), a few concrete fence posts and any associated civil engineering such as embankments, cuttings, bridges and tunnels – generations of railway enthusiasts will have removed anything small and rescuable!
However sometimes all is not lost, and the archaeologist’s eye can occasionally locate evidence of a long-vanished railway.
The artefacts from my museum today are railway spikes, hammered into wooden sleepers to grip the flanges of T-shaped steel rails. The three larger spikes on the left are from a standard gauge railway line, the smaller spikes are from a narrow gauge industrial tramway. When the wooden sleepers were replaced or the rails were removed the spikes were sometimes thrown aside or mislaid – I found these examples rusting away in the vegetation beside the track.
Inexpensive, quick and easy to use, spikes were (and are) used in vast numbers around the world, especially in North America.
Driving the spikes into the timber must have required both significant skill and strength!