My Museum Monday

[Every Monday I’m going to share an object from my home museum]

Rim sherd of C13th pottery from Tonge Castle, Kent.
Profile of rim from Tonge Castle.

I came across this rim sherd of shell-tempered thirteenth-century pottery when sorting through my father’s belongings after his death. He’d probably rescued it from a spoil heap during the 1963-5 excavations of Tonge Castle (actually a manor house), east of Sittingbourne, Kent. The dig was directed by a teacher at the school of which my father was then Deputy Headmaster, and my brother and I had been persuaded to take part as a solution for summer vacation boredom. 

Picking up and handling this unprepossessing sherd nevertheless reminds me of my thrill at coming across my first-ever “find” at Tonge, a large body sherd of the same type of pottery. That moment of discovery, and self-discovery, and the gentle romance of a rural, unhurried research excavation, hooked me on archaeology, an enthusiasm that has lasted more than 50 years.

Me in 1965, wearing my usual floppy hat

I cycled to and from the dig from Sittingbourne along the then-quiet lanes north of the railway line between Chatham and Faversham. The excavation team consisted mostly of schoolboys, who were joined one year by a couple of ebullient Americans, Larry Katzenbach (nephew of the then US Attorney General, and who sadly died young in 1997) and a friend, who spent much time discussing their likely draft to take part in the Vietnam War. 

No worries about health and safety in 1965! Director David Ford (left) with Terry Barry (right), me in the trench and American volunteer Larry Katzenbach, pose with one of the deep, narrow trenches.Those slit trenches, with spoil heaps close by on either side, were potentially very dangerous of course, but we were innocent of such concerns.

We excavated sometimes deep and often dangerously narrow trenches (without shoring of course) in the lower of two “castle” mounds. The higher mound may have at one time supported a post windmill and might not have been part of the manor house. In the lower mound we discovered chunks of fallen masonry constructed from shell-gritted mortared flints, as well as fairly large amounts of C12th-C13th coarse pottery and animal bone.

Floppy hat again in evidence, me in probably the most familiar pose of an excavator at work, bum in the air…nice new Tuf work-boots though. I remember those jeans being dyed a peculiar green colour that I’ve never seen since.

My star find, which made the pages of the now defunct East Kent Gazette, was a complete moorhen skeleton crushed flat beneath a slab of fallen wall. Being a nascent zoologist I painstakingly excavated the tiny bones using dental tools, and the complete skeleton was lifted in one piece on a steel sheet to be stored. I wonder what became of it!

General view of 1964 excavation at Tonge Castle. I’m in the centre, with, I think, my brother Andrew beside me. Note the orchard ladders that were utilised as photography towers. Tonge Mill can be seen in the distance, across the duck pond.

Beside the site was a large pond, on which ducks were kept, supplying the nearby Wicks bakery, in Tonge Mill, with eggs. Let out each morning, in the late afternoon the ducks were called back into their fox-proof pen, a routine marked by the cries of the duck-keeper and the answering exclamations of hundreds of noisy birds.

Recent view of the site, looking northwards across the pond.

At the time there was a tumbledown cottage, long-since demolished, beside the “castle”. Although the pond still exists, the manor house site was subsequently landscaped  and a bungalow constructed on its eastern side. Only a much-reduced hump hints at  the presence of earthworks.

The excavation was never fully published, and I have no idea where the records and finds were stored, if at all. So this chunk of humble ceramic may be the only extant evidence of the project.