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.

Material memories

About 1.5km from where I live, an area marked only by undulating ground and a few lumps of brick and concrete is the site of the No.1 National Filling Factory, Barnbow. Here, during WW1, some 16,000 workers, mostly women, filled artillery shells with explosives in a huge complex of huts, workshops, railway sidings and underground stores. Here, too, in 1916, 35 women were killed, and many others maimed, when Hut 42 exploded.

Now only a few walkers and runners visit the site, following a maze of footpaths that snake amongst untidy woodland and scrub. It is one of my favourite running routes. Being an archaeologist means that I always run of walk with my eyes on the ground. One of the footpaths leaves the area on its north side, striking out across a field towards another, much older site, that of long-vanished Barnbow House. It was beside this path, just outside what, according to a map of the Factory, would have been its northern boundary fence, I noticed, a couple of days ago, some potsherds in the plough soil.

The sherds are a fascinating and melancholy mix of decorated domestic pottery and a rather sinister vessel bearing a National Filling Factory logo and featuring the MoD “Broad Arrow”. Did the women bring their own mugs with them to work? I think they had to provide their own food, though there was a canteen for tea and presumably other beverages. Milk and barley water was provided to counteract the skin-yellowing effects of working with cordite (the women were nick0named “Barnbow Canaries”).

Sherds from plough soil just north of the site of Barnbow munitions works


I’m in the process of putting my PhD thesis online, not as a pdf but as a series of web pages. For someone with a short attention-span it’s a slow, painful procedure, but I’m getting there. I curse all the hundreds of footnotes and cross references. I grit my teeth as I try to locate the originals of images I used. And then there are the mistakes and typos I’ve discovered. Most of them are minor, but I’ve come across a couple of instances of figures that I haven’t referred to in the text. I am minded of the advice given to me by my very first editor, many years ago, as I learned to proof read: every time, it doesn’t matter how many times, you go through a text you only catch 99 per cent of the errors. Of course, now I’ll begin to find new errors I’ve introduced as I produce the web copy…

At last!

My PhD research included the “excavation” of nineteenth-century paintings and illustrations. I looked hard into the backgrounds of subjects that artists recorded, to find details included perhaps by accident. They told me a lot about the interiors of the homes of working people. One was an 1850 painting by James Collinson in Manchester Art Gallery, showing a scene he entitled “Answering the Emigrant’s Letter”.

James Collinson: Answering the Emigrant’s Letter (Manchester Art Gallery).

On the mantelpiece Collinson included a number of objects. The most significant for me were two ceramic figures. The one on the left is partly obscured, but the figure in the centre is clear enough to identify:

Objects on mantelpiece painted by James Collinson in his painting “Answering the Emigrant’s Letter”.

The ceramics could be called “Staffordshire flatbacks” though this term covers a wide range of objects. Anyway, I decided that I wanted the figure of the couple, perhaps meant to represent that favourite subject, a “swain” and the object of his affections! After several years of fruitless searching through all manner of antique shops and collectibles fairs, I today finally acquired one, some 170 years after Collinson recorded one in his painting, which presumably was based on an actual interior.

Ceramic figure of young couple, identical to that in James Collinson’s painting “Answering the Emigrant’s Letter”.

Sombre Stonehenge

It’s a gloomy mid-winter mid afternoon at Stonehenge and a million tourists are jostling to take selfies against a background of a scatter of grey stones. OK, perhaps just a couple of hundred tourists, but still a significant number, given the time of year, the lack of sunlight and the afternoon chill. I’m here to share this wonder with a visitor from Canada. The stones stand mute, re-erected, solid in their modern concrete foundations, an incomplete cluster of weathered rocks of unknown purpose that will out-survive us all. There is nothing magical about this. Everything is grey, cold, emotionless, meaningless. An endless queue of traffic inches past on the A303, headlights creating a glittering ribbon in the gathering murk. The tourists, having snapped their photos, join the long queue for the shuttle buses back to the visitor centre, where they will return to warmth, food and many opportunities to spend money, avoiding a mere 20 minute walk. Is “heritage” just something we gaze at because everyone else does? Should we expect to be moved by the gaunt stones, or the mounds that once protected anonymous burials, or the sherds of chunky pottery and bleached bones in the visitor centre exhibition? It is difficult, having elbowed aside some smartphone wielding fellow visitors, to peer across the “do not enter” signs and the neatly mown grass and experience anything other than heritage-itis. My gloom matches the fading light…

Out of the mist…

The Bridestones in December 2018
The Bridestones in September 2019

I’m working on my online collection of photograph albums and will link to them, regularly, on my blog. Here’s a taster: in December 2018 we hiked to the Bridestones, a scatter of lumpy, eroded milestone grit outcrops north of Todmorden, Yorkshire. As we plodded up to the moorland we were enveloped in cloud, and didn’t see much. So, on a fine September day in 2019 we repeated the ramble, and enjoyed a much more visually interesting walk.

A walk to the Bridestones album.

When 1997 was the future

I’ve been rereading some short science fiction stories by Ray Bradbury, author of Faranheit 451. The collection, published in 1958, made me smile because of the future that Bradbury imagined but which didn’t happen, and in fact cannot happen. Perhaps the funniest example is the “space man” in the story Perchance to Dream smoking a cigarette through”a special helmet tube” after crashing on a planetoid. But elsewhere Bradbury writes of frequent breathable atmospheres (though this is a common phenomenon in lots of other Sci-Fi adventures, Star Trek being a major culprit), canned space flight food, a colonisable Mars and many other impossibilities or improbabilities. In Referent, Bradbury sets his story 40 years in his future, in 1997. Its characters whizzed from place to place in tubes, presumably powered by pressurised air, and small, spherical space ships plopped down in gardens willy-nilly (the main character carries out another Sci-Fi cliche by being able to commandeer and pilot a space ship without any training). Of course, the 1997 I remember clearly didn’t feature travel by cylindrical tubes or spherical space ships; that year I made a seven-month road trip across Canada in a battered Chevrolet panel van that would have been very familiar to Bradbury, and uploaded my first web site via an achingly slow dial-up connection.

But though I found the stories amusing, in the end I wondered what people in 60 years’ time reading (I assume they will still read) today’s science fiction will think of our predictions and the future we imagine. Will they laugh at our thoughts on artificial intelligence, space travel, aliens and the like. Bradbury assumed that changes happened quickly. But although he would be surprised perhaps by the roles in our lives of the Internet or the power squeezed into our smartphones, he would recognise our principal means of travel (metal boxes, four wheels, internal combustion engines; fixed wing aircraft; railway trains using infrastructure already 100 years old in his time), the food we eat, the places we live in, the diseases we die from and much besides . He would probably laugh at the crudity of what we call “robots,” space ships and space stations.

We reached the moon just over a decade after he published these stories. Space travel is still in its infancy 50 years later. He feared and wrote about atomic armageddon and totalitarianism; perhaps climate change and far-right nationalism will produce a similar end times. I wonder that it might be better to get the future wrong!

Webbed feet

Bog Lane living up to its name

My favourite 10km training run takes me from Austhorpe, past the site of the WWI and WWII Barnbow munitions factories, along Bog Lane to Scholes and back. My latest run necessitated a diversion to avoid a newly-appeared and hopefully temporary lake! Ho hum!

More and more muddy madness!

So I have teetered around another cross country course, Dewsbury this time, a course that managed to include all the mud and every hill in Mirfield. Didn’t distinguish myself particularly, apart from staying upright and not coming last. I’m hoping for a drought between now and the next cross country run, Pudsey, on 5th January.

Ralph plodding to the top of a hill.

Not another hill!

Ralph squelching through ankle deep mud.

No chance of a sprint finish!