What Lies Beneath

The fine line between excavation and appropriation.

The twin engine passenger biplane completed its last circuit over Cambridge and was headed back to the airfield at Duxford. The aerial tour was to impress our Swedish guests; we had spent the morning in the city, now here was a chance to view the colleges and science park while strapped into a camping chairs held aloft by a creaking assemblage of plywood and string. We returned to terra firma via a dog leg journey over Orwell as I was keen to see the village where I lived from above – these were the days before Google Earth. The plane banked sharply and there was just time enough for one photograph of farmland surrounding my house because, by now, someone happier flying SAS was searching seat pockets for a paper bag.

The harvest finished early in 1985. The photographs showed freshly harrowed fields with what archaeologists term ‘features;’ faint reminders of ancient ditches and a chalky clay scar where once a track ran from the village to an outlying cottage. Here was the fading shadow of land as it was farmed a century ago, a patchwork of fields, few larger than three acres; some triangular to assist with rounding up of cattle. Even so, there was little to suggest the land to the south of my house had ever been anything other than one large field; it contained only one feature, a ring of light-coloured earth approximately 200 metres in diameter. I was intrigued, wondering if here was evidence of a ceremonial circle or a moat that once surrounded a long-forgotten hill fort. The truth was far less exciting.

I first viewed the expanse of land with the mysterious ring while stood on the farm trailer which transported my family’s furniture to the house my father built on what is referred to locally as Leaden Hill. That was in 1961 and, most days since, I have looked out on that same field. Only after I saw it from above was it apparent the extraction of clay and coprolite had left Leaden Hill a hill in name only. The ring of chalky clay was not a moat but the rim of what once had been a pit. Speculating that those who dug, and then refilled, this pit might have left other evidence of their time on the hill, I asked archaeologists excavating a nearby Saxon burial site to spend a day walking the field. A day wasted as it turned out because nothing of note was found. This was surprising considering the centuries of lost property I’d found scattered across my garden. Each item unearthed told a story; the ploughman dropping his clay pipe or the farmworker losing a barrel tap and then failing to notice coins fall from his pocket as he sat drinking beer. Compelling as these stories were, they ignored something I had already learned about our ancestors.

While clearing the garden of a cottage in the village, prior to a new tenant moving into the property, my spade hit what I first thought was a large stone. A little more digging revealed this stone was the head from a statue. More discoveries followed: pieces of tile and fragments of carved stone. Had I stumbled on the site of an ancient place of worship of maybe a Roman villa? Apparently not, the garden had merely been a convenient place to dump rubble during the restoration of the village church. I had learned something amateur archaeologists quickly discover; that we are all descended from serial fly tippers whose main source of entertainment was throwing willow pattern plates at each other and had few qualms about littering the countryside.

Ploughmen disliked working on Leaden Hill, which was Leaden by name and leaden by nature. The horse’s hooves would crash down on his foot as he attempted to guide the plough into the corners of tiny fields. It is in the corners of what is now my garden that pieces of broken clay pipes are found. Clay pipes which were cheap, often given away with pouches of tobacco. Having his foot stamped on yet again the ploughman would spit out the pipe in a fit of temper then pause a while to open a new pouch of tobacco; the old pipe was crushed under foot like a cigarette end. Likewise, the barrel tap, which a farmworker probably threw into the long grass at the edge of the field, deciding the next day to bring a bottle. The number of glass bottle stops, ring pulls of their day, distributed across the field points to what first appeared to be treasure having been regarded by its original owner as redundant and worthless.

Even those pennies may not be all they seem. There were tales in the village of enterprising metal workers who could turn their hand to making coins and no doubt simply disposed of their less convincing forgeries.

Making the quest of the detectorist and weekend archaeologist more difficult is a new layer of refuse dumped on Orwell’s farmland. Human waste, used as a fertilizer, is pulling a veil over the history of Leaden Hill. Even so, there are rich pickings for those prepared to shuffle through a couple of hectares of poo in search for artefacts. A Roman coin, plastic, maybe ingested by mistake with a spoonful of breakfast cereal, arriving on Leaden Hill care of a sewage treatment plant in Cambridge. A piece of recording tape on a broken spool; this was discovered in a field next to the Saxon burial site. What story will future generations attach to this piece of 21st century history? Will experimental archaeologists reproduce the ritualistic smashing and flushing away of wedding videos? Or maybe, with the passing of time, people will be less intrigued by rubbish scattered on the earth’s surface and take more interest in what lies below.

Leaden Hill is covered with a one metre layer of glacial drift; a mixture of boulder clay and sand. Winter, when the clay dissolved into a treacle-like slurry, would see horses, even steam powered traction engines, stuck fast in the fields. The hill has never forgot, or forgiven, the vandalism of the brick and fertiliser industry. It remains restless, constantly on the move, as the earth used to back fill the pit slowly compacts. Cracks which open up during the summer as the surface clay shrinks close when silt is washed into them by autumn rains. If each of the twenty one thousand days I have looked out on the hill (mine has been a geostationary life) were a single frame of 35mm film the resulting fifteen minute time-lapse movie would show a landscape expanding and contracting, constantly on the move, writhing as if in pain.

Below the glacial drift are thirty-five metres gault clay which punishes anyone disturbing it; drying and cracking the skin on their hands and feet and poisoning them with phosphate. The clay devours all that sinks into it: metal rusts leaving just a trace or iron oxide; flesh and bone dissolves leaving nothing. Had the Saxons dug graves deeper nothing of their relatives would remain save pieces of bronze and precious stones.

Gault clay captures and retains the sun’s heat. While digging the foundations for my house, which, back then, was done by hand, I worked stripped to the waist, even on winter days when temperatures fell below freezing. Now, in the age of the heat pump, energy, rather than coprolite or clay, is mined in the village.

After removing the clay from their pit, brickmakers would have found themselves standing on Lower Greensand, a layer of sandstone ten metres thick. But, by then, the pit would have started to flood. The sandstone is permeable; water flowing through it is trapped between Gault clay above and Kimmeridge clay below, forming the aquifer into which residents of Orwell sank wells before fresh water was piped into the village.

Before the cement works in the next village closed the vibration of its rock crushing machinery travelled through the clay and sandstone. Growing up in the silence of the countryside a person was sensitive to the faintest of sounds, just as the absence of ubiquitous artificial light bred generations of villagers who could see in the dark. With the pounding of the cement work’s machinery no longer vibrating the sandstone it was at last possible to hear the low rumble of water flowing through the aquifer. The sound travelled up through the clay and into foundations of the houses. And, in the past, this subterranean body of water made its presence felt in other ways.

A lifetime following the course of water flowing underground

Both the ploughman and his horse both felt more at ease following, rather than cutting across, the flow of water 35 metres beneath them. Perhaps we have become desensitised, or maybe the flow of water has slowed to the point where it no longer disrupts the gravitational pull of the earth. Reflecting on this I stand at the window of a house which was purpose built to give a panoramic view of what was once the hill. Still watching that movie one frame at a time, nearer the end than the beginning now . A once in a lifetime experience compressed into fifteen minutes. Another group of field walkers troop across the boot sucking clay and excrement. They search, not for something former residents of the village have mislaid or discarded, but something they themselves have lost. And this quest started long before amateur archaeologists began digging holes in the ground.

During the 1970s the cold damp and draughty cottage in which I had spent the first eight years of my life was suddenly transformed into a cultural icon. Other residents of the village were equally surprised when told their earth floored, chalk walled cottages, topped off with piles of rotting, waterlogged, rodent infested thatch, were now to form the backdrop of a rural idyll. A pity, because we were part way through demolishing these rural slums and replacing them with something more habitable. Instead we were introduced to the concept of preservation by people bringing into the countryside an urban perception of the rural aesthetic. Within this idealised world we, the descendants of the ploughmen, became an inconvenience and there followed a form of ethnic cleansing which saw farm labourers and their offspring priced out of the village. Those who remained did so under sufferance and as living exhibits in a village transformed into a museum. Lives of rustic rural types, like their antiquated agricultural machinery, became frozen in time and celebrated in displays of grainy black and white photographs.

First you lose your history, then you lose your home

Four decades on and the ploughmen has long gone, leaving those playing the role of modern-day squires bereft of foils. Gone too is the social structure preservationists imposed on the village, a casualty of four decades of acceleration and, finally, the arrival of Facebook. This identity crisis is responsible for a sudden interest in amateur archaeology. Not only metal detecting but also the full-blown archaeologic dig; attempts to resurrect the ploughman using pieces of debris pulled out of the earth. Nineteen thirties Germany was covered in holes dug by those searching for the illusive Deutsche Volk; that started out badly and ended a lot worse.

To reach our house on Leaden Hill my father built a road using rubble from a demolished wartime military hospital. Each year this rubble sunk deeper into the clay and we were constantly adding fresh layers of stone. Occasionally a piece of the original road finds its way to the surface; a fragment of brick, the green painted plaster still attached. For me, this is a true archaeological find, it is part of a road which, when completed, closely resembled the one that ran through the village in Brandenburg where my father grew up. To anyone else my archaeological find, viewed out of context, is merely a piece of rubble. To claim otherwise would be to appropriate part of my history. Our bronze age ancestors must have felt much the same when burying their dead. The rings, bracelets and cups placed in the graves would mean nothing to anyone unearthing them centuries later.

Stories about human bones buried in the fields surrounding the village were common currency when I was a child. The person who laid drainage pipes through the Saxon’s rib cage knew full well the body was there. Bones were reburied and bronze items were taken home to show wives and children. But nothing was assumed from the find, and it never changed how the finder thought of their place in the world. Those were more confident times, life was slower, identity was not an issue; we were all sure of who we were and how we related to others. Today, with the world seemingly in a constant state of flux it is tempting to grab onto, and find meaning in, anything fixed and immovable in time and space. But searching for who we are now in a buried past is a mistake. Often what lies beneath is, on closer inspection, just lies.