London

I’m in London for meetings, fall asleep on the train after staying up too late writing reports. One of the lads drops me off at the station on his way to site, he sings the entirety of London by The Smiths at me in the car, singing along to the fast live version from the Rank album. All the way down I have the lyrics “do you think you’ve made the right decision this time?” stuck in my head as I fall asleep and wake up again. Also stuck in my head are the words from the Bo Selecta Bored of the Rings sketch which is a site banter favourite, particularly for the last few weeks. At the station he hands me a report and assures me “I’ve sprayed upon every page!” “I’m going to London town centre in the middle and I shan’t be back!” I tell him and leave. It’s typical site banter, seizing on little artefacts of pop culture like the most obscure and occult small finds.

After the meetings I make it to the Tower of London for the last hour. It’s crawling with tourists and I must have ended up in about fifty holiday snaps as I head for the White Tower. Two teenage American girls regard the codpiece on Henry VIII’s suit of armour. “Oh my god! If this guy got hit in the junk NOTHING would have happened!” I look at the design, it is very ostentatious, like a party seven emerging from the groin but I imagine it reflects contemporary clothing fashions. Having worn groin guards for various sports over the years I wonder if the design had any hidden practical merits, as getting kicked in the knackers while wearing the modern cricket box design always makes me flinch. I imagine “my junk” would be safer lying in the armoured barrel of Henry VIII’s armoured codpiece, I wonder if there is a paper in this somewhere, if I decided to test the hypothesis by experimental archaeology I would have no problem finding volunteers to kick me in the knackers. Such is the life of the small company archaeologist.

In my hotel at Tower Bridge I try to relax by watching the film Plunkett and MacLeane, but I’ve still got my game face on, I notice the drain they run down near the end has an egg-shaped profile, something yet to be invented in the 18th century. The egg-shaped profile in London drains had a brief vogue in the 19th century as it was less likely to block but problems with repairing and cleaning saw the normal tunnel profile return. I end up in the Red Lion in Westminster, I love that most London pubs have stayed traditional but my arm sticks to the unwiped counter. It wouldn’t have happened in one of my pubs, it feels like not that long ago I was still a barman, an out-of-work-archaeologist, now there’s so much archaeology work on I haven’t got time to wipe my metaphoric counter.

Watching brief

Today I’m doing a watching brief on the footprint of a new build house plot. Having read the spec I’m surprised to find there was a medieval village on the site of the modern village. I did not know the modern village even existed despite it being not a million miles from where I live and grew up. The village today is on one side of a road going nowhere in particular and consists of some houses and a single pub. The new build adds another house to the line. Although surprised by the village’s existence I am more surprised to see that this forgotten moor was once a hive of mining activity with the surrounding area riddled with mines and ventilation shafts.

The topsoil scrape is taking forever as the plant hire company has sent a JCB to do the job of a rubber duck or three-sixty. The driver is also not up to much, it is disconcerting to see him twitching and talking to himself in the cab when I am standing right in front of the blade. Still, the previous year I was machine-watching a driver from the same company who complained that the falling snow was giving him trails and flashbacks. However, there is absolutely nothing on the site and before long I am fighting to keep my concentration as the driver moves the spoil from the site to the spoil heap to the truck. The developer is an amateur building a spec house, and once he hands over his notes to the truck driver and plant operator they mention “the other job”, the truck disappears never to return and the machine has to leave early. As Blackadder says “the abused always kick downwards”, the next morning the developer is on the phone apologising having got hold of another machine and forgotten to tell us. Luckily, we have foreseen this eventuality and someone is on call ready and will be there to watch the machine in ten minutes, the developer is thankful but seems unenthusiastic.

All I can really think of to say is that there must have to be days like this to balance the days when you actually find something good. The attack doesn’t come on every watch. I hate the feeling when you think that everyone has got a better site, trench or area that is better than yours. The van arrives to take me and the gear back and as usual we find some little peculiarity of the site to laugh about, even if we never want to set foot in the place again. I suppose it’s these tiny little peculiarities that give places their individual character and are what we try to preserve as archaeologists.

The Row

The Row is a codename we use for one of our sites which may be the oldest provincial Jewish cemetery in the UK, the site has suffered badly from neglect, vandalism and hate attacks and was completely sealed off in the 1950s. Surrounded on all sides by industrial properties and wasteland, and unused since the early nineteenth century the site has turned into a jungle growing on top of an illegal dump. The charity set up to restore the cemetery relies entirely on donations so work has proceeded in fits and starts as and when the company and the charity manage to raise money. Recent successes have included obtaining free 3D laser scanning and polynomial photography for the surviving inscriptions.

Work today involves continuing the never-ending battle against the vegetation and dumped rubbish which has had free reign since Queen Victoria was on the throne and had reached heights of over 8’. One of our first visits to the site involved the sweat-drenched, machete-chopping and plank-battering a corridor through solid vegetation. It was amazing how much heat the mass of plant-life gave out and was indistinguishable from a tropical jungle, although we were on a northern industrial estate. Since then we have removed tons of plant waste and dumped rubbish. One of AAG’s major regrets for the site was the missed opportunity regarding the archaeology of garbage and the homeless camp built against one corner of the site, which had recently become abandoned. A 150+ year deposition of illegal dumping would have been a great exercise in garbage archaeology, and the archaeological studies of homeless sites in Minnesota by Larry Zimmerman was one of the most relevant studies of homelessness ever undertaken.

The layers of rubbish continue to turn up increasingly bizarre and nostalgic finds, high hopes for a Millennium Falcon were dashed on closer examination when it turned out to be a 2005-issue Burger King toy. The Goblet of Fire and Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story on VHS are welcome finds and a mint condition plate from the DDR is an unexpected bonus. The site is a harsh one due to the lack of budget, but morale remains high. The gigantic nettles are capable of stinging double-gloved hands through heavy duty rubber gloves and pervasive ivy tripwires floor the unwary. Pain and frustration are released against the larger items of dumped rubbish pulled from the site, which are reduced to fragments and stuffed into rubble bags. The greatest hazard has proved to be the scran van which has disappeared in the last few days, possibly as a result of selling some extremely dubious chips. Few graduate jobs can involve so much physical work, and it always amazes me how much of the archaeologist’s day is spent cleaning things up, and doing the farmer’s walk while loaded down with tools, spoil, or samples. Moving gravestones and stonework onsite has to be done by hand as the site is like a sloping obstacle course and at certain points of the day resembles a World’s Strongest Man final.

As the day ends we climb out and do the best to cover our tracks with whatever materials are lying around, the ruptured bags of household rubbish seem to be the most effective. Recently we have used a fake dog turd and a plastic garden chair with one missing leg stolen to block gaps holes in the site perimeter, both now stolen. Where the three-legged garden chair is now we would love to know, we suspect it is somewhere near a pile of bricks capable of supporting it. We did admire the resolve of whoever took the leap of faith to pick up the fake turd.