There is much mirth amongst the diggers. Two babies’ comforters, a plastic joke beard, a sponge rubber cushion, a Marathon wrapper (the antecedent of the Snickers chocolate bar), several crisp packets, a car choke cable…the artefacts found in our uppermost deposit were a mixed lot. But a Marathon wrapper provides an opportunity to introduce the idea of terminus post quem and terminus ante quem to my volunteer novice archaeologists, since it must have been discarded before 1990, when the much-lamented name change took place. Crisp packets, too, bear ‘best-by’ dates, telling us approximately when earthworms tugged them into the soil. We are experiencing a little contemporary archaeology as we investigate what is a very public site, a few metres from the towpath of the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal, south-west of Cwmbran, Wales.
The Mon&Brec silted weedily into obscurity in the 1930s, as a last trickle of freight it carried finally dried up and, unable to compete with rail and road transport, it was abandoned by its owner, the Great Western Railway. At the same time, Richard Williams, “Nick the Lock” as he was known by locals, lock-keeper of the Ty Coch flight of nine locks, settled into retirement, having spent 40-odd years ensuring that the stretch of waterway in his charge contained enough water to allow the passage of barges travelling south to Newport or north through what was still a busy industrial area of south Monmouthshire, crammed with collieries, iron works, brick and lime kilns, tinplate factories and stone quarries. The canal quickly became derelict. Williams, however, continued to live in the lock keeper’s cottage, which stood beside Shop Lock, once the site of a canal-side workshop. After his death, his daughter(s) stayed on, until their isolated home was demolished in the 1950s, its stone reused by a nearby farmer.
Over 60 years later, several of the locks at Ty Coch have been restored in a four-year “Waterworks” paject, a partnership between the Monmouthshire, Brecon and Abergavenny Canal Trust and Torfaen Borough Council. Every recent summer I haved joined in, working alongside and leading groups of volunteers from the Waterway Recovery Group.
As I wandered about the work sites, with their spreads of dredged-up silt, disturbed soil and rubble, I would pick up significant numbers of fragments of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century ceramics (Figure 1). The scatter was over a considerable area and around several locks. This presence of a spread of fragmentary material echoed something I’d noticed on other canals and other locks, for example the Swansea Canal further west in Wales and the Stover Canal in Devon. I imagine these deposits are due to the practice of spreading “night soil,” the contents of privies, as fertiliser. Privies were convenient places to dispose of ashes and other domestic waste, including broken crockery, but since they were ‘dry,’ there being no mains sewerage nor piped water, they would have to be regularly emptied, and in isolated spots such as Ty Coch the nearby vegetable garden would be the logical and useful place to do this.
Williams was the last of a profession that had cared for the Ty Coch locks since they opened for their first barges in 1796. The spread of material appeared to match this continuous occupation. But where had it originated? When the restoration scheme began there was no trace of either workshop or cottage, though both were shown on OS maps (Figure 2). An excavation in 2013 (Burchell ND) revealed the plan of the workshop, together with a fine sawpit. A small trench dug in 2014 located a wall. However a few cm of wall does not a cottage make! With the encouragement of the on-site team I proposed an archaeological investigation to firmly pinpoint the site of the lock-keeper’s cottage and to learn as much as possible about the lives of Nick the Lock and his predecessors.
That two-week excavation ended, at least for 2017, on the Day of Archaeology. It coincided with the end of the Waterworks project. Carried out entirely by Waterway Recovery Group volunteers, the excavation revealed the northern part of the cottage, with north, east and western walls. Cut into the sloping ground on the north side we found what was probably a kitchen, with a partially-blocked fireplace, perhaps backing a range (Figure 3). On the west side there was a passage floored with bricks and flagstones, and a small cast-iron drain cover (Figure 4). This may not have been roofed.
The cottage’s outer walls were constructed using large ashlar stone blocks that appear to have been re-used, either from left-over canal construction material or perhaps had been quarried from the nearby Cistercian abbey at Llantarnam. Internal walls were also mostly of stone, but used smaller blocks, with a rubble infill. All the internal walls were faced, at least at their base, with a thick skim of lime cement. The internal floors were also of lime cement, with occasional flagstones. Doorways had stone steps.
When the north wall was built, the construction trench was backfilled using what looks like clinker, large lumps of slag, and numerous roof tiles, some of which were stamped “Sealy’s Patent,” suggesting a source constructed after 1843. The abundant burnt material could have come from the adjacent workshop, which may have forged its own ironwork and possibly housed a steam-powered saw. The roof tiles support the suggestion that the cottage we excavated was the second on the site, replacing a building dating from the 1840s. The later cottage was roofed in slate.
Unlike the nearby open areas, not many artefacts were found associated directly with the cottage. The topsoil entertained us with its mix of plastic, beer cans, crisp packets, car parts, toy plastic soldiers, an umbrella, milk bottles and the like, much of it dating from the 1980s. Other deposits contained small amounts of nineteenth century ceramics, but did not match the concentration of material present just 20m to the south. We have so far located about a third of the cottage. The southern part may have been completely robbed away, but there are tantalising indications of external features on both east and west sides.
So, for once, on the last-ever Day of Archaeology, I was actually doing real archaeology – some 60-odd guests invited to the celebration to mark the end of the Waterworks project can vouch for that (Wigmore 2017)! I must acknowledge the commitment, hard work and enthusiasm of the Waterway Recovery Group volunteers, most of whom had to climb a steep archaeological learning curve as well as acquire blisters! Both the Trust and Torfaen council are keen to carry out more work, and to expose and conserve the cottage remains, so I hope that we may learn yet more about the home of Nick the Lock.
Burchell, R. ND. An Archaeological Report on an excavation at Shop Lock Ty Coch. http://media.wix.com/ugd/90e7f0_00af16ceaf174c7689d9824ea37cab70.pdf
Wigmore, Sarah, 2017. Special ceremony to commemorate Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal restoration. South Wales Argus web site. 28th July. http://www.southwalesargus.co.uk/news/15441511.Special_ceremony_to_commemorate_Monmouthshire_and_Brecon_Canal_restoration/