canals

Melancholy mud

This is what an archaeologist looks like at the bottom of a canal!

This day of archaeology found me near the bottom of Trebanos Lower Lock on the long-disused Swansea Canal. Abandoned in 1931, only five miles of this 16-mile-long industrial archaeology site still resemble a waterway, the remainder being culverted or infilled. But the Swansea Canal Society is trying to breathe life into what remains, and I’ve just led 15 volunteers on a week-long Canal Camp organised by the Waterway Recovery Group (I’m writing this in our temporary accommodation, a scout hut).

For me as an archaeologist the canal is hugely interesting: its construction, its evolution over its 150 years of operation, its place in the historic environment and the material culture of those who used it, lived near it or have since utilised it as a place to deposit rubbish. Excavating an approx. 0.5m thick deposit of garbage at the bottom of the canal has revealed everything from C19th ceramics to C21st crisp packets.

The difference between this and most ‘normal’ archaeological sites is that at the end of the excavation our pointing trowels are used for…pointing. I’ve spent the last couple of days repointing the lock sides with lime mortar.

I find this mixture of discarded stuff, industrial monument, fading memory and economic neglect rather melancholy. The Swansea Canal Society are hugely friendly, enthusiastic people full of hope that one day the canal will be more than an overgrown ditch with short lengths of placid waterway, but they face what seems an almost impossible task. And the never-ending jumble of beer cans, supermarket trolleys, old tyres, Victorian pottery, plastic bags, bottles, bicycles and the like at the bottom of the canal is depressing evidence of changes in local fortune and attitudes. 150 years ago the canal was crowded with barges filled with the products of this Welsh valley, and it wound amongst huge factories and lively communities. Now only dragonflies hawk up and down its waters, and only joggers and dog walkers use its towpath.

Yet perhaps I should not be too melancholy. We are still learning more about the canal and its times even as we fill the joints between its stones with lime mortar, and the restoration efforts gradually remind us of its value to the present and future. As I pore over the assortment of ceramic fragments we’ve dredged up, I feel proud and privileged to be associated with this project. And it is good to use my trowel for both uncovering the past and creating something for the future.

The lock-keeper’s cottage

Today I’m working on creating an album of photographs  I took on a “canal camp”  for which I volunteered a couple of weeks ago, and I’ll upload it to my my web site in the next couple of days . The aim of the Waterway Recovery Group project is to help to restore the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal as it wriggles through South Wales towards Newport.

I go on these camps because they offer a great mix of the outdoors, exercise, team-building, learning, fun and industrial archaeology. I learn a lot about how the canals were constructed, and a little about who constructed them and operated them. This year,as we worked on Drapers Lock, near Cwmbran, Monmouthshire, we discovered the foundations of the lock-keeper’s cottage. Since the canal has been decaying for a century or so (the last boats travelled along it over 70 years ago), not much remains of the small stone-built cottage.

But by the end of the week I’d hacked away at enough jungle to discover the cottage fireplace and chimney-base, together with a scatter of sherds of transfer-printed ceramics (see below). These appear to underline our growing understanding that even the most “humble” working people, in this case a lock-keeper, often owned and discarded quite “fine”  wares. I especially like the design that includes an Oriental man (a musician?) with his long moustache. These tiny sherds give me a glimpse of the tastes of the long-gone cottage occupants, and I like to imagine these ceramics standing on a dresser bright with blue-and-white pottery  as, outside, barges full of coal worked their way through the adjacent lock on their way from the mines up the valleys down to the docks at Newport.

And here I am, sitting proudly on “my” cottage!