Freelance writer, historical archaeologist


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.

Figure 1: Artefacts from disturbed soils at Ty Coch.

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.

Figure 2: 1890s Ordnance Survey map showing buildings to west of Shop Lock, Ty Coch.

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.

Figure 3: Fireplace in north wall of cottage.


Figure 4: Passage on west side of cottage, looking north.

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.

Ralph Mills



Burchell, R. ND. An Archaeological Report on an excavation at Shop Lock Ty Coch.

Wigmore, Sarah, 2017. Special ceremony to commemorate Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal restoration. South Wales Argus web site. 28th July.

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.

“Poultry”: a little canal archaeology.

I spent my day of archaeology on/in one of Britain’s wonderful linear archaeological sites – the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal. Two hundred and something years old, and dug to link steep-sided industrial valleys with the sea at Newport, the canal carried coal, iron and bricks and was pretty much abandoned well before WWII. Some 33 miles of the Brecon and Abergavenny Canal have been navigable since the 1970s, but that section that has only six locks. By contrast, the remaining 20 miles of the Monmouthshire Canal between Cwmbran and Newport, together with the section up the long-truncated Crumlin Arm, include some 74 locks as the waterway climbs in two branches from sea level.

During its working life, during which a web of tramways delivered the outpourings of the dozens of mines and collieries that once clustered along the valleys, people, the raw material of archaeology, lived on and beside the canal. As usual they left ample evidence of their presence – a scatter of artefacts that we disturb as we work to restore the canal. On the Day of Archaeology I was leading a Waterway Recovery Group Canal Camp, a week-long gathering of 19 volunteers, young and not so young, all intent on getting suitably muddied, weatherbeaten, blistered, sore-muscled, insect-bitten, wet, parched, chilled and sweaty as we bashed recalcitrant vegetation, extracted tree stumps like giant molars, hauled around back-breakingly huge chunks of masonry, laid and repointed acres of stonework and dug heavy puddling clay to seal leaks.

This isn’t an archaeological site that features nice stratigraphy. For over a century it was a work site, constantly being repaired, dredged and altered. But it was also the lock keepers’ and boat families’ back yard, where they discarded their garbage and cultivated their vegetable patches fertilised with “night soil”, human waste and sweepings collected from their privies. So as we dig through the jumble of redeposited soils beside the locks to lay the foundations of the hopefully restored canal (it will be at least a decade before boats once again ply these weedy waters) we find a scatter of small sherds of nineteenth century pottery, along with a few traces of more recent picnicking. There is also a fair amount of rusty ironwork – nails, bolts and staples that were discarded during the regular replacement and repair of lock gates and other timber structures.

Last year a preliminary excavation beside “Shop Lock”, at Ty Coch near Cwmbran, revealed the foundations of what had presumably been a nineteenth century carpentry workshop (hence the lock’s name) complete with a saw pit in fine condition.

On the Canal Camp I attract curious glances from my fellow volunteers, who are more concerned with lime mortar and mattocks than historical archaeology, as I hover, vulture-like, over heaps of muddy soil and dredged silt, occasionally pouncing on a fragment of blue and white pottery. Eventually most of them join in the search. This week, amongst the Asiatic Pheasant and Willow Pattern we found several sherds of a platter bearing a great design entitled “Poultry”, an interesting comment on what themes were popular during the nineteenth century! I can’t see “Poultry” being a big seller in John Lewis these days…

Although the heritage of the standing structures of our canal system is recorded and studied, not much work seems to have been carried out on the buried evidence. Yet artefacts from different locations and contexts along the canals may tell us a little more about those who built them as well as those who lived on and alongside them. For instance, material found in 2012 beside the Swansea canal appears, at an initial glance, to reflect the change from locally-manufactured wares to Staffordshire products that I think occurred in the first half of the nineteenth century.

So far this has been a personal salvage activity, a sideline of a necessary focus on rescue and restoration rather than detailed archaeological recording. It would be good to have the opportunity to approach the archaeology of the canal in a more methodical manner. For example, can concentrations of material be identified, and can these be related to now-vanished structures such as lock-keepers’ cottages, occupation areas, temporary construction sites or vegetable gardens? I’m working on it…

You never know…

My day of archaeology has been a gentle, desk-bound one, but nevertheless I’ve dug up at least one conundrum.

I’m going to be carrying out a small investigation of an industrial site, one that until recently had been producing pottery for 200-odd years. We’ve had to make sure that the area we will be excavating doesn’t contain any hazardous material, and have been given the all-clear in a corner of the site after a series of boreholes have been drilled and analysed. However, my work today has revealed that where we plan to be excavating may be crossed by or is certainly close to the route of the vanished-without-trace (mostly) Newcastle Under Lyme Canal, a singularly unsuccessful venture that was abandoned and filled in in the 1930s. Since the canal passed through much urban industry, I’d guess that it was filled with anything and everything that came conveniently to hand. Photographs and maps show mostly open space, with a couple of short-lived buildings, alongside this stretch of the canal. Some of the area had been used as a clay pit, itself long since filled in. A short tramway appears on some early maps, heading into this open space, perhaps either being used to move clay into the works or rubbish out. So, this amount of airy conjecture means that I have to find out more detail. More recent photographs show the area used as a car park. Perhaps if we did happen upon the remains of the canal it might be interesting. There again it might be a damp depression crammed with old bricks, which would be depressing!

The other investigation I touched on today focusses on a WW2 US Army base in Staffordshire that was used after the war to house displaced Polish families. It was capable of housing over 6,000 troops, and later a so-far unknown number of Polish refugees, the last of whom left in 1963. About a dozen buildings survive at least in part out of approximately 140 structures. The surviving structures are reinforced-concrete-framed prefabricated buildings with asbestos cement roofing and brick infilling, a few of which have served as agricultural stores and animal shelters. Others survive only as foundations and concrete slabs. Today I’ve been drawing a small scale plan, mostly so that I can work on a methodology for dealing with the extant buildings. I did however find my first reference to US Army units being sent there on their way to fight in the DDay invasion and the Battle of the Bulge.

Both these projects will involve archaeology and art, a fascinating and exciting combination. They have to combine the rigour of archaeological practice with the emotional and creative input and output of artists. A good way to spend the day of archaeology.


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!


Charity begins…

I spent yesterday searching through boxes (musty cardboard “bone boxes” very familiar to UK archaeologists) in Nottingham Museum’s storage room (many thanks to Ann Insker), looking for C19th mass-produced miniatures. I found just one example (which might be earlier than the C19th, although the accompanying ceramics were certainly from the first half of that century) which was better than none! Indeed I found very little C19th material compared with medieval and Roman, which probably reflects the cavalier attitude of many/most archaeologists in the past (myself included) to all that rubbish in the “overburden” which was almost always either removed by machine or chucked in a big bag labelled “unstratified.”

I’ve lived to regret that, as now I study and research the very material we then ignored, and often perhaps still undervalue in the UK, especially as I see how important it is to archaeologists outside Britain, where a single clay pipe stem or sherd of transfer-printed pottery, things I rootled through by the score in unlabelled bags in the museum, can be of tremendous archaeological value.

So today I’ve begun to research my single discovery, an unglazed miniature of three figures labelled “CHARITY” (see below). Not Faith, Hope and Charity, unless those words were on the now lost upper part of the ceramic. The central figure appears to be male. It was excavated in 1966 from a pit on the north side of Newdigate House, Castle Gate, Nottingham, now a posh restaurant but important as the place where the growing of celery in England was apparently first promoted. That’s all I know at present…

Charity figurine