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…