“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…

Spreadsheets, Guidebooks and That Cake With The Sprinkles

I’m currently working as Special Projects and Strategy Assistant at the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales.

At the moment, I’m co-ordinating two publication projects and one exhibition and also help to co-ordinate the organisation’s strategic work. It’s not

Spreadsheets and Post-its

My working life is defined by a series of colour-coded spreadsheets and project monitoring charts. Fortunately, I’m the kind of person who derives great satisfaction from organised lists of things plotted against timescales! This morning, like every other morning, began when I sat down with a strong cuppa and reviewed my project charts.

Next, I sorted through yesterday’s post-its. The post-it note easily tops my list of Desert Island Office Items: every task, telephone number and interesting fact I come across through the day gets scribbled onto a yellow (or pink, or blue) square (yes, they’re colour-coded too). Each morning, I sort out Stuff That’s Actually Important from Irrelevant Stuff That Caught My Oft-Wandering Attention.

Once I’m done with my spreadsheets and post-its, I have a list of Things To Do for the day. This is what I got up to this fine Friday:

Pontcysyllte Aqueduct and Canal World Heritage Site

In 2009, Pontcysyllte Aqueduct and Canal was inscribed on the World Heritage List. It became the third World Heritage Site (WHS) in Wales, alongside the Castles and Town Walls of King Edward in Gwynedd and Blaenavon Industrial Landscape. I’m currently working with colleagues and partner organisations to produce an official guidebook to the WHS as a key outcome of the agreed Management Plan.

My day-to-day job involves interpreting existing archaeological and historical records to produce a comprehensive, user-friendly guidebook. I spent this morning adding to my ever-expanding database of images that could potentially be used in the guidebook.

My favourite image from this morning was this early photograph of Valle Crucis Cistercian Abbey close to Pentrefelin Aqueduct. The photograph was taken in 1855. This scan was produced from a rare salt-paper negative held in the Commission’s archive.

Yesterday’s image of the same site later in the 1800s was well creepy, so a rather more pleasant view was welcome!

Inside Welsh Homes

In addition to working on the guidebook, I’m also looking into the Commissions’ records of domestic interiors in Wales. Some of the photographs and records I’m uncovering will feature in an image-based book and a touring exhibition, both of which are due for release in mid-2012.

Just before lunch, I met with Royal Commission photographer Iain Wright to talk about some of the recent colour digital images he’s made that could be relevant. We also discussed a programme of photography for pre-historic and early-medieval sites, to ensure we covered as full a range of historic periods as possible.

The Staff Away Day!

The rest of my afternoon was spent making arrangements for the Commission’s Staff Away Day in September – an important part of our working year as an organisation. We’re planning on visiting several archaeological sites near Goginan in mid-Wales, and possibly taking a look at the records held in the National Library of Wales. If all goes to plan, it’ll be an interesting and insightful day for everyone!

Most importantly, I sorted out tea and cake for the afternoon session of the day. By popular request – well, more of a demand, really – I’ve ordered that vanilla and buttercream icing with sprinkles. Yes, it’s the same one we get at training days.

After Hours

Once I’m done here at work, I’ll be heading home to do… well, more work!

I’m in the final stretch of my MA in Interpretation, Representation and Heritage (a distance-learning course through the University of Leicester) and spend most of my time outside of my job here at the Commission working on my dissertation. I’ll liven up the Friday night diss session with a glass of schnapps as an end-of-week treat! Living the dream!