10 NOVEMBER 1950, Page 11


The Dig

By A. C. THOMAS (Corpus Christi College, Oxford) ARCHAEOLOG1STS, whatever their proficiency or status, tend to fall into one of two categories : those who command apparently unlimited funds and those who do not. If you belong to the former, you may proceed forthwith to Sinai or the Gobi Desert and, having hired a vast concourse of native labourers, you may bustle around with tape, notebook and pocket-glass exercising a keen supervision. If, on the other hand, you are nearer bankruptcy than affluence, you will have to do the digging yourself. My partner . and I fall fairly and squarely into this latter group. Fortunately we live in an area which contains more evidence of prehistory than the entire remainder of Britain ; indeed, if unearthing some object of antiquity entitles one to the name of archaeologist, every farm-labourer for miles around can describe himself as one.

Our approach was slightly less haphazard. Some time. ago I had noticed that a rocky headland near my home was crowned with what seemed a possible round barrow or burial mound. An estate map of 1790 confirmed this. "Barrow " it stated laconically, surrounding the word with an artistic little circle of hatching.

The Ordnance Survey, luckily, had been more reticent ; no Old English lettering—for "antiquities "—marred the virgin surface of the headland. If an antiquity is unmarked on the Ordnance sheets the archaeologist stands a far better chance of finding something. Nearly all those shown have been subsequently despoiled, in the case of barrows or tumuli, for the hoards of gold they are popularly believed to contain.

We started our excavation one Saturday afternoon when the near-by beach was seething with holiday-makers. Next time we shall know better. The preliminary burning-off of the grass, a process which makes digging easier and renders the general outline clearer, sent a dense pillar of Biblical fire and smoke into the placid air ; as we hovered in the middle, like grimy Choctaws, we were rudely assaulted by a band of shirtless toughs, who showed a strong desire to stamp out our conflagration. They were enthusiastic and most polite—members of the N.F.S. on holiday—and not until they had been thanked and dismissed did I realise that, had it been a genuine cliff fire, they would have earned a bonus.

Our first trench, a preliminary cut across the perimeter, struck an outcrop of bed-rock; so we moved around to the western side and taped out another trench into the centre, twenty feet long and three feet wide. We could only work in the evenings, and it took us a fortnight to hollow out and sieve through this section.

During this period we were submitted to the attentions of what the local paper described as "a large number of casual visitors."

My few previous ventures of this nature had been in less accessible Spots, and I had forgotten how popular is the spectacle of other people working. This vicarious pleasure drew the holiday-makers like a magnet, and the question of dealing with them assumed horrifying proportions. But it was fun in that, like a barman or a policeman, an archaeologist has ample material for a little amateur psychology. For instance, we were always avoided by any courting Couples; no man likes having to display ignorance in front of his girl.

We now divide our visitors into four classes. The Funny-Ha-Has, usually fat Ratresfandliarum in shorts, with a brood of healthy Youngsters who try to kick the sides of the trenches in, are easily dealt with. Their inevitable opening gambit, "Hullo, lost some- thing ? " merits the stock retort, "Yes, a double-decker bus." Roars of uncertain mirth. • The Funny-Sympathetics, though, are tougher stock. Their "By Jove, that looks' hot, work, ha! ha! " always makes it seem immediately twice as hot, and we have to force sporting British grins to our muddy faces and grunt assent. This class inevitably start a Socratic dialogue ; they pose relevant questions and introduce presumably funny comments after our answers. They are usually prosperous persons on holiday with the wife, the wife's friend and the wife's friend's mother, and like some Gorgonic chorus, the womenfolk dutifully shriek with laughter at their lord's jests. There is no hurrying them. They will leave. when they are fed up, and not before Equally annoying are the Know-ails, who offer helpful and inaccurate titbits of learning, gaily confusing a.c. and Am. It is no good explaining anything to them ; they know it anyway, because the wife's cousin knew a man who dug up Stonehenge. Politely incredulous silence or a highly technical conference in the bowels of the trench scares them off.

Last class of all are the Plain Moronics, for whom we have a sneaking affection. They are not really moronic, of course ; just nice quiet people who watch shyly for a little time before the more assertive pluck up enough courage to ask, "Excuse me, but what is all this ? " Work is then struck, we climb out, and everything is laboriously explained ; we exchange compliments, receive em- harassingly profuse thanks, and they trot happily back to the beach. They are the only group who, having asked a sensible question and forced you in common politeness to stop work, bother to listen to the answer.

Our labour has not been entirely without reward. Some five feet in we unearthe'd a bronze fibula, or brooch, a small open circle ornament with the tip of the pin missing. It was on what must have been the original surface of the barrow about three and a half thousand years ago. I can visualise the owner, a tall person with a tunic wrapped round him, one of many pecple stamping down the earth on the dead chieftain's mound. His foot catches on the hem of his garment ; the pin falls off his shoulder, and he stumbles ; when he gets up he searches for his brooch, but he has unwittingly trodden it into the earth and he cannot find it. I do not claim to be his descendant, but my tribe inhabits much the same territory now as did his then.

We are not, at any rate, in the words of one young visitor, " diggin' up a body." The Bronze Age folk, to whom I think this barrow is assignable, practised cremation, placing the ashes in an urn of rough pottery. It is this urn we are still seeking, grubbing like moles in our ever-growing trenches. Recently I came across a ghoulish local tradition which states "that if an Urn found in a Barrow be taken home, the Owner will be sure to come for it." Although we do not propose to exercise the prescribed remedy of breaking it and placing the pieces in a hedge, we shall nevertheless be careful where we put our urn, if and when we find it.