Dig for History

Gary Studley is currently poet-in-residence at Canterbury Roman Museum.

Blog Nine. Ok, so I guess I kind of lied all those months ago in Blog Two…

…In creative writing  – whether for a poem, short story or Chapter One of a massive novel – they say that your first line should grab the reader’s attention. As such, my first line today should work!  It’s punchy, confessional, makes you wonder what I lied about, so it should do the job and I should be happy that I’ve (hopefully) grabbed your attention. But even as I type this something is beginning to ring hollow and now I feel a little false for starting like this. Maybe I will go with the truth instead and get a little clarity.

So…whilst it was NOT a lie to say in Blog Two that “I have had no formal education in history”, it could be slightly misleading. I  guess what that statement more accurately means is that I never studied history to any exam level. However, I have spent many a happy hour informally learning. I could be mega-truthful here and say that the majority of my knowledge of any historical period  or event has been filtered through a screen – either via television watching those double bill black and white films on weekends, rainy days, any days; or latterly, Channel 4, Discovery, BBC documentaries. I’ve also spent many a happy hour in many a darkened cinema absorbing some director or screen-writer’s interpretation of history – whether Schindler’s List; Papillion; JFK; Mississippi Burning and so forth. Whatever the case, I have usually gone away to re- read the novels that the films came from or chased down facts on a subject further. Similarly, I have been a follower of Ken Loach since my teens when our English teacher showed us Kes, and likewise John Pilger since seeing snippets of his reports on the music and newsreel series, Sounds of The Sixties. Currently my SKY+ box is stacked with fascinating documentaries on The Miner’s Strike; Falklands; The Crossrail Corpses and Prison Reform. But before anyone is sick by all this worthiness, I should say that I also watch a shed load of comedy – both live and on television and have 1/3rd music shows and 1/3rd Scandinavian Crime dramas recorded, waiting and mocking me over my lack of time to watch them. I guess what I’m trying to say is that, although I have never taken to history at a desk or in a lecture theatre, I do know it’s there and in a very layman way, know a little bit. But thankfully, I keep learning!

When my contact at the museums, Paul Russell, Galleries Officer, very kindly checked up that I was enjoying my residency, we went for a ‘walk and talk’ and stopped in front of a particular display, where-upon Paul asked me whether I had done any writing on its subject, John Brent. At the time I said that to be honest, the very dense and lurid Victorian wall paper, amazingly dark furniture and mass of heavy bound books displayed were not exactly calling to me in the same way that bombed out buildings and funerals bottles do. I associate Victorians – probably wrongly if recent articles have anything to go by – with being dry, restrained, overly polite and bookish. However, when Paul left I looked closer at the display and saw another side of Victoriana shining through the gloom – and that was obsession. An obsession for collecting. An obsession with categorising. An obsession with civic duty. An obsession with discovery – and John Brent was all of these things.

Born in 1808, Brent became fascinated with finds that the engineers of his era unearthed whilst the push for modernization – improved housing, the railways, mains drainage – ploughed ahead. Brent was to become one of the most renowned and respected archaeologists of the period, both as a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London and with the Kent Archaeological Society. Being entranced by the possibility of what had once been and determined to not lose knowledge of the past, he prompted excavations and became fascinated with recording the artefacts, in many cases drawing painstakingly accurate and beautifully coloured illustrations for articles and books, so that the information there-in could be disseminated far and wide. He was to become known as a ‘rescue archaeologist’ – saving the past. As well as the certainty that he loved both the area and history – as he was made an Honorary Curator for Canterbury Museum and had his finds exhibited in both Maidstone and Canterbury – I am sure that having studied his finds so intensely and drawn so minutely for many years, his eyes must surely have suffered in later life – particularly with jungle wallpaper and poor lighting! We, however, can enjoy his obsession in a far more relaxed and pleasurable way by going to the Roman Museum and taking in his illustrations, brooches, hair-pins, clasps, pots and jugs displayed in a rather excellent miniature version of his study.

Since then I have researched John Brent and found him to be a driven and interesting man. At the same time, I realised when typing up Blog Eight about the mini ‘arckolist’, Samuel, that there were more similarities to my own life than I would have imagined. Watching Samuel delicately dig through the recycled ‘soil’ looking for artefacts in fact acted as a trigger for my memories and I quickly clicked into a poem about another part of my informal historical education, time spent as a little kid treasure hunting with my folks – an activity which has come back to haunt me in a big way.

Peacocks A, 1700 - 2015

In 1970s Britain, a new form of entertainment grew popular and up and down the land when the oddly intriguing worlds of middens opened up. Midden as a term originates from the early Scandinavian word, modding, meaning a dump for domestic waste. Archaeologists in Scandinavia and Canada find many shell-middens along their coasts, as that is where shellfish, oysters and such were caught, processed and eaten by the settled populace. The term grew from there to mean any mound or dump where domestic waste – including variants on dung, animal bone, pots, shells, bottles etc. – was discarded by the inhabitants. In the Roman Museum it is possible to see both their fondness for oysters and their use of Samian bowls for special puddings and you never know what could be found off the coast of Whitstable! Marching on back to my childhood, around about the same time that a priceless Tutankhamen exhibition hit London and our neighbour’s colour television showed the golden, strikingly painted wonders of Tutankhamen’s tomb to eager viewers, my family took to the woods at the back of our estate with trowels, sharpened sticks, old newspapers and buckets – setting out to dig for history.

Whilst my friends stayed glued to their screens marvelling at the idea of mummies coming alive or ran across the garage roofs, we leant on our knees like young Samuel did and with as much care, scraped away with the trowels or probed sticks gently into the sandbank rising into the tree-line or sometimes in our wellies down at the bank of a tiny stream. This was my mum’s idea although she is unsure of why it took off as a trivial pursuit. It did and many an afternoon we trekked the woods looking for middens. In my head, the best one was up the top of a slope, very close to the back fence of a chemical factory where we were warned copious times and in no uncertain terms about not touching the orange, foamy water leaching out from its broken drain. Every so often – and it must have been quite often or else I would have become a bored pain – one of us, usually my mum or dad, would find something and we would all watch as they prized it out with a point of the trowel and held it in their palms.

It didn’t matter what it was, any squiggle of glaze or trace of metal seemed to take my tiny breath away with possibility and it-might-be thoughts.

My dad’s hands are massive and very tanned from all the building work he’s done, but even so, I’m sure the finds weren’t as small as they appear in recollection. If we’d carried water over with us in an old glass milk bottle with a bit of rag in it as a stopper, then we would wash off the mud in situ. But if not, one of us would be sent down to the good stream near the back of the gardens (merely covered in gnats and weeds as opposed to toxic waste) to douse and rub off the mud before hacking it back up the hill to hand it over to be reviewed and guessed at. I know that it might sound ridiculous now, but at the time I really thought I was going to find treasure like Jim the Cabin Boy or get lucky/not so lucky like Howard Carter. And although we never turned up a sword, gold doubloon or ancient helmet, in a way we became richer with every remnant of Victorian and Edwardian junk we found, wrapped in newspaper, transported home and laid out on the kitchen table. We seldom came back empty handed and after we had cleaned them with old toothbrushes and Soapy Liquid and looked them up, although the reference books showed our finds to be worker-level property rather than the royally lost, we always seemed to strike it lucky and seldom felt let down.

In my parents’ house there are four displays of these finds. Earthen-ware milk bottle covers and two-tone beer bottles; OXO tins; broken clay pipes with occasionally almost gone ornamentation; short ink bottles, invariably broken across the neck; Valentine’s Meat Juice pots; Royal Alexandra Cherry and Woods’ Areca Nut Toothpaste lids, with swirling blue calligraphy but no ceramic bottoms. At the time a prized find to my young mind would be any kind of military button or the frosty marbles from the twisted neck of heavy lemonade or ginger beer bottles – designed thus so that not too much joyously fizzy drink poured out. But above all else, the memory is the richest.

On a few of my days off from teaching and the residency, I’ve been helping a friend of mine out by doing some light labouring – if there ever can be such a thing – at some of his family’s properties. Now, I’m not a strong person and I sometimes think that I have so little musculature that it’s only my bones which keep me up-right. But I do have stamina so I can work long days and of course I like to help friends out if I can because I know what goes around will come around.   Plus, despite the mistakes I occasionally make, we usually have a good lunch and invariably get a great chance to natter and put the world to rights! But during all this, I still have a great deal of curiosity, surrounded as I am by buildings that are 200 – 300 years old, standing on residential and farming sites that go back  a lot farther. So at times when I’ve been shovelling or demolishing a wall, my curiosity helps pass the time and even provides me with a glimmer of excitement when I unearth a slice of pottery, or a chunk of thick- bottomed milky glass; an odd shaped bone or – rapidly becoming my favourite – a rusty metal hoop or fantastically long, triangular nail that looks like it came straight out of a mythical charger’s horse-shoe. And I have to confess – and thus bring us full-circle – that my hearth and shelves, too, hold collections of twisted driftwood, grinder-blades, fossils and willow-pattern, some things that may be bullets and the too rusted haft of a knife. I have and will use some of these finds for my art but some I will hang onto just because like them and I want to save them for the world.

So keep digging, Samuel; long-live John Brent and hats off in thanks, Mum.  It’s the little things which keep us sane – or at least, interesting.

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