Dig

‘Winter is established.’
Gilbert White, November 16th, 1783 (Hampshire)

I do not know that November is a good time for study, especially: it sits too far adrift from the start of the academic year in September, when enthusiasm is high, and the end of the academic year is still a distant dream. The clocks have gone back, and things chug on in the gloom.

But there is study, and there is study. It is one thing to be sat in a classroom, drinking coffee, looking out at the rain, and finding alternative (and printable) words for the Cambridge weather; it is another thing entirely to be digging in the mud.

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Just down the road from where I live, they have begun an archaeological dig. They are excavating the field just next to the Leper Chapel, a twelfth century edifice which stands in glorious isolation in a crook of the railway and the Newmarket Road. The Leper chapel was once one of the richest sinecures in England, commanding as it did the Stourbridge Fair, the largest fair in medieval Europe.

The field adjacent must once, I suppose, have been the leper hospital. They are excavating it now, preparatory to running the Chisholm Trail through it (see yesterday’s blog on the Chisholm Trail, here). It is a fit object of study. It will probably yield interesting finds. They will scrape in the mud and find nothing; and then one day they will find something, or stand back and see the shape of something, and it will all have been worthwhile.

But each day when I pass I see archaeologists stooping the mud and the rain and the cold, and I think myself lucky that I work indoors, in a classroom, and that we have a coffee machine bubbling away (figuratively, I hope) downstairs. Any sort of labour which involves stooping is anathema to my knees, and while I like to be out and about from time to time, the novelty of working outdoors rapidly wears off for me. I will sit this winter out, if all goes well, looking at the grey sky and the drizzle from room 5, drinking my hot coffee, and dreaming of spring with my students.

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Mudlands

Archaeologists have uncovered a mini Pompeii just north of Cambridge. A very mini Pompeii. So far, just a couple of houses. But still. A mini Pompeii.

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The site was uncovered at Must Farm near Peterborough. Several early Bronze-Age dwellings dating from the beginning of the second millennium BC at some point burnt down, and were preserved in the mud and their own ash. Like Pompeii, then. In addition to the timbers of the structures and the pallisade which surrounded them, archaeologists have retrieved numerous artefacts of daily life: pottery, swords, knives, combs, and so on. Some of the pots still have someone’s dinner in them.

The houses were raised up on stilts. The land north of Cambridge lies below sea-level and has always been fenny and boggy. Attempts were made to drain it for agriculture from the seventeenth century, but these were largely unsuccessful until the nineteenth century. It is, and always has been, a slightly desolate biome, an unenlivened flatness where the only breaks in the flatness are downward, into ditches and gulches and sluggish rivers and canals, subject to undramatic flooding, to seepage and mud.

Yesterday, as it happens, the River Cam flooded in Cambridge, not so much bursting its banks as spilling a bit over them. Life in bronze age fenland Cambridgeshire, we must suppose, would have been a drear and muddy business. When your house wasn’t burning down, that is.