Person to person: an intimate archaeological experience

This post comes from Dr Tim Copeland.

If I am at a social occasion of some sort, and people ask me what I do for a living and I reply ‘archaeologist’, they immediately have a lot of questions to ask. One of the most frequent being, ‘what’s it like to be so close to people in the past?’. My response is that I never think of individuals in the ‘archaeological past,’ as we rarely have access to the type of evidence from the sites and artefacts to identify a specific person. Our ‘informed imagination’ uses less personal evidence, and asks different questions than the ‘historical past’ with its documents, film and oral accounts. In prehistory (before 55BC when Julius Caesar first described the people of Britain) we do not know of any individual by name, and even in the Roman period in Britannia, individual identities are not common. Because my academic background is in mathematics, geology and geography, I don’t tend to see people, but patterns of evidence in the landscape made by human beings. The ‘best’ thing that I have ever found has been a deep ditch, part of the North Oxfordshire Grims Ditch, a late Iron Age (50BC-43AD) territorial system of unknown purpose (as yet).

During a recent walk I mulled over this question and thought of any experience which had brought me closer to an individual, or group of people, during my career excavating prehistoric, Roman and medieval sites. As a 10 year old I once found a piece of Roman pottery with the finger print, presumably that of the potter, a unique signature of a specific individual. There have been a large number of cemeteries to be excavated ahead of urban development, but I have really only been interested in the dates of use and the way it has been laid out and developed. There was the occasion when we had to excavate the grave of an adolescent girl who died in childbirth, and between her hips were the remains of a baby in a breach position.  There was a deep sadness that we had to remove the remains from the ground where she had lain, a reverence and silence as the bones were excavated, and regret that they had to be bagged and sent for study. I excavated the interior of a church in North Wales which was about to become a heritage venue and removed the remains of Jenny Jones, the only individual I can name. There were many feelings in these episodes, but none that I could define as a relationship with an individual. That might seem to make me a cold sort of person, but I gather it is common among archaeologists.

However, recently there was an experience that came quite close to empathy with an individual from the past. I was visiting the luxurious Roman villa at Chedworth in the Cotswolds. I needed to deliver a set of papers to the archaeologist leading the re-excavation of some mosaics first excavated and re-buried in the 1860s, and which were being unearthed as part of ‘The Big Dig 2018’.The mosaics made up the flooring of a corridor entering the main part of the house from outside, and they were clearly meant to impress visitors entering the building – a ‘WOW’ factor- and boasted of the owner’s wealth and standing in society through the use of detail, themes and colour. After this present re-excavation, photography and recording, the mosaics were to be re-buried under controlled conditions to ensure their future preservation.

Photo courtesy of the National Trust

After handing over the papers and talking to the excavation director, I asked permission to help with the work, knelt down and was determined to show how an ‘academic’ archaeologist still had ‘dirt archaeology’ skills (although as someone who had retired from the University ten years ago, I was a little apprehensive about how I would get up again!). At the time of its excavation, the pavements were probably unearthed by shovel and brush, but I was using a trowel and spatula. One of the tesserae – the small cubes that make up the pattern – had become loose and I gently put it back into its mortar base. It crossed my mind that I was the first person to have touched this particular piece of stone since the mosaicists placed it into the mortar bed, as was most likely. What actually did make an impression though was that I must have been kneeling within an arms-length, if not exactly on the spot, of where the craftsman had been two thousand years ago, as he (and it would have been a ‘he’) moved along creating the pavement.  That was the first time in my archaeological life that I could actually have said with some measure of certainty that I shared an actual space with a person from the past.

Photo courtesy of the National Trust

As I worked my way along the pavement there was a patch that had been destroyed, either deliberately at the end of the villa’s life when it was being robbed of usable stone, by worm action after it had been buried and the creatures had made tunnels and lifted the small stones, or through the action of excavation and backfilling in the 1860s. I tried to reconstruct the pattern and colours of the missing portion, by examining the shapes used, and how they were manipulated as symmetry, transformation (when shapes are inverted or reversed) and enlargements. It occurred to me that I was sharing the same mathematical problem as that of the mosaicist working along the corridor in the construction of the pavement. Part of what I was doing was also trying to work out where the coloured tesserae had come from (the geologist in me). He would have explained immediately, as he would have ordered the stone and identified the place from where it should be quarried. Red were from cubes from tiles fired locally, some of the greens were from fragments of glass vessels, the whites were pure limestone from the Mendips, the blues and greys from the Liassic limestones containing iron from the hills cut by the River Severn below Gloucester, and the purples were stone of the Forest of Dean. It was not exactly like two people in different countries looking at the moon at the same time, but we were looking at the same spot on the mosaic, both creating a pattern. There was some kind of closeness, but over centuries and with a lack of awareness of each other.

I have no idea of his name, his social status or where he lived. He certainly would have a highly prized craftsman, and could have been brought from a great distance, if not even some other province outside Britannia. He must have been proud of his work, and been aware that it would have been admired by those who it was designed to impress. The notion of studying the archaeological past is only four hundred years or so old, so the mosaicists could have no concept that his work would be admired this far into the future. He couldn’t say, as we can ‘I wonder what future archaeologists will say about…’. However, I shared his pride, and through gaining some understanding of how this person thought, I was honouring of an individual from the past, which also gave meaning to me in the present. Surely, this is one of the aims and joys of studying both archaeological and historical pasts.

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