posted on Jul, 6 2019 @ 08:09 AM
A few decades ago, a village primary school in the Isle of Ely fens was doing some amateur archaeology in a local field. The word “amateur” needs
to be emphasised, to avoid raising false expectations.
The geographical setting; Like others in the Fenland, this village grew up on a small island, which became (once the fens were drained) a low hill
overlooking the flat plain. The field in question lay on a slope leading down from the central street.
This was a small school, containing only two classes.
On official documents, they were the Juniors (ages 8 to 10+) and the Infants (ages 5 to 7+).
In school usage, they were the Big’Uns and the Littl’Uns, housed respectively in the Big Room and the Little Room.
This account is narrated by the college-vacation son of the teaching staff.
If I add that I am the narrator, I think that tells you everything you need to know.
Wednesday June 30th
Today Mum organised an archaeological dig with the infants on a round, symmetrical dome of earth which is standing in the middle of one of John
Fife’s fields. She has been getting interested in archaeology, and he offered this mound, for which there is no obvious reason. They both discount
the idea that it’s the material dug out from the pond in the corner of the field, because of the distance. Mum’s hope is that it is some kind of
ancient burial mound. Lester Winters and Nigel Broker, from the Big Room, had been brought along to help make up the deficiency in manpower. Their
attitude was ambivalent. “There might be anything there or there might be nothing”, said the worldly-wise Lester. What they had in mind was not
pottery and prehistoric artefacts but gold and silver treasure trove. Mum doubted that we would find valuables of this kind. “You don’t know”,
said Nigel, with an air of challenge.
The expedition set off for the field concerned immediately after playtime in the morning. “We’ve got a man coming with us”, they said as I
joined them. Teresa, Shan and Anne Lipman dropped back with me
as we went over. The tractor was going round the perimeter of the field beginning to cut the grass. The first thing Mum did on arriving at the site
was to pick a spot at the crown of the mound and get them to tear the grass off it. John Fife stopped his tractor nearby and came over to point out
how close to perfectly round the mound was, and to offer to remove the grass immediately. We retired while he did so, after which, as he said, it
looked much more conspicuous. When they began to cut into the mound, there wasn’t at first much for the smaller infants to do. Mum set them to
wander out of the way and “see how many different kinds of grass they could find”. Before long they had re-interpreted the order into something
more familiar, collecting piles of cut grass in their hands and dumping it on a spot close to the mound, until Mum rounded on them and told them to
put it down.
Mr. Fife had provided a heavy-handed tool with a sharp, oblong, and inwardly curving blade, basically for ditch-cutting and useful for biting into the
clay which we had reached, and also a pick-axe which the natives called a “peck”. Lester became the expert on the first, and Nigel wielded the
“peck” with casual disregard of his own safety and the safety of those around him. The younger ones were working diligently with their trowels at
the top end of the growing ditch. Apart from the beetles, worms and ants, they also found a couple of modern-looking glazed pottery fragments and some
stones. They announced at one stage that they had found a piece of stone with some pottery attached to it. “I should think that’s all we’ve
got,” said Lester, the natural Fen instinct for contradiction putting him at that stage into a cynical mood. The infants should have replied “You
don’t know”, but they’re not experienced enough at this kind of verbal warfare.
We downed tools for dinner and returned afterwards for an hour of work until it was time for playtime and “sewing”. On the way back to the field,
Teresa wondered aloud whether she should “tell him”, was urged by Anne to do so, and then confided to me “Do you know what that girl with the
blue ribbons [Shan] is going to do? She’s going to marry you.” The main object now was to make the slash wider and deeper. Lester was largely
responsible for giving the trench definitive sides. Every now and then everybody else downed tools and got out of the way while Nigel loosened another
patch of earth, sweating and throwing down the pick with heated ferocity. Once Mum could prevail upon him to admit that enough had been done (he would
never admit to being tired), we all set to again with spades and trowels. There was a marked preference for digging out the soil instead of carrying
it away, so those working in the middle would simply push earth further down the trench, which met with great indignation from the trowel workers at
Thursday July 1st
This morning we went out to the field again. On each journey over, the infants had great rivalry about who was going to shut the gate, and on one
occasion four of them were hanging on it jointly. Lester and Nigel debated over when they were going to let the others in their class have a go.
Lester said they could not come immediately after playtime because of “spellings”, but added magnanimously “You can come straight after playtime
if you like, Miss’Melton.” In the event they were both detained because of their mistakes, and could only return after a long interval. [I have a
suspicion that “spelling” was on Thursday in my own time as well.] Nevertheless the cut was satisfyingly deep and wide. The first thing that Mum
did when she got in at twelve o’clock yesterday was to start laughing at the mere thought of what it must look like to an outside observer.
Friday July 2nd
We continued today with the help of Carol Freeman and Denise Sandford in the morning. I lost count of the number of times Lester and Nigel said before
their arrival “I don’t suppose them girls will do much.”
“We’ve found a worm, Miss’Melton.”
“Oh, very good.”
“Look, here’s another one, Miss’Melton.”
“I expect there are several around.”
We are now getting below the level of the clay to ancient sand and stones mixed in the soil underneath, providing a lesson in elementary geology, if
nothing else. Lester and Nigel had assured Mum that last night’s rain would make digging in the clay more difficult. In fact it made it easier to
get the clay out in enormous lumps. The trench is now nearly down to the level of the main field, outside the mound.
Monday July 5th
There was more digging between playtime and dinnertime on what is by now quite a respectable trench.
Tuesday July 6th
From playtime to playtime we worked. There was found half a hollow bone (a small one), and an alleged tooth, from a very small animal. The pit near
the centre of the mound is now undeniably lower than the level of the ground around it