Sunday, 20 June 2021

Ampleforth Tales (I): Clearing out the Desk

The rain was belting down outside as Dale enter the pub. He turned down his collar as he searched for his colleagues through the fine mist that instantaneously formed on his glasses. Looking over the top of the fogged frames, he spotted them in the corner clustered around Martin's large bulky figure and laughing raucously. Simon spotted him and waved him over. 

"Yours is here, he said, same as usual, OK?" pushing a seat out for him and indicating a tall glass on the table.

"Thanks" said Dale, sitting down on the offered seat and wiping his glasses. "It's good to be back. Bonkers down in London, you would not believe. So, what's been happening on site?" 

"What hasn't been happening on...", guffawed Martin, glancing in the direction of Joanna, the only woman present, but she just gave him a filthy look and he stopped.  

Steven cut in: "On Rob's area there's this really interesting feature...". Rob looked up from his pint and grinned. "About half the trench",  Steve continued, "...was producing this big blob of brown loam with a lot of eighteenth century brick fragments and plaster, and other stuff. At first we wondered if it was garden soil containing midden material, but as we cleaned over it, it seemed to be filling in some kind of a feature, so we sectioned it, decided to take out a segment on the south, weird it was". 

"Why weird?" asked Dale, suspicious that the others were intently watching him, waiting to see what he'd say as Steve continued his tale of what he'd missed.
"Tuesday, Terry found this big bit of bronze, hollow thing, one side broken off. We did not think that much of it, but when it'd been photographed and we took it out, and turned it over, it was a head, a hollow bust with goggly eyes. Roman! A Roman bust". 

Dale looked at him intently to ascertain whether they were pulling his leg. The pre-project survey had not shown there'd be anything Roman anywhere near there. 
"Here", Rob said, pushing some photos across the table towards him. 

Dale picked them up and winced. "Christ, he's ugly. Bigger nose than Harry's"!

Harry made a face as if scowling and then broke into a broad grin, "my imperial nose? What's there not to like, Dale'? Harry's nose was a running joke among the diggers. 

Dale looked again, "Are you sure it's ancient?" 

He looked at the next photo, it was a horse protome, cast in the round. "Cripes, what's that, some kind of vessel mount"? 

"We think it was a key", offered Rob.  

The third photo was horse and rider figure with the hands and feet snapped off. "Did you find the feet? Asked Dale. 

"Nah, we got the metal detector out, but there were huge numbers of nails in there, and other small bits of metal, lots of tiny melted droplets of lead, really difficult to search. Anyway, the feature was modern, you can tell by the other stuff. Blue and white porcelain, modern stoneware, post-medieval window glass and fragments of roofing slate, nineteenth century clay pipe stem fragments. And oddly, a whole lot of badly decayed horn 'lace tags', at least that's what they look like, masses of them". Rob paused.

"Weird," said Dale sipping his pint. Waving his hand at the photos: "what's all this then? Why are we finding it in a nineteenth century deposit"? 

Roman objects from Ampleforth (Findsorguk)

It was then that Nigel chipped in. "Actually Dale, if it's what I think it is, it's quite fascinating, though I don't know if we can use it in the report. While you were away, I was in York arranging the paperwork for the... you know... uh pumps... And when I'd done that, I popped into the archives to see what I could learn. We knew from the pre-project survey that this part of the road passes through the edge of the estate of Wassthorpe Hall. I took a closer look at the estate maps and that 1843 Hobbes' survey that you and I were looking at last year in fact has a bit of shading here that seems to suggest a hollow, or some kid of borrow pit. I think that's what we've found. I was thinking about all the rubble in the infill and what looks like the debris from plaster-and-lathe partition walls and decided to look at the records on the Hall".

He looked around the table, the others nodded him on; they had already heard this story. He continued:  

"It turns out when the old owner, Maurice Byland died in the 1880s, the Hall was in a bit of a state and when his granddaughter inherited the property she did not live there and it was perhaps empty for a while. But her second husband decided to take the old place in hand. So the workmen moved in, they ripped out a lot of the rotten woodwork, did the place up. Redid the gardens, must've got a bit overgrown.  And I think that they dumped some of the debris in features around the estate- including the hollow on our site. That's what I think this rubble and earth is".

"Intriguing", replied Dale. He frowned at the photos lying on the table.

"Ah, but that's not the end," added Nigel. "In one of the folders that the archivist drew my attention to, I found some documents from a court case in the 1830s involving some woman and this Maurice. He seems to have been a bit of a bastard. It turns out that had been sent on the Grand Tour by his dad (that was in 1819 - his dad had died by the time of this court business), but from what we can gather, he did not get much further than Geneva-Lausanne, where he seems to have been more interested in sampling the local hospitality and... uh... female companionship.. you know....  than making the effort to cross over into Italy. It turns out he'd been cheating his old man, and was lying about what he was up to with his dad's money. And to cover up for it, was sending back small consignments of "antiquities" and especially prints he'd bought in locally, so his dad would think he was engaging in more cultural pursuits than getting plastered and... er... bonking the time away".

Terry and Harry sniggered.

Nigel ignored them and carried on: "Maurice's double life and deceit were eventually found out and he was forced to return home, or he'd be disowned. But it seems there was one, er.. local lady he could not bear to part with and it seems he brought back this lady with him to live with him in England, and now she was suing him for breach of promise or something. Anyway, after that, it seems he lived the rest of his life as a bit of a recluse at Wassthorpe Hall".

"So that's what we found? Part of his old collection?" Dale asked.

"Yes", Rob joined in, "and those 'lace tags', they are the clue. They were probably from the fastenings of the folders in which he kept those prints of his".

Terry and Harry sniggered again. 

"The court documents from when the lady sued him tell us he had a huge collection of explicit prints, showing all sorts of "acts" - they don't go into any details, but I...", Rob stopped himself as he caught a glance of the expression on Joanna's face.

"...Anyway, it looks like the granddaughter was not very appreciative of the old man's "art collection", and she seems to have just dumped the lot, they went out onto the heaps of rubbish and the bonfires as they burnt the old roofing timber in the courtyard and then loaded up with the rubble from the renovations and dumped in the fields".

"I bet the carters had a good look!" chipped in Harry. Rob looked across the table.

"I suspect that, once they'd been on a bonfire and the rest out in the rain a few days, there'd not be much to look at...." he said scornfully.

"No, I suppose not", Harry smiled ruefully, "still...".

"I think the workmen must have tidied up in a hurry when they finished the work" Rob turned to Dale. "Perhaps it was pissing down then in the 1890s like it has been these past three days". He showed Dale the fourth photo, Dale peered at it intently. 

"See?" Rob said proudly. "Joanna cleaned this up nicely, and we got this photo...", nodding appreciatively to Joanna and then Harry the site photographer, "...just before it started pissing down. Otherwise we'd have had to clean it again, and I'm not sure it would come out so well a second time. See?" 

With his finger, Rob traced out on the photo for Dale the faint edges of a rectangular dark stain in the freshly-cleaned surface of the excavation. 

"See? It looks like it's a workman's bag that somehow got on the cart with the rubble and earth, dumped here, I think you can see here, and here, these long dark patches next to the pocket knife - they look like skeins of string. They'd have been used on site for making a string line. And right in the middle, you can see a Victorian workman lost his brass plumb bob! It's still in good nick. I bet he was annoyed, he could probably never have thought that it would stay buried in the soil untouched all these years and that archaeologists would come along and 'read' the evidence to tell part of his story". Dale's eyes widened appreciatively.  

After a smug grin, Rob suggested, "anyway, Dale, I think it's your round now!"

On the other side of the pub Baz Thugwit the metal detectorist who'd heard the whole thing, scowled, got up, put his cap on and went out into the rain, muttering.


Hougenai said...

Any spoilers for next weeks installment?Baz Thugwit turns out to be John Howland's bastard son? Rob is sacked for piching finds bags, Permatrace and other consumables having 'supported' a small local society's Easter dig? No one notices the muddy carrier bag Thugwit conceals as he leaves-Dale looking out of the window sees Thugwit meet 3 other men in cammo-he shows them the contents of the carrier bag- Thugwit and 2 of the men leave 'It's my wife's' he exclaims when he offers them a lift in a yellow Ka rather than the taxi emblazoned with 'England' flags and brexit stickers-the other man mounts his JCB and follows them.........

I'm only really commenting to show someone i'm a real person and not aka Paul Barford.

Paul Barford said...

We could all be Paul Barford.. My first April Fool prank here was to pretend that "Paul Barford" was a fictional character created by the PAS... some indeed fell for it.

To be honest I am quite taken aback by the response to this, (because I think it's too long). Normally I write my heritagy stuff and then do a Twitter plug for it... and it gets a few retweets. I do this and it just goes crazy...

The question is, does it make the important archaeological point in a fresh way... or are random people reading it as an amateur version of "the Dig"?

Interesting. I'd like the buyer of the "Ampleforth Hoard" to see it.

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