Friday, 28 June 2013

2nd Century Roman, or possibly 21st Century Taiwanese

Have you ever dug a hole?

I must have, quite literally, dug possibly as many as five holes in my life.  Most of them in various gardens, sometimes my own garden, sometimes whilst sober.  But there's always that feeling of wonder you get when you start.  Will I find anything interesting? maybe a potsherd (the proper name for a bit of broken old pottery) or a coin or a water main, or the holy of holies for us hole-diggers... A skull!

Doesn't matter what species it is... Human would be coolest, obviously, because your day gets instantly more exciting when a big white tent appears in your garden and you have all these people wandering around in paper suits, treading mud up your stairs when they go to the toilet.  The least cool.. I suppose that would have to be digging up what seems to be an Ancient Egyptian burial site (Momentarily forgetting that you're in Walsall) and then suddenly remembering that this is where you buried Mimsy the cat some years before.

Anywho, digging a big hole, finding something even remotely unusual and identifying it. There's a name for that - It's called ruining a perfectly good garden... But the professionals, the people who've spent time at University drinking cheap cider in the SU bar and fumbling inexpertly with girls called Sophia behind the curtains at the Socialist Worker Christmas Marxist fundraiser call it Archaeology.

Nothing has done more to promote modern archaeology (Yes, Oxymoron, I know) to the masses, than the most wonderful of wonderful programs involving diggers, the one that introduced the word 'GeoFizz' (Yes, I know, I spelled it wrong - Comedy Blog, remember?)

'Time Team'

It is / was brilliant.  Simple premise, a group of lovable, heavily personalitied, professionals, and Tony Robinson, go to various places and dig them up.  I don't mean they just throw a dart at the map and then wander across the pitch at Wembley and start digging up the touchline, they often get invited by people who've found something interesting in their garden, or by a local archaeology society who thinks that the interesting lumpy bit in the field down the road might be the remains of the only known prehistoric branch of Greggs the Bakers or Poundstretcher.

They'd arrive in their big 4x4s, Tony would say that he couldn't see anything, the professionals would smile knowingly and pinch the little scamp's cheek, then send him up in a helicopter to look for interesting lines. Then John would come out and start walking around the place with an array of increasingly Heath-Robinson contraptions to map out what lay below the soil.  A map would be produced which, much like the ultrasounds that pregnant women often bring into work, only looked like something if you already knew what it was that you were looking at.

JCBs would then arrive where blobs of coalesced GeoFizz had indicated the presence of walls or floors or waste pits and then Phil would stride onto the scene with his trademark west-country accent and feathered hat, gesticulate wildly and describe in glorious technodetail, what would be happening on the site some thousand years previously, he would include the names of the people involved, their favourite colour and their inside leg measurement.

In the background, gently shaking his head, would be a shock of wild white hair connected directly to an improbably knitted stripy jumper - The One, The Only, The Occasionally Quite  Grumpy, Professor Mick Aston.

Once they had bundled Phil off to make a pot or smelt some bronze or catch a rabbit with only his  hat and a replica of a roman toothbrush (I'm reliably informed that this is actually how the Romans caught rabbits - They called the process captas lepus dente dignissim et galeam - I believe I remember from school)  Mick got down to the actual work, watching the digger take the top layer of grass and soil off, then directing trainees and archaeology students to get busy with their badger-bristle brushes and Barbie sized trowels.  Within minutes, the hole is nine feet deep and they've got Iceland ice-cream tubs full of broken tea service all over the place.

Then Tony walks over again and asks how everyone's doing. Mick indicates the wall of the ditch and points to a selection of, to the casual observer, completely fictitious stripes which seemingly delineate where they've cut through an ancient river bed and and area decimated by a forest fire.  There's a single piece of gravel pointing to the fact that the area was once rife with charcoal burners and a patch of earth on the floor telling him where there used to be a hole.

So, just rewinding a little, this chap could identify, at the bottom of a deep, freshly dug pit, an area where there used to be a hole, but there isn't one now - How good do you have to be at your job to be able to detect something that no longer exists, inside a large version of the same thing, that has only just been called into being? - I mean, that crimped my gourd just writing that, let alone being able to do it.

I think I remember one time (Although in fairness, I've probably made it up - But it's the sort of things that could well have happened) where Mick was explaining that a flat rock that they'd uncovered in a pit was actually from the bottom of a post-hole and had been used as a foundation for a wooden post some 4,000 years ago.  Tony indicated another, incredibly similar rock a few inches away and asked if that was another one and Mick had said 'No Tony, that's just a rock.' And looked at him as if he may have been a bit simple.

Then they'd cut to the lab, where a half-inch square of grubby pot rim had been identified, and the viewer was treated to a CGI image of a five foot high carboy that had once contained olive oil or vinegar, or both (for Pre-historic salad dressing presumably), decorated with complex swirls and impressionist pictures of antelopes and rhinos (Still possibly in Walsall).  How can you possibly do that? it's physically impossible.  It's like a Chinese bloke taking a single blood cell and making a frog out of it... (What? No... I haven't read the news? A whole frog? 140 frogs? from one drop of blood? really? - Bugger - No, I can't take it out, they've read it now.  Yes, I'll do more research next time before I go shooting my mouth off.)

Then someone would suggest digging another trench, although they didn't really have time.  Then Mick would have an argument with John, Phil would proudly return from his reconstruction of life as a beaker-person or whathaveyou and proudly show off whatever it was that he'd not quite had long enough to make properly. Victor, the resident artist would show us scenes that he'd drawn depicting the buildings and artifacts that we'd seen. There'd be a shot of them all down the pub, showing that they were all great mates in real life and then Tony would do a piece to camera about what they'd achieved, there'd be an aerial shot of the dig, pulling out to the picturesque village that they happened to be in (or a rain soaked car-park in Walsall - poe-tay-toe / poe-tar-toe)

And then the spell would be broken - And you'd realise that you'd been sat, spellbound, in front of the TV watching some odd old geezers and the straight-man from Blackadder poddle about in the mud and spin you a yarn about the history of the country that we all love so much.

They'd brought history alive.  For that hour every week that I, and hopefully thousands of other people spent absorbing our past, I thank you Time Team.  I for one, hope that the cancellation of the show gets repealed.
I learned a lot.

This post dedicated to the memory of Professor Mick Aston - 1 July 1946 – 24 June 2013.
A native of Oldbury, not a million miles from where I'm sitting now, the archaeological inspiration of a generation, and wearer of some deeply awful jumpers


  1. What wonderful tribute, witty amusing and oh so true. They were just like a bunch of mad uncles invading my lounge room via the telly and 12000 miles away. they were like my family, really. I do so miss them and you have made me laugh. Thank you so much
    Rowena Sweeney

  2. Your descriptions have made me smile like a goofball. Then to find out Tony is Bladrick and I'm gobsmacked.