The blog and me

This blog will be erratic and seldom follow themes. It will make no claims to being structured or logical. It will, I hope, be fun and occasionally insightful. I do still publish more coherent work (though in economics, and in very strange places) but that may take some believing after reading these pages. I've a PhD in economics/economic history from Cambridge, I've taught in several universities (and still do, when I get the chance) but now focus energy and attention on commercialization for a large London university, and dealing with the daily commute.

Friday, 31 October 2014

Mud and a love of the past: turning kids onto history with a shovel

How do you encourage your children to engage with the past? In a sense, it has never been easier: television, books, DVDs, radio have all probably never been so alive with history – even if, sometimes, it seems all rather flippant, sensational and (sadly) inaccurate, and social media breaks up the continuity and focus an understanding of the past deserves. Enthusiasm, though, is catching, and it’s easy for children to find a love of history creeping up on them. 

My way to cement that in my son was, perversely, to dig. I have not one shred of archaeological know-how (I’m a died-in-the-wool historian turned economic historian turned economist), but archaeology has this great advantage over history from books if your young – you get to dig big holes, get mucky, and find treasure. Such is the power of archaeology to create a sense of wonder about the past, the extraordinarily open and welcoming dig at the Roman settlement at Silchester, under the watchful eye of Professor Michael Fulford has become an occasional joy for the family (see for details) because the Reading archaelogists allow everyone, from the very youngest, to get involved.

My house in Wokingham, though, is no Roman villa and our corner of the town is not as remarkable as Insula IX at Silchester. Ours is a large, Tardis-like, semi detached Victorian villa (built in 1895) on a plot of land that had once been an orchard, probably a brickfield for local building and only latterly used as land for houses. Even the road on which it was built is a new road, built after 1856. Many of the houses to the south of our house were built in the 1860s. Even relatively small scale maps provide good evidence of how the road grew. In 1816 (Figure 1) Gypsy Lane and Cockpit Path met where they do now, but there was no sign of the road springing from their intersection which now runs past the house. The area indeed, seems, to have been common land. By 1856 (Figure 2) the space between Cockpit Path and the current path to Sale Cottages was enclosed and by 1872, with the road now built (Figure 3), the same piece of ground is shown to have trees, probably an orchard (indeed at least one contemporary newspaper source specifically mentions apple trees on the house abutting ours). The enclosed land was still there in 1883 (Figure 4) but by 1898 (by which time our house had been built) the rest of the area was in-filled with houses.

Figure 1: Langborough Road area in 1816

Figure 2: Langborough Road area in 1856

Figure 3: Langborough Road area in 1872

Figure 4: Langborough Road area in 1883

Figure 5: Langborough Road area in 1898

I started, then, trying to get my son to see the pattern in the evidence. There seemed to have been three distinct phases of development on the land on which our house is built which, in stark terms, works as follows:

Phase 1: Up to some point between 1816 and 1856, the land was unenclosed common land

Phase 2: From at the latest 1856 until at least 1883, the land was enclosed and had trees

Phase 3: From 1897, the land had houses on it.

But map work, and the slow exploration of the landscape a la Marc Bloch is all well and good if you’re an adult: it’s torture if you really can’t wait to get dirty and cut into the soil, so we decided to put in two exploratory pits - first a test pit located 2.5m from the northern boundary of the garden and 70cm from the eastern edge of the garden (the test pit measured 40cm by 40 cm approximately) and then a trench located 1.5m from the northern edge of the boundary of the garden and 5m from the western boundary. The trench measured 1.47m x 59 cm.

Figure 6: Image of rear of our house (copyright Google)

Doing as best as I could to imitate – if in a rather ham-fisted way – the method of real archaeologists (my touchstone here is Time Team, and reading occasional archaeological reports in awe at the inventiveness of field archaeologist) we beavered away looking for evidence. The test pit yielded fewer pieces of evidence than the trench, but probably as much per square metre overall. We found the following in the test pit:

At 30cm depth, several pieces of loose, broken and charred brick which may be evidence of a previous building or, because they are so misshapen, possibly evidence of brickmaking on the site.

At 42-44cm, a few small pieces of domestic blue and white Victorian china

At 52cm, the soil changed to a light clay and produced some flint.

In the trench we found more evidence of how the land was used. I'd like to say we put the trench where we did because it ran parallel with what would have been a wall or boundary; it was therefore likely to have more evidence than a trench in the centre of the garden. In truth it was the result less of precise deduction or cool induction than of hope. We found, 

At about 34cm depth, larger pieces of brick, but also large pieces of agricultural tiling and garden terracotta pots;

At 41 cm, some very small pieces of domestic Victorian pottery. We also found a piece of silver from a wallet, dated 1902/3 and made by Thomas De La Rue & Co. from the evidence of the silvermarks on the piece of silver itself.

The silver corner from the de la Rue wallet

The de la Rue wallet (or rather one very like it)

At 44 cm, more Victorian blue china, a thick piece of glass from the bottom of a wine glass (probably a mid-Victorian rummer, years rummaging in antique shops told me) and some thinner glass from a wine glass

At 48 cm, smaller pieces of Victorian china, and a small fragment of a brown beer bottle.

A very few of the 'finds'

Here comes the difficult bit. The mud and soil lies all around you: your son or daughter wants to keep digging. Now, though, the historian in you wants to draw...conclusions. Sharp intake of breath, and hope he follows. We thought our finds were consistent with the following sequence of events for the space occupied by the back garden of our house:

During Phase 1: When the land was unenclosed, the pottery and glassware at deeper than 41cm in both points suggested that the open land carried some rubbish.

During Phases 2 and 3: Between 1856 and 1897, bricks and agricultural tiling seem to suggest that it was used for brick-making and/or agriculture.

During Phase 3: The piece of silver from Thomas De La Rue and Co. (dated 1902/3) suggests no more than that someone (we know from Census data probably who) was working in the garden and lost the edge of what would have been a very expensive wallet at that time. This suggests that the owner was at least digging down to 41cm, so some our finds might have moved in the soil in the trench. (I suggested that his wife would have been furious that he lost the silver flange from the wallet).

All in all, then, the evidence broadly confirmed the sequence of building suggested by the historical record - which might, in all fairness, be a disappointingly mundane conclusion to reach when you are young. But a ‘finds table’ stacked with 'evidence', mounds of earth, grubby clothes and fingers, and a sense of discovery make up for much even when the 'archaeology' isn’t, frankly, that much more illuminating than maps, newspaper data, photographs and house directory evidence would have been.

Give it a go: charm your kids with a walk into the garden and into the past, this weekend - shovels at the ready...

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