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November 2018

Posted by admin on November 30, 2018

Ever wondered what the landowner thinks of the archaeological flurry that has arrived on his land most years this past decade? Richard gives us a landowner's perspective on the project.

It all started in the small hours of a wet and windy morning, when we heard that a group including our own beloved teenagers had found that a nice green flat patch in Snowdonia isn't a good place to camp. Not when a small but wet depression is whistling up the mountain. My partner drove off in the rain to fetch them and I went to the Co-op in the longest place-name in Britain to get bacon, eggs, and other necessities. Warmed up, dried out, and fed, our new acquaintances included David, an aspiring archaeologist. I can't remember when I mentioned the Roman remains at Teffont, but in due course it became clear that we had complementary interests, and David was the man who could make them happen. I didn't realize then what a great experience the whole thing would be.

Now, I've walked over the soil and rock of Teffont for sixty years or so. I've seen some of the things that people do above-ground in modern Teffont, and I've read of some of the things that they did before I was there to see them. And, for half a century, I've wanted to know more about what happened in the past that hasn't been written down. I'd grubbed about and found a few bits of pot and what not, but I knew that real archaeology exists on a far higher level. And David can be very persuasive. Thus, in pursuit of a higher intellectual level, I found myself putting up marquees in wind, plodging around fields in mud, and trying to work out which end of a trowel gets the mud off. There were other activities too, also mostly involving mud. The marquee ended up decorating a cow shed / dance hall, the mud ended up decorating me, and the trowel ended up being quite useful, albeit muddy. I have had a wonderful time, and I can only hope that the mud has brought me to a higher intellectual level.


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Richard's first experience of excavation, under the excellent tutelage of Sam

I've also filled various different roles in the archaeological bestiary. Trowel monkey is the most obvious, but I am also the man behind the mask of other near-mythical brutes. The amateur informant role is harder than I thought. It's amazing how difficult it is to locate an exact find spot fifty years later – trees grow a lot in half a century, I wish I'd written something down. And the local guide, who knows how to kill horseflies with very little damage to their victims (new archaeologists, don't flinch, honestly, it won't hurt. Much.) is sometimes useful. But the really big beast, the Balrog of archaeology, has to be the Landowner. The clueless, chinless, product of generations of inbreeding, over-privileged by centuries of ruthless exploitation, this monster lurks at the edge of so many archaeological stories. Finding yourself behind the mask, however, feels a bit different. Land isn't something you can make. It was there before you and will be there long after. You didn't see the first raindrop and the first acorn, but by no merit of your own you are privileged – and duty bound - to take care of their modern equivalents. Not everyone in that position can quite understand how it's good to have the land, and your ancestors' remains, torn up by a bunch of incontinent strangers. I was pretty much fine with the idea from the start, but I've had an interest in history and archaeology for half a century. I'm in a good position to appreciate the other landowners (most of the Teffont Roman site isn't on my patch) who have taken a leap in the dark and supported the Project. So far, none of the ancestors have come back to complain, so I assume they're also happy with the process.

Well, after all that, what about the archaeology? What did we find? Not much in the way of treasure, mainly a lot of rock, carefully moved to the site and carefully arranged. On one interpretation, a sacred space inside a hilltop enclosure, many of the buildings carefully tidied up at the end and then buried under the local sand. Quite a lot of sand, some of the floors are a metre or more deep. Where did the extra material come from? Elsewhere on the hilltop is pretty much the only option, and we have a large area of hilltop, at the very top of the hill, which seems to be a complete blank with no archaeology in it. Sadly none of the ancestors have come back to tell me anything relevant, but my mental re-imagining of the site in its Roman heyday has the buildings on the ground level as usual, and a large mound on what is now a blank patch. The highest point, the summit of sacred space. Whatever the ancestors did there is probably gone beyond the reach of archaeology, but I'd bet it was important to them. Also important, from a different point of view, to their successors, who so carefully destroyed it and buried the buildings. Then they built a hall facing east-west, with a cenotaph, just outside the space of the gods, close to its main entrance, and on the other side of the hill from the monumental well and the colonnade. They also put up a small mound on the new highest point, maybe a place to erect a new symbol of victorious power. As far as I know, Gildas “the Wise” isn't an ancestor of anyone, but he did record a rather one-sided view of this sort of space:

those diabolical idols of my country, which almost surpassed in number those of Egypt, and of which we still see some mouldering away within or without the deserted temples, with stiff and deformed features as was customary. Nor will I call out upon the mountains, fountains, or hills, or upon the rivers, which now are subservient to the use of men, but once were an abomination and destruction to them, and to which the blind people paid divine honour.” After the end of polytheist persecution of Christians, “they found, erect, and finish churches to the holy martyrs, and everywhere show their ensigns as token of their victory”. There is no reason to suppose that Gildas ever visited Teffont, and we may never be certain if his words are of any relevance to it, but I can't help thinking. And I wonder if there's a post-hole under that small mound. Maybe we'll find out. 

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Richard (centre) and friends get a little closer to experiencing Teffont life as the ancestors did

The land, the ancestors, the aching bones, the mud, the rocks, the interpretation, and the guesswork, all are wonderful in their own way. But it's the people of the Teffont Archaeology Project who bring these things to life and into a holistic, social, fun whole. I'd like to thank all the delightful individuals who have helped me along my way, I hope you know who you are. I'd also like to express my deep appreciation of everyone who has helped the entire project. Most people seem to agree, there's something special about the Teffont experience. I've been a small part in the huge organisation that has united the land, the ancestors, the exhaustion, the archaeology, but above all the multitude of individuals, into a thing of its own, an episode in the history of Teffont and in the individual histories of each of us. I'm more than just happy when I think of what it has meant to so many others; I'm joyful. If there's a good use of unearned privilege, this could be it. #TEF29, I hope to see you there.