Ok, so I’m an archaeologist and historian. It would actually have been pretty strange if I hadn’t been, coming from the background that I do. You see, my dad was an archaeologist too. One of my earliest memories is from the time we lived at the Dukies – that’s the Duke of York’s Royal Military School in Dover, for the uninitiated. My dad was the Head of Classics there during the latter end of his time in National Service. He used to take the boys with him on digs. There were no girls there then as there are now. Mother and I used to go to the digs occasionally and see what was happening. I remember the Templar church at Temple Ewell particularly well, although I could only have been three or four at the time, because I slipped in a cowpat and ended up sitting lickety-splat in the middle of it. I remember it so well because I was absolutely mortified at being the butt – no pun intended! No, really – of the joke for that day.
Strangely, I’ve always maintained an avid interest in the Knights Templar, despite the somewhat rude introduction I had to their existence. There was always something untouchable about them, so shrouded in the mystery of time’s mists that other peoples didn’t seem to be, well, not in quite the same way. The early Anglo-Saxons might have had their own set of rules for romantic heroing, but they weren’t full of that dreadfully elusive mystique that followed the Templars around like an angry skunk. Of course, Anglo-Saxons hadn’t been joined in the brotherhood of one religious order, for one incredibly important task, then been disbanded en masse and hounded either to death or into measures of extreme secrecy in Scotland, before being mantled in infamy and ignominy by chroniclers ever since. Not quite the same as arriving on a Viking longship to rescue a beleaguered warlord of the Brits from his own destruction-bound conspiracies, then turning on him and taking over most of the south-east and populating it with a few friends from the old country.
Here are some very old pictures taken by – I was going to say my dad, but he’s in the first one! That’s my mum looking as glamorous as she always does, even now at 83, standing next to my grand-dad, just outside the ditch that held the grave structure of the Anglo-Saxon grave they’re all managing not to fall into; the other one is quite obviously The Boys!
Anglo-Saxons became my dad’s forte as an amateur archaeologist, and the next really clear memory I have of his extra-curricular career is of a council dustman knocking on our door with a small green glass beaker in his hand. It was supper time when we heard the door. I remember because I was the only one who wanted to leave the table to open it. I think it was late in the summer term of 1969, as I remember it still being light. He held this object out at arm’s length, balanced on his open palm, somewhere just above my head. I followed its trajectory as my dad’s hand reached over me in slow motion with a look of extreme consternation on his face as he saved the thing from crashing to its end on the floor by my feet. This was obviously an object of some importance, then, was it? It was indeed. It was the only perfectly whole, and undamaged, glass beaker that came out of the next three years of digging. But, wait, I’m getting ahead of myself.
We were living in Ramsgate by then and my dad, having demobbed from the army in 1966, was teaching at Chatham House Boys Grammar, which provided yet another source of eager diggers willing to follow their hero into battle – well, he was a Classics teacher; these allusions are prodigious in mythology, and young boys are so wonderfully impressionable to such heroic ideologies, are they not? For the next three years I spent quite a considerable amount of time up to my neck in a lot of Anglo-Saxon graves dug into the chalk escarpment of St Peter’s municipal rubbish tip, in the easternmost point of England and Kent, alongside all those Chatham House boys. By 1972 I was already a very capable archaeologist myself, did I but realise it. Thankfully, I was too young to have any interest in the boys either. Of course, I did realise it eventually, after life’s twists and turns had carried me to a place where I was able to look inside and see what I really wanted from it. I could say so much more about boys at this point too, but that’s an entirely different story!
We moved from Ramsgate to Broadstairs in 1971, and at that time had the contents of roughly 200 Anglo-Saxon graves stacked in boxes in various parts of the house, garden and garage. When my grandparents came to stay with us, while looking for a flat nearby, my dad was turfed out of his study too, so space had to be made somewhere for the fruits of this rather out of control hobby of his. He got the shed of his dreams. All the bones boxes fitted into it. He had his desk and all the stuff a Classics teacher-turned-Archaeologist could possibly need in there. It must have been heaven to be able to shut that door on the rest of us and just immerse himself in his Anglo-Saxon paradise shed.
The first grave he excavated at St P’s was of a high status Anglo-Saxon woman. He kept her skull on his desk, on top of the box it was otherwise stored in, like a pedestal for a princess. He called her Anna. She must have worked some pretty mean magic on him from atop that box in the shed; it was there he wrote the article that was published to the Archaeological Journal number 130 on “Structural Features in Anglo-Saxon Graves” in 1973, and when I was reading Medieval Archaeology at UCL in 1993, my personal tutor was still using it to teach about the different types of grave structures we see in Anglo-Saxon cemeteries, as, he said, it had never been superseded. Amongst all the other things I had to be proud of in my dad, that was a pretty big deal, and all because Anna, the Anglo-Saxon skull, had cast her magic from the pedestal of her storage box in our shed. I’ve never wondered at the irony of that, not until this very moment. I don’t suppose she ever imagined in life that she’d be casting spells of such magnitude 1300 years later in death. Now, when I look at the picture of the skellies heading this post, I like to think that she’d have enjoyed the paradox of taking a selfie with the old man on her iPhone 5S.