The bare-bones of England

Meagher excavating a drain
Meagher excavating a drain.
Credit: 
Katherine Meagher

I spent my first year at Herstmonceux Castle staring wide-eyed at everything around me.

I was so overwhelmed by the sheer number of things to see that I hardly left the country, choosing instead to devote the time I had to seeing as much of England as possible.

Two years later and I’m back at the BISC for the summer as part of an archaeology program. This time around, a little perspective is helping me take things in.

If you’re constantly thinking about how old and beautiful everything is, you’ll spend your whole day on the same block.

It can be hard to know where to start when a 17th-century pub is next to a Medieval church in a village that predates the Norman Invasion.

The thing to remember is that everything in England occurs in a context that starts dramatically earlier than much of Canada’s.

This context has been easier for me to keep in mind this time around, as I’ve been working with the archaeology program that runs for the first six weeks of my stay.

Without leaving the Castle estate, we’ve found Medieval pottery, Roman roof tiles and Bronze Age flint arrowheads, all in the same day.

Some of the more shocking finds have been bone — all animal, thank goodness — including charred bone fragments, complete cow’s teeth and a deer’s shin bone.

But just as I’ve had to learn to resist exploring every old building I pass, we’ve had to interpret the pieces we unearth.

As unimaginable as this might be in a Canadian setting, anything younger than 300 years tends to be tossed in the finds tray with a broad explanation “Modern.”

It’s been incredible to handle artefacts with such history and with a regularity that I might’ve thought impossible before. A couple of days ago, I spent an entire afternoon walking around with an arrowhead in my pocket without even thinking of it.

It’s only when I step back to think about what I’m doing that the reality sinks in.

Often, this happens when I venture into town and visit historic sites and museums.

Seeing artefacts like the ones we’ve found in display cases helps to drive home the purpose of our long days digging in the sun.

It’s a fun way for a group of students to spend their summer, but more importantly it’s a chance

to help tell the story of the land we’re living on. The items we find help us understand who once lived here, when and what their lives were like.

Programs like mine are few and far between, particularly in Canada, where archaeology isn’t as prolific.

Of course, just about everything we find is older than Canada — even the “modern” bits.

I’m sure the moment I fly back home I’ll be consumed with thoughts about how lucky I was to be where I’ve been, just like I was after first year.

In the meantime, I’m focusing on the finds and sights that really interest me, and trying to resist gawking at everything that’s older than the country I come from.

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