Digging up Rothley by Dr D A C McNeil

It was on the Saturday morning that the diggers came, en masse. For once I was early, and signing in seemed to me a very simple task. True there were two pages, four sides of writing, but all that was required was a name, a signature and a date. The only necessity was that you moved away from the reception desk as the entrance to the church in Rothley was not all that wide. I signed, etc, and took a seat. So did some of those who followed me in. Then the rush started, and that first rule of entry was forgotten, for most of the rush seemed intent on reading and signing at the reception desk. So the actual meeting started late. 

We were then instructed in the method. It seems that nearly 40 good people of Rothley had agreed to have a square metre dug out of their gardens on the understanding that nearly everything would be put back at the end of the exercise. How it was to be put back to avoid little hummocks was the subject of a large part of one talk. Anything of archaeological, palaeontological, or other interest was to be placed in plastic bags and sent to the central washing station, situated firstly in the village hall, and on the Sunday at the Rothley centre. Here it would be washed (unless it was metal), placed on a tray, and sent to two expert ladies for identification, recording and occasional retention – or the rubbish bag, depending. The last was saved for old Coca-cola cans, bricks, lumps of concrete, coal or charcoal and anything that the dustman had not taken away in the last week. 

So far so good; of course, this was too simple. The metre squares were already marked out. If necessary any turf had to be carefully lifted and placed on a sheet spread out for that purpose. Next, using a mattock, the first 10 centimetres of the square had to be chopped up (carefully) and the results sieved. This was “spit 1”. Anything trapped in the sieve was placed in the first plastic bag, labelled with the date & place of the event, the pit number and the spit number, sealed, and put to one side to be collected. When that was done the next 10 centimetres (“spit 2”) was similarly treated, and so on down to 1 metre in depth, or till 2.30 on Sunday afternoon. This is provided that no pipes, electric cables, concrete floors or things that go fizz when disturbed were encountered. 

Rothley was divided into four sectors, one person acting as collector of bags in chief for each one of the sectors and occasionally bringing the ‘finds’ back to H.Q. In addition there were advisory experts rushing round seeing that all was well and that too much time was not taken up by the offerings of tea, etc – it was a hot day. 

So what was happening at H.Q. where your scribe was busy disorganising everything? To start with a row of tables was set out with all the washers sitting on the far side to the waste drain and the sink (except for the Rothley centre the geography of which was not so obliging. There we had to make sure that water could be taken away (dirty) and replaced without drenching any washer). Two bowls of clean water were provided, together with a toothbrush and a seed tray lined with old copies of the Sunday Times. Add one pen and a stack of labels, cups of tea, views of the local architecture, conversations about this and that – we were all ready. 

There were two of us on water duty. To avoid cross-contamination of bags (finds from one pit at one level getting mixed up with those from another pit and level, after each bag had been processed both bowls had to be emptied down a drain, swilled out and refilled. A new bag would then be started. Everything from a bag would be washed except for the metal items, placed on the seed tray, a label made out and together with the empty bag and the tray, would be given to the experts, who sat by a huge waste bag which slowly filled with bits of modern tile, old 20th century bricks and other items which did not fit the bill. The arrival of samples would start a rush of washing, identifying and water changing; then all would quietly await the next lot. 

For entertainment in these lapse our Guardian Angel kept us amused by her ability to transcribe ancient scrolls of deaths by mis-adventure in Rothley into modern English. After a whole day of being called the “Guardian Angel”, on Sunday she changed her top (on which were two angel wings) and immediately became “Guardian Angel Emeritus”. 

Sunday came; the diggers arrived en masse again. The bar opened. Reports from the pits were recited, then vast amounts of barbeque food was eaten. So – what did we find? A pencil sharpener; dozens of bits of pottery, old bricks, tiles, bits of coal and odd chips of flint. In addition there were two devil’s toe-nails (at least) and the jaw of a rat (it was not a squirrel as suggested – it had a pronounced canine tooth). And when were all these bits of pot made? For that we will have to wait for the official report. 

Just one thing – no king was found under the car-park, but rumour has it there was part of a coronation mug. Watch this space. 

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