History beneath our Feet

When archaeologists start to investigate a site, often, one of the first things they do is ‘field walking’.

Put simply, this involves walking methodically across a location whilst scanning the surface of the ground for anything that might give a clue to what’s buried beneath. Broken bits of pottery, coins, etc. can often give an indication of perhaps where some sort of structure once stood. The number and scatter of ‘finds’ can be useful in helping pin down a lost or unknown building or settlement.

However, in this case, it was the reverse. The site of the building was already known – we’ve talked about this in a previous issue of the ECN (178 – Lost Cottages) – it was Vernal Cottage that once stood in the corner of a field between Cress Green and Millend. Having been a family home for well over a century, it was finally demolished in the early 1950s.

There’s now virtually no trace of the cottage above ground. However, under the ground is a different story.

This is where field walking comes in. The field in question was recently harrowed and prepared for a crop of maize – this included the area where Vernal Cottage once stood. A combination of this treatment and the weather brought innumerable bits and pieces to the surface.

As shown in the pictures, an assortment of items surfaced. From the kitchen came numerous broken bits of ceramic storage jars and bottles, although mostly, it was a wide selection of fragments of plates, cups, and dishes, much of it in traditional Victorian and Edwardian Blue & White patterns. But there were also other bits from later years, harking back to the Art Nouveau and Deco periods and beyond. These discarded fragments made it possible to follow changes in taste and design that occurred with the passing years.

Also coming to light were quite a collection of clay pipe fragments. In 1839, the cottage was owned by Anne Gardner, but was being lived in by William Burford. It’s nice to picture him sitting by the fire smoking, only to drop his pipe, shattering it on the floor, then with a few choice words, throwing the remains out of the window, where they were to re-appear many years later.

Other bits that were gathered up included parts of several metal horse shoe-shaped heel protectors from childrens’ shoes, plus several small unidentified pieces of metal. There was also a metal spike that looks suspiciously like a remnant from the garden fence.

But why does so much material appear like this? This was an era when waste collection as we know it didn’t exist, especially in the countryside. Unlike rural Eastington, most larger towns and cities had organised collections, but in many villages and other rural settlements, this didn’t arrive until as late as the 1950s. It was a time where household waste was often disposed of under a handy hedge or in a pit dug in the garden. That is why, like here, so many of the bits and pieces now gradually reappearing have not moved far from their original location. Any organic or food waste will have long disintegrated, leaving behind the type of things that Vernal Cottage has now offered up.

Vernal Cottage is far from unique, and if you stick a spade into the ground almost anywhere where people have lived or worked, something from the past will emerge from the darkness. From an historical perspective, it’s not just Roman coins or lost gold rings that are important, and as here, the detritus from even a generation ago has a value in helping to shine a light onto the daily lives of our ancestors.

Stephen Mills