The Birth of Modern Britain: My buried treasure





When Francis Pryor first started scraping building sites in Peterborough new town in the Seventies, he was met with incredulous looks from passers-by who imagined that archaeological remains only existed in Egypt and Greece. Now, nobody who has watched Francis and his colleagues on Channel Four’s Time Team can dispute that Britain is positively bursting with evidence of our predecessors’ lives. But are our back gardens really as interesting as he insists?

I have invited him to my house in a village on the edge of the Cambridgeshire fens and set him a challenge: find me some artefacts. A colosseum complete with the bones of a Christian in the mouth of a lion would be ideal, but I will settle for a chariot.

First, Francis gives me the bad news: my garden is five metres above sea level. While there are Roman remains in the fens, they are generally found at between one and two metres above sea level. Above that, he tells me, we are more likely to find medieval bits and bobs – perhaps some unglazed or green-glazed pottery.

Another likely find is broken clay pipes, which were smoked by the “night-soil men” employed to spread human and animal excrement on the fields in the days before proper sanitation. The tobacco, they believed, would neutralise harmful odours. The pipes changed design so often that it is possible to date them to within 10 years....

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