Beneath the Sands of Time

Some of you will have seen shots of my time spent on the island of Alderney during July. It was probably the tenth time I’d been there to lead an excavation at the Nunnery, but time shifts and this year brought new experiences and new surprises.

Yes, that’s the view from my room!

The Nunnery itself has been reconfigured as a Field Centre, operating under the eagle eye of the Bird Observatory Warden (okay, that was a bad pun). We hope that bird-watchers and ringers will stay there in migration season, and heritage/natural history buffs in the high summer. I was the first resident of the almost-finished hostel, all on my own for the first night, up in the attic watching the sun rise over France when the oystercatchers and seagulls awoke me at 5am. It was of course mid-heatwave so there was no question of closing the windows. For a week I had no radio, no TV, no internet and not even a live phone signal; which was blissful when it wasn’t infuriatingly inconvenient.

Isabel and Dave mark the width of the original gate

Week one, I was progressively joined by more colleagues  and we started Trench 16 just inside the Nunnery gates. The sun reflected back off the Roman and Revolutionary-era stonework as we battled a giant fuscia then dug downwards to uncover the mystery of the Roman gate. There was a hint that it had been narrower than the modern one, and so it proved – by 800mm or so. It had no fancy quoins like the 18th century gate though – just an ordinary corner.

Mystery building from above

In the back of the trench was another section of the mystery building we’d seen in 2016, lurking just beneath the surface but cut through by the 1793 ‘coal store’ foundations. Loads of what looked like 18th century pantiles had to be shifted to have a look at the foot of the Roman wall – whether they came off the mystery building when it was destroyed I don’t know. Down in the same hole though were glazed ridge tiles peculiar to French churches. Maybe there was a ‘Nunnery’ at the Nunnery once, after all.

 

 

Tanya records the stone pavement

After I left for a break, things shifted gear. My colleague Phil de Jersey opened up two trenches in the field opposite, hoping to find more of the Iron Age burial ground we spotted last year. I was going to lead a group of school students to investigate a set of walls we’d also seen to check if they were Roman. As luck had it, Phil and Tanya found the Roman buildings first. Buried under a metre of windblown sand the walls still stood chest- high and in one trench was an impressive stone pavement.

 

 

The cross-walls emerge in Trench C; the Nunnery in the background

For Trench C, I chose a location indicated by a local dowser as being a likely junction of walling and my students quickly found it – again not far under the surface. Four walls met awkwardly, including one where a huge 85cm square slab made up the first course. As ever we were operating on a shoestring but help came from many quarters when we needed it, from landowners allowing the dig in the first place to that welcome excavator to fill the holes in at the end.

Some historic maps marked that area as ‘The Old Town’, although nothing remains above ground today. Since Victorian times there had been reports of odd Roman finds out on Longis common – a coin here, a skull there, ‘huge walls’ in imprecise locations. Now we had proof that all these disparate finds were linked. Some 100 metres separated Phil’s trench from mine – and once the other evidence is added in we have a picture of an entire Roman settlement buried under the sand-dunes of Longis. Several people used the phrase ‘Pompeii of the Channel Islands’ and I was the one who ended up being quoted using it. Apt in that we could have well-preserved Roman houses, streets and courtyards just beneath our feet; less apropropriate as the Roman town was probably long-abandoned before it was buried beneath a massive ‘sand blow’.

Alderney now has a unique and extensive site bigger than anything we have seen in the Channel Islands or adjacent French coasts. The benign sand preserves  bone, pottery and the metal objects we need to date and interpret the site.  The Common is not threatened by a new motorway or multistory car-park so is a perfect research site. And the views are great – eat your heart out Time Team!

It was my first dig where the sun shone every day for 3 weeks  and the rain held off until 30 mins after we closed the site that final Friday. We swam most days in the wide bay at Longis, Alderney’s natural harbour; probably the reason the Roman fort and settlement were put there in the first place. The sun went down glowing on 4th century stonework, black rabbits emerged from their burrows on the Common and we rinsed off the sands of time before picking one of Alderney’s pubs or bistros for dinner. A site tour and great media coverage sent a buzz through the island, capped by a final lecture. So we ended on a massive high, exhilarated by what our small team had found.

To find out more about the Nunnery and Longis Common digs, follow the facebook page ‘Alderney Nunnery’. We’ll be working on the finds and reviewing the evidence during the winter, and with luck will return again next year.

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The Friendly Festival

It was my pleasure to attend the fourth Alderney Literary Festival this weekend, which incoming Chair Anthony Riches declared to be the ‘Friendly Festival’. It is small but perfectly formed, concentrating on historical fiction, non-fiction and biography. The audience is limited to 50 or so for each talk, so there was barely an empty seat throughout the weekend. People came and went, picking the talks that suited them and there was a programme of fringe events taking place about the island.

The intimacy of the venue at the Island Hall also meant that the dozen authors and the public mixed freely. There was no ‘Green Room’ for writers to be whisked away to by their agents or publicists. Refreshingly the talks were not simply a plugathon for the author’s new book, but plunged deep into discussions of historical fact and fiction, and indeed the point at which these transition into myth.

I wasn’t speaking this weekend, being principally a paying punter. I did however have the fun of introducing Professor Gary Sheffield’s talk on the end of the First World War, and brought away a copy of his book on Douglas Haig, from the Somme to Victory. The outcome of the Great War did much to shape the modern world, as did the outcome of the Second; the way we have built myths around that conflict were presented by Keith Lowe.

With Tony RichesIn what could have been the graveyard slot on Saturday evening, I also introduced Anthony Riches, energetic author of a dozen Roman epics which he writes at a dizzying rate. His talk on the evidence for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in the ancient world was thought-provoking and questions could have gone on all evening. Also taking no prisoners was outgoing Chair Simon Scarrow and his look at the so-called ‘End of History’, and where the deluge of data now available on the internet left the modern historian. Our own Liz Walton gave a talk on the Great War in the Channel Islands – I edited her book and was pleased to see it selling well on the bookstall.

Great fun, great conversations, great food washed down with a fair amount of wine. Local volunteers put a lot of work into this festival, which was supported by the Guernsey Arts Commission amongst others. With luck, and with the help of much-needed support from sponsors, Alderney Litfest will be back at the end of March 2019.

Follow the link for more on Alderney Literary Trust

A Writer’s Year

January is a hectic time at Guernsey Museum, as we turn around all the temporary exhibition spaces in three weeks. For me it means checking and proofing all the wall text, and numerous press releases. New Year’s Day is also when I like to pitch into the new book – NRT in the case of 2017

 

In an ideal world I’d skip February. It is a miserable month whose only redeeming feature is its brevity. I escaped to Barbados and hand-wrote some major plot twists of my new novel by the pool.

 

March saw the splendid Alderney Literary Festival, where I talked about ‘Glint” and signed a few copies. Mixing with the other authors of historical fiction/ non-fic/ biography was the highpoint though.

 

By April the literary year was hotting up, and I was off to Edinburgh for the annual conference of the Crime Writers’ Association. As usual it included talks by ex-coppers and criminologists on real-life cases; grim stuff like the ‘World’s End Murders’.

May saw both Bristol Crimefest (where I didn’t speak but met plenty of old friends) and the Guernsey Literary Festival (where I did both). I also interviewed Clare MackIntosh on her new book ‘I See You’; great fun, and only the second time I’d done a panel interview.

 

June’s big excitement was an emergency flight to Alderney to rescue what we could of an Iron Age burial ground sliced through by a JCB. Two days’ frantic work produced a wealth of finds that would keep us busy beyond the end of the year.

I was also back in Alderney in July, working ahead of a micro-excavator within the Nunnery Roman Fort. Enough evidence was uncovered to tempt me back in 2018.

 

It was my third visit to the Old Peculiar Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate in July. The last two had been blisteringly hot, but this time Yorkshire was grey and rainy. By now NRT was into its fourth draft, ready to start talking confidently about it to my crime-writing colleagues and send it to my erstwhile editor for a critique.

 

 

 

 

In late August, I went on holiday leaving Draft 5 in the hands of beta readers. I got off the Rock and headed for the wide open spaces of Wyoming, chalking up something over 2,000 miles in a fortnight. Plenty of iconic sites, but the ‘Great American Eclipse’ was an experience never to be forgotten; in Guernsey, Wyoming of all places.

Writing from a small island comes with its own challenges; 100 miles of water separates me from the mainland’s literary conventions, book fairs and library readings. In 2017 I took as many opportunities I could to combine a trip to the UK with a little literary interaction. September offered  a chance to drop into the small but perfectly formed ‘Morecambe  and Vice’ (“bring me some crime”).

 

The big October highlight was of course the CWA Daggers Awards Dinner, the Oscars of the crime-writing world. It was lovely sitting on the ‘New Blood’ table meeting the hopeful nominees and the eventual winner; I imagine we’ll hear more from all of them.

 

November was the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Cambrai, which features strongly in ‘Glint of Light on Broken Glass’. I engaged in a month of subtle promotion of the book on Facebook, and by nudging local shops. Interest in the battle in Guernsey had been minimal three years ago, but via a programme of lectures, museum displays, parades and living history events it was pushed into the forefront of Guernsey’s year.

So we came to December. NRT was finished, the final polish to Draft 7 being hammered out on my mother’s dining room table when I should have been socialising. Having discussed the idea the previous Christmas with London agent Annette Crossland. I sent off the manuscript and in a hectic couple of weeks I was signed up with A for Authors agency. Here we are celebrating at the CWA Christmas party. A pretty good end to 2017.

And the follow-up to NRT? The first page will go down on New Year’s Day. I’m also working on an artistic biography, our ‘Roman Guernsey’ book may finally see the light of day and ‘The Story of Guernsey’ will be published in German.  A Merry Christmas and successful New Year to fellow writers, readers and friends everywhere.

Small Island, Big Discoveries

Following up from the earlier post ‘Bring up the Bodies’, the island of Alderney continues to throw up exciting finds. We had only two short days this summer to rescue as much as we could from an electric trench that ran for some 300m along the edge of Longis Common. The trench was barely 1m wide and up to 1.2m deep so was truly a section through Alderney’s early history. To complicate matters further it was cut entirely through wind-blown sand, which does not tolerate a straight section for more than a few hours. Indeed by the time we returned for our second foray a week after the first, there had been significant slumping of the sections into the trench. In some cases this revealed new finds, but in other cases it dumped archaeology in a heap. I am still not sure whether the features we called C, D and E were three burial cists cut perpendicularly or just one burial which happened to follow the line of the trench.

Some 35 tonnes of spoil had been machine-excavated. Members of the Alderney Society had retrieved over 50kg of archaeological finds from this by the end of the summer, plus a great heap of slabs which once belonged to burial cists.

We have now had two carbon-14 dates obtained from the burial ground. The cremation I dug out literally using my hands had been in a later  Iron Age pot, but its C-14 date range was 198-47 BC, so most probably second century BC. The first skull found on the site has been confirmed to belong to the otherwise headless ‘skeleton 3’. It worried us at first that this was at right angles to the other burials and appeared to have been in a coffin rather than a stone cist. However the C-14 date again pointed to the late Iron Age; 174-19 BC. So the burial was probably later than the cremation and could indeed have taken place in that transition period when the Romans were asserting their control of the region after 56  BC. This is the period in which I initially placed the fine ‘Belgic’ pedestal urn we extracted from a collapsing cist further uphill from the skeleton.

More fun has followed. A keen-eyed local chap brought in a clutch of three bracelets, two of which were made of shale (imagine grinding a bracelet out of shiny black shale!). The third was of copper bronze and in a fragile condition. It was taken to Jersey Heritage’s conservator, who initially thought it might have been silvered.

 

As he cleaned off the corrosion products he noticed a criss-cross lattice on the inside of the bracelet. Moreover, this seemed to contain metal threads. The provisional conclusion is that this is an impression of a fine material the deceased was wearing, or at least was wrapped around the bracelet. Textile preservation is rare in archaeology, but a fine material containing metal threads would be a pretty unique find for Iron Age Britain.

So we now know there was an extensive late Iron Age graveyard at the south end of the Common. Half a dozen graves were already known and this summer’s rescue dig revealed a dozen more. In addition there were traces of at least one building and suggestions of more, in a style suggestive of the Romans. The 50kg of finds have now been washed and includes Roman pottery. Overlooked by the Iron Age settlement of Les Hougettes, and running down towards the late Roman fort at the Nunnery, the electric trench suggests there is over 200m of archaeology in a west/east direction and we suspect this extends at least 100m to north and south.

‘Time Team’ once approached me for suggestions on potential sites for a programme on the Channel Islands and I said “go to Alderney” as the archaeology was fantastic and barely messed about by modern intrusion (they went to Jersey). The little island barely 3 miles long keeps turning up treasures. The sand of Longis Common appears to overlie an entire Iron Age and Roman landscape. We will certainly be returning in the summer of 2018.

 

Bring Up the Bodies

I felt as if I was in a scene from a Jeffrey Flint novel. An email came in saying a skull had been found in the island of Alderney, then a phone call from the police concerned they had a crime scene. It had turned up in a trench being dug for an electric main across the dunes of Longis Common. Was this a crime scene or an archaeological site? Which aspect of ‘blood and trowels’ was involved?

From the start I was pretty sure the skull was ancient – there were reports of Roman burials in that area dating back to Victorian times. However, sensationalist stories swirl about Alderney and inevitably some people started to wonder if this was a slave worker murdered or worked to death by the Nazis during their occupation of the island. The fact that the skull came from under the road, and the road was laid round about the war, suggested to me that this was most likely to be pre-war. The depth of 1.2 metres was also about right. There is I believe a whole Iron Age and Roman landscape buried under 1-2 metres of sand at Longis, possibly a whole village or fort. Only a hundred metres or so from the finds stands the best preserved late Roman small fort in Britain – the Nunnery.

 I couldn’t fly to Alderney as notice was too short to get a flight, but my local colleague Isabel was able to examine the bones and the site. The police decided this was not a crime scene and we archaeologists were in business. I was able to bring the bones back with me latter than week in an ‘evidence’ bag. Then came a call that more skulls had been found. It was 8.30pm and I was settling down for a movie. There was still free seats on the Friday morning flight, so I was in the island by 9am next day. Unlike the UK, little Alderney has no resident professional rescue archaeology unit to call on but the all-volunteer Alderney Society were on hand to lend assistance.

 It was summer-holiday brochure hot and I always love working in Alderney. The site overlooks wide Longis Bay with France 9 miles in the distance. Workmen soon showed me the lengths of wall – presumed Roman – emerging from the 300m long trench. We walked the trench and spotted something sticking out of the side. It was an Iron Age pot that had been clipped by the excavator scoop. I could easily dig it out of the sand with my hands, scooping fragments of pot, charcoal and burned bones into bags to be ‘excavated’ later.

 My colleague Isabel and I then tackled the second skull, which was jutting into the trench just over a metre down, within a stone-lined cist whose lid had been partly torn off by the excavator. The skull had also been damaged (and was still protected by ‘Police Do Not Cross’ tape) but I set to, again mostly with fingers. I had only once dug up a skeleton and that was in 1980. Then I had used a teaspoon to gently remove a Merovingian woman’s bones from a wet sticky ditch, using a paperclip to clean her teeth.

 

 

In the case of Alderney it was fingers, and we had a race against time as the project needed to push forward and the all-sand sections don’t stay in place very long. I believe Skull 2 to have belonged to a woman, and she (?)  was buried with her chin on her chest, looking at her feet. Maybe she had been lowered in a shroud to give her that hunched posture. Her face was almost intact and I found the lower mandible as well as some vertebra. The ribs were well under the road so I left those in place.

 And then we found a third body, a few metres further down the trench. This was a small skeleton- possibly a juvenile, Skull 1 had also looked like a juvenile and I’m wondering whether it once belonged to this body as I only saw legs and a pelvis. A full skeleton was a different matter to retrieving damaged skulls. We’d also walked the trench with Rick from the engineering team and found half a dozen other likely spots. It was time to halt the commando raid, take stock, and call for reinforcements.

 

Alderney Literary Festival

Ald 5This has to be the best literary festival in the land (if you count the tiny island of Alderney as ‘in the land’). Its cosy, its intimate and its focus is firmly on history: historical fiction, biography and non-fiction.

As the speaker’s room at the Island hall only accommodates an audience of 50, there were very few free seats and most talks were at capacity. Only two free seats in my talk (and I like to think the ticket holders had an extra hour in bed, as I was on at 9.30am).

A dozen authors mixed freely with the bibliophiles, another nice departure from the big conventions when the big names parachute in for a panel, and equally swiftly are swept away again by their minders. Work commitments meant I missed the Friday sessions, and I couldn’t get a ticket for Andrew Lownie’s talk on Guy Burgess, but the rest of the weekend passed in a whirl. Anna Mazzola talking about her debut early Victorian crime novel the Unseeing, Lloyd Shepherd finding monsters in Regency London  and Matthias Strohn on the Real German Army of the 1930’s.

Turney Scarrow Downie

On Saturday evening there was a dinner at the Georgian where some of us dared to wear Roman or Celtic garb to hear a good-natured debate on the impact of Rome on Britain – Overpaid, Oversexed and Over Here. Romanists SJA Turney and Ruth Downie fought the corners for Rome and the Celts respectively, with Simon Scarrow umpiring. I  think the Britons won by a narrow margin of ‘thumbs up’, but I’m not precisely sure it mattered.

I was particularly interested in Simon Scarrow talking about Greece in WW2 and its aftermath, as this was the sub-plot of Byron’s Shadow and close to my heart (no pun intended – his book is called Hearts of Stone). Elizabeth Chadwick, Anna Mazzola and Imogen Robertson debated research for the Historical novel, which struck many true cords. Agent Andrew Lownie and phenomenally successful e-book author Rachael Abbott also had an intriguing debate on new forms of publishing versus the traditional model.

Ald 4 (2).jpgThen of course there was Dr Monaghan, talking about Guernsey in the Great War and the background to Glint of Light on Broken Glass. This was a lot of fun in its own right, although always tricky when it comes to the questions. Next year’s Alderney Literary festival is 23-25 March, so put that date in your diary.

 

 

 

Thou Shalt Not Kill (part 1)

gun 2

‘Artie, could you kill a German?’

‘Course, easy.’

‘No, but really kill him if he was standing just over there?…’

George challenges his brother as Glint of Light on Broken Glass enters the summer of 1917, with the Great War at its height and no sign of it ending. Artie’s reply is off-the-cuff, the stock response of a confident young man facing a dilemma he has only read about in history books.

Artie is wrong; it is not easy to kill. This is a relief to police chiefs but a problem for generals and those who like to play up the dark side of human nature. Although animal violence lurks within us, modern humans are raised to view it as ethically wrong. Killing raises an even higher order of revulsion, a sin in the eyes of all the world’s major religions.

Even before we became ‘civilised’ there was a great deal of self-interest in not killing another human. Watch animals fight over food, mates or territory. One gets the upper hand and the other quickly backs off. Neither can risk being injured, as it would then face the threat of disease, starvation or falling prey to higher predators. Species that battle to the death are therefore rare.

So it must have been with our primitive ancestors. An individual prepared to fight to the death will in due course meet an opponent who is strong enough or lucky enough to strike the fatal blow first. It is not a career path. My fencing instructor used to say that “50/50 is lousy odds when your life is at stake”. Historically we know of tribes fighting ritual wars that end with perhaps the first death, token injury or submission. Simply embarrassing the enemy by striking him could be enough to prove your valour, such as using the Native American ‘coup stick’.

It is ‘civilised’ humanity that invented total war, often directed by rulers who were not in physical danger themselves. The firearm adds further potential for the use of lethal force; it does not demand the all-out commitment of a sword fight, provided you shoot first and shoot well. In the face of lethal force, our primal instinct is to run, hide, take cover, plead or surrender. You’d need to be crazy to do otherwise.

Writers of historical fiction, and especially TV and movie adaptions should note that most conscript soldiers have a natural revulsion towards killing. It has to be trained out of them, just as the use of arms has to be trained into them. Research in WW2 found that less than 10% of US infantry who fought in the D-Day campaign actually fired their weapon, and a small proportion of these shot at anything in particular. Even in the deadly Great War, the fact that roughly 5% of British troops were killed suggests that, all other things being equal, 95% of German troops never killed anyone. This is accentuated further when one considers that most casualties were caused by artillery and machine guns. Most riflemen shoot wildly at distant or imagined targets, if they shoot at all.

Other research shows that military units of all kinds, from infantry platoons to fighter squadrons, contain a small number of effective killers. Everyone else is simply making up the numbers (and providing targets for the enemy’s killers). One reason professional armies such as NATO perform so well against otherwise well-armed and dangerous opposition is that these flaws are trained out of the troops. In the words of Lt Rasczak in Starship Troopers: “Everyone fights, nobody quits”.

I’ll leave the final thought to our brave lads, shooting into the smoke of the Battle of Cambrai:

Perhaps they killed hundreds ­– perhaps none at all.

Jason Monaghan is speaking at the Alderney Literary Festival on Saturday 25th March

#Alderneylit

Jason and the Archaeologists

_D8A7004Yes its excavating season. Time to bring out the digging t-shirts,  cowboy hat and trusty 4.5″ pointing trowel.

This August we returned to the Nunnery in Alderney, where our team last dug in 2013. This is Britain’s best preserved Roman small fort, continuing in use as medieval castle, Napoleonic barracks, German strongpoint, farm, hospital and holiday home. At some point in history it may even have been a nunnery, but we don’t know when.

We enjoyed 9 days of solid Alderney sunshine, only braving the rain to backfill on the last day. Nothing quite matches the experience of being on a dig with a dozen close friends. It is an intense and mindful experience. As director I thought of little else for two weeks other than the next layer we had to remove, the photographs needing taking, the record to complete. Our diggers needed to be fed at regular intervals too.

I actually ‘dug’ very little. In truth I scraped away at a few points to confirm the IMG_2038relationship between layers and I emptied the grand total of three buckets. Surveying, recording and photography occupied much of the time. Although we were looking for the gateway of the Roman tower (and found it!) most of the objects we found were post-medieval as the site has been re-occupied, rebuilt and generally messed around with for 1700 years. The pic on the right has me with a surveying pole at the bottom of a pit which had been full of WW2-era rubbish, standing between a German faux bastion and a post-medieval building 6ft below the surface. Right behind me is the inner face of the Roman fort wall, revealed down to its base for the first time.

Anyone interested in what we found should check out the ‘Alderney Nunnery’ Facebook page.

The site is in a glorious location, right on the sweeping beach of Longis Bay. We managed four swims after work when the tide was coming up not quite to lap the feet of the Nunnery’s fallen east wall. Afterwards, the evenings saw us enjoy Alderney hospitality at its best by sampling a different pub or restaurant each night. I put on more weight thanks to the food and wine than I lost perspiring on site! All good things must end and I’m back in the garret in Guernsey now, sweltering in the heat even though it is past nine o’clock. I have a great pile of finds record sheets, context record sheets, levels, photographs and two hours of video to work through before writing the dig up for publication. In many ways, my work has only just begun.

Test digs in Alderney

Undertook two quick test digs on Longis Common, Alderney. One by the Nunnery was looking to explain a depression (a 19th century road?) and a mound (a sand dune). The other sampled the previously fertile site at the Kennals where Roman deposits still lurk within a metre of the surface.

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