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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And Now in German…

The Story of Guernsey is published in German this week. It is an introductory history of Guernsey profusely illustrated with images from Guernsey Museums’ collection, aimed at the general reader, visitors to the island and older children. The English and French editions of this book have already made it the Museum’s best-selling non-fiction work.

I’m pleased to see this out in German and have to thank my friend Tamara Scharf for translating it,  Elke Spangenberg for proofing the text and Christine Zürcher for the final proof-read. My schoolboy German wasn’t up to more than browsing through to check that the final copy looked okay. As usual Paul le Tissier laid out the book; always a complication when a paragraph in another language is not the same length as in English. The book is now on sale from outlets in Guernsey and via Guernsey Museum’s online Amazon shop.

Catch Flint While You Can

The current Endeavour Press editions of the five Jeffrey Flint books will only be available on Amazon until 8th March. The e-books and paperbacks will be taken offline thereafter pending further discussions. This follows the liquidation of Endeavour Press which has been covered elsewhere in the publishing media.

Writing on a Wall (part 2)

I’d like to continue the theme of my last blog, where I discussed established principles for writing text on a wall. These apply not only to museums and galleries, but other public spaces such as information boards.

It goes without saying that the writing should be grammatically correct. Less obvious is that sentences need to be kept short. People are reading wall text standing up, an arm’s length or more away. They may be tired and suffering ‘museum back’, and could easily be distracted by something more enticing in the gallery. Sentences beyond 15 words in length become increasingly challenging to read and some people will give up. By 25 words half the audience has been lost, and almost no-one is still reading at 30.

Punctuation is also the enemy of the curator. The ideal sentence contains no punctuation other than the full stop. A comma gives the reader an opportunity to pause, and indeed to stop reading. Subordinate clauses can make the meaning hard to follow, and people forced to back-track to fully understand may simply not bother. Colons, semicolons, em-dashes and brackets are beyond the pale. Question marks can appear patronising, can’t they? Exclamation marks can look childish – just ask the kids!

Without being simplistic, common words are preferable to long and obscure ones. Archaeologists ‘dig’ rather than ‘excavate’. Instead of them ‘evaluating’ or ‘elucidating’ or ‘extrapolating’, plainer English explanations need to be explored.

The objects are cool – so the text should be cool too.

Within these guidelines, the writing still needs to be fluid and engaging. Museum curators can borrow principles from magazine writers, who are aiming to entertain and inform without lecturing. The use of active verbs is preferred: “The dockers unloaded the ship” rather than “The ship was unloaded by dockers”. Excitement can be injected, where “The soldiers charged onto the beach” rather than “Soldiers were landed on the beach.” Weak nouns are also discouraged: “the soldier was brave”, he did not “display bravery”. This fights against the novelist’s training to avoid adjectives, so the truck “struggled to climb the steep hill” rather than “struggled due to the hill’s steepness”.

The above guidelines make it challenging to still write interesting text. Breaking up long sentences requires some skill and imagination. The text can become choppy. There is also a temptation to use a lot of T-words, namely The, Their, Them, They and That which makes for boring reading, especially when used for successive sentences such as in this paragraph. Curatorial knowledge is essential, good writing skills help, and editing to a ‘House Style’ becomes critical.

When you are next in a museum or gallery, have a look to see how many of these principles have been applied. You’ll never read a museum text board in the same way again.

With thanks to Guernsey Museum for use of images from their exhibition ‘Engage Warp Drive’.

 

Writing on a Wall

Writing for museums is a skill in its own right. Tucked into a novel, you should become so immersed in the book you cease to be aware you are reading at all. In the same way, when you are in a museum, you should enjoy the objects on show and not be aware of the work that has gone into crafting those captions and text boards. The curator’s voice is a whisper not a yell.

Museum curators tend to be experts in their subject, and many write academic papers and books aimed at other experts, but exhibitions require a completely different approach. The curator may have a doctorate in archaeology, but the vast majority of people who view the exhibition will not. Visitors will include school groups, Dutch tourists, Dad keeping the kids busy on a wet Saturday, students working on projects and otherwise keen museum-goers whose enthusiasm is flagging a couple of hours into the visit.

The curator is not writing ‘a book on a wall’ – this mistake is often made by small museums run by enthusiasts. Few people have the time or patience to read more than a couple of hundred words whilst standing in a museum gallery, and want to get to the punchline as soon as possible.

 

Journalists working on popular tabloid newspapers face the same challenge; complex issues need to be explained to the ‘interested non-specialist’ using as few words as possible. However, it is important that in doing this the museum does not ‘dumb down’ or become simplistic.

Tabloid news is also often told backwards, with a give-away headline followed immediately by the crux of the story and then by the events leading up to it. Many people will only look at the photo, read the headline and the first few lines of copy and never actually get into the duller detail. I admit to reading most news stories like that.

Museums address this by using ‘three level text’. First comes the title on the text board, enough for people in a rush or those who don’t speak very good English to learn roughly what they are looking at. Next comes a paragraph of the key information for those who want a little more detail.  The third level offers additional paragraphs to satisfy the more curious, although in reality we are only talking another 2 to 300 words.

Research shows that the majority of museum text and captions are not read by the average visitor; people pick and choose which items they want to discover more about, and tend to have more appetite for reading soon after arrival than they do an hour or more later.

 

The curator’s challenge is to not discourage the reader by making text too complex, too long-winded or too technical. ‘Access’ is a museum buzz-word which includes enabling maximum appreciation of the exhibition by visitors of diverse ages, educational level, cultural background and emotional maturity. Jargon and artbabble are simply turn-offs; the aim is to explain, not show off how clever we are. Museums should be for everyone, not just ‘posh white people who have been to university’.

In Part 2 next week I’ll be looking at some do’s and don’ts for wall text.

Thanks to Guernsey Museum for use of text board images

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.

 

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