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.



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.

Cover Shot

“Don’t judge a book by its cover” is a widely ignored cliché, as many book buyers do just that. In general the advice is (1) ensure the book looks like the kind of book it is supposed to be and (2) in the modern age make sure it works as a website thumbnail.

IMG_0072My publishers have over the years have for the most part consulted me on my covers, even if it was an ‘does this have your approval’ on a final choice. My first York pottery book was a heap of fun. We’d found several hundred pieces of unused glossy orange samian ware in a pile on the site, so I suggested we simply photograph a heap of pots.

I had three suggestions for the cover of Glint of Light on Broken Glass. The cover designer at Matador seized on one – an abandoned pair of spectacles on a beach. A stock photograph was found that adapted nicely as a cover, with a great use of fonts. But there was one problem; the glasses were clearly modern – 1960’s at the earliest. The glasses in question tumbled from George’s face in 1906 so would have been of the round, Edwardian style with wire frames.

It so happened that the Museum had a pair of replica Edwardian glasses in its ‘handling collection’ (objects that schoolchildren can touch without fear the object will be broken or lost forever). I was due to attend an overnight Archaeologists’ Christmas Party on Lihou Island, so took the glasses along.IMG_8413.JPG

IMG_8448It was mid afternoon, chilly, with the sun dodging in and out of cloud. I took 40 photographs of the glasses whilst there was still daylight. Guernsey sand is very yellow, so the gold-rimmed frames simply vanished against it. I left the beach and started to climb amongst the rocks. I photographed them sitting on rocks, trapped between rocks, lying in rock-pools, lying in little streamlets with water flowing over them.

When the sun came out, the water sparkled and so did the lenses. IMG_8465With some fiddling I could catch the bright clouds in one lens – the Glint in the Eye that George notices. No need for photoshopping or clever composure. Lihou’s rocks offered a variety of textures and colours, limpets and weed, shallow puddles, wet and dry patches.


IMG_8456After an hour I had enough shots – the sun was falling and it was time to return to the party. I sent a shortlisted selection to the designer and the final choice was to desaturate the colours. The image chosen has the glasses upside-down with the arms conspiring to form a heart. On cue the sun is reflecting in the right lens. Perfect.



Asterix #5: The Fiat Gearbox

It was a divers’ joke. The object they found was a blue-grey colour, heavy, metallic. It was the size of a man’s oustretched palm, with a circular central hole and three vanes each with a screw hole. Three further supporting lugs added strength. They called it the Fiat Gearbox, or the Messerschmitt gearbox, thinking this might be a relic from the Occupation rather than a piece of the Roman ship. There was a fair amount of modern junk which had collected in the scour pits formed by Asterix, including  a ‘Sealink’ saucer, so it was not an unreasonable idea.

Then we found a second one, embedded deep in the pine tar. There is even video of a diver chipping it out. I had the job of cleaning this, painstakingly using a pin drill to cut away the clinging tar. It was clearly Roman – and far more ancient than Fiat!bilge pump j

A quick literature search showed that similar objects had been found on several Mediterranean wrecks of the Roman and Byzantine periods. Each was subtly different, but the general design was the same – a metal fixing with circular hole supported so it would attach to a wooden structure. The Lake Nemi bilge pumpobjects were bearings for a bilge pump. Finds from the sunken barges on Lake Nemi dating to the time of Nero offered the best indication of how these would work. A simple chain of cups was powered by a crank and served to scoop water overboard. The design had clearly been in use for at least three centuries by the time Asterix went down.

The presence of a bilge pump explained the ‘limber holes’ cut onto the undersurface of the floor timbers in Asterix. these would allow bilge water to flow freely along the hold of the ship. They only made sense if there was a pump – and this pump had to be located at the lowest part of the ship. Out two parts were however found up in the aft hold, too far back to be effective. Either the pump could be unshipped when not required and was stored at the back, or our two bearings were being carried as spares. One is on display at Castle Cornet and the second at Guernsey Museum. Cleaned and conserved, less burnt than the first,  the second one has a dull bronze-brown colour.

The presence of this ‘Roman’ invention on an otherwise ‘Celtic’ style ship further shows how ‘Asterix’ employed the best technology each culture could offer.












Wrecked coverFor the past few months I’ve been editing a book written by a colleague. Wrecked, Guernsey Shipwrecks, is the work of Patrick Martin. When Patrick was working at Fort Grey Shipwreck Museum he asked if he could write a book about the wrecks on display. This seemed an ideal opportunity to publish some of the large collection of photographs and other images in the Museum collection.

The book takes a look at some unusual wrecks, as well as those familiar from displays in Guernsey’s Shipwreck and Maritime Museums.

Wrecked is on sale from 9 December from the Museum shop, other boookshops and online from  Guernsey Museum Shop

Fourth Novel

Lady in the LakeWho saw this one coming, eh? This post could have been entitled The Fun Novel, as by the time I started Lady in the Lake I was in full swing. It was the only book I sold on the basis of title alone – mostly Arthurian, but with a nod to Chandler also. Indeed when I pitched it I had only the last page planned – a good point to work towards.

King Arthur has been described as the historical character upon which more scholarly time has been wasted than on any other. The research was entertaining, and my work paralleled Jeffery Flint’s delving into the world of Arthurian myth – those who believe it literally and all shades of other opinions. I was struck again and again how Arthur refuses to die – uncomfortable archaeological finds that point to him being real (or at least, his world being real).

To an extent the book is a road trip for Flint and Tyrone around various Arthurian sites and conventions. More than in any other book they exercise their curious yin/yang male bonding, with Tyrone’s blunt realism providing the foil to Flint’s tree-hugging distrust of the modern world. It is to date their last joint outing.

With a farcical chase scene and an air of continuous disbelief that the True Excalibur has actually been found, this is probably the lightest of the series. With academics playing the two lead characters and most of the supporting cast there is ample opportunity to download that research into the book without it feeling like information-dumping. Academics love to cite facts, then argue them with other academics. With their different political perspectives, Flint and Tyrone come at the problems from different angles, chew them over and blunder towards the final confrontation.

Merlin, the Beast of Exmoor, the Hitler Werewolf murders – this book was a joy to write.

Third Novel

Keen-eyed readers of this site will have worked out that this blog was coming up sooner or later…

ShadesmoorShadesmoor was my third novel, and in many ways the easiest I have ever written. It was sold as part of a three-book deal, at which time I had a title and a synopsis. It was the last of my ‘autobiographical’ novels, in that my final stock of digging tall-stories was mined for the background. For the first time I wrote as one is supposed to  – creative writing 101.

I had an outline. I drafted a list of 30 basic chapters and their main action points. I made little cards with all the character details written down. I did not have to do much research as I’d been working in York in the recent past and details were still fresh. I did my usual series of drafts, back-writing the clues and the sub-plots once I knew I had beginning, middle and end plus the whole cast of characters.

It is also the closest I have come to a classic ‘whodunnit’, complete with country house, old vicarage, body in the study, distressed gentry and bungling police. Flint knows there has been a murder at the outset and walks into the intrigue with open eyes. Hilary Cool (one of my archaeologist colleagues) read an early draft and suggested that the textbook used in an assault was not heavy enough – and proposed a much weightier volume to add punch!

Editors were also kind. They asked for one character to be developed more, which was best served by writing a new chapter mid-way through and weaving the character into the rest of the book.

So with Shadesmoor I was in my stride, but the pressure was on. Three books in three years (which meant in real terms, nine months to write each book) was the challenge. And for book 4, I had only a title and a last page.

Asterix the Ship #4: The Jigsaw

Asterix small timbers laid outBack in 1985, the divers departed leaving me with occasional volunteers to record the timbers. Some had been planned in position on the seabed, which was fortunate in the case of one keel timber – the largest on the ship- which vanished overnight and was never seen again. We think it was dragged out into the Russell by prop-wash.

After basic cleaning, the recording could begin. The storage tanks were drained overnight once a week, then refilled the following day, which took about 3 hours. After spraying them to keep wet, I’d step into the tank and start work. At lunchtime I’d set the fill hosepipe going, which would still allow an hour or two’s work before the water reached welly-top height and forced me to stop.

A polythene sheet was laid over the timber and I traced it with marker pens, producing drawings up to 5 metres long, with the nail holes, tool marks and damage marked in different colours. The sheets were hung up to dry, giving the place the look of a laundry. Once dry, I laid the sheets out on a table marked with two-centimeter grids. I then copied the drawing onto scaled ‘permatrace’ sheets at a scale of 1:10. As a cross-check, I next surveyed the timbers conventionally using tape measures and plumb lines and used this to correct the tracing. Margaret and I then started juggling the pieces together by matching up the nail holes, planking to floor timbers.

Zoom to 2015 and we have a new jigsaw puzzle to solve. My colleague Kit is retracing my steps, checking each timber against the original drawings. Some were cut for transportation, others broke, most had to have their tags removed during the conservation process. The Old Post Office looks rather like one of those hangars used after an air crash, with parts of ship spread on sheets. We’re painstakingly working out which timber is which, and where the many small fragments fit.

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