Last week, I received an email out of the blue, from Geoff Dannell. It is over 62 years since he and I last met, when we excavated together at Verulamium, the third-largest Roman city in Britain. Verulamium is located on the outskirts of St Albans, and I had two wonderful summers there under the direction of my Professor at the Institute of Archaeology, Sheppard Frere. Geoff was then a site supervisor at Verulamium and already an expert on Samian Ware. Attached to the email was a photograph of me helping Martin Aitken with a Mark 1 proton magnetometer survey within the walls of the city, during which we traced a ditch that ran a long and straight course until it turned a right angle. I asked Geoff who my companion was in this photograph; he replied: Felicity Wild. She and I have since engaged in a lively email correspondence, replete with memories of that hot summer of 1959, when we excavated a splendid town house with a complete mosaic of a lion with a stag’s head in its jaws. She has since also become a specialist in the analysis of Samian Ware, the range of ceramic vessels mass-produced in moulds that incorporate the name of the maker.
I sent a copy of the photograph to son Tom, who replied at once from his new base at the University of Vienna with a reference to a current series of resistivity surveys that are mapping the complete plan of Roman Verulamium. I was fascinated to read the regular internet reports on their progress and contacted Kris Lockyear, who is a leading member of the group undertaking the geophysical survey there. My diary for 1959 records that it was on 1 September that Martin Aitken came with his proton magnetometer. I have no idea how Felicity and I were chosen to help him; perhaps because I had already done so on a previous occasion at Dane’s Camp in Gloucestershire, where he unfailingly identified pits for us to excavate in the interior of that Iron Age hillfort. Martin was then an emerging leader in identifying subterranean features from his base at the Oxford Research Laboratory for Archaeology and the History of Art. Felicity and I were assigned the task of holding the sensor at fixed intervals while he recorded signals, the sensor being a set of wires wrapped round an old whisky bottle emptied of its original contents and refilled with water. It certainly worked; Sheppard Frere was delighted when the line of this ditch emerged from his readings. But until this past week, I had no inkling of its date or function.
Kris directed me to the report in the Antiquaries Journal of the 1959 excavation season, which has an appendix by Martin on our enterprise with the bottle. Excavations of the ditch revealed it to have been the perimeter of the early city and that by AD 100 it had begun to silt up. The later brick perimeter walls, which were to be recycled into St Alban’s Cathedral, were much more extensive. I don’t know why, but I had never read the report on our 1959 excavations until last week, so looking at them revived not only a host of memories, but also the pleasure of reading a succinct and beautifully illustrated summary of what we found. For some of the time, I was assigned to excavate in the back room of a shop that fronted Watling Street, the main thoroughfare that linked to two main city gates and ran past the theatre. There were thin layers of clay flooring that peeled off to reveal occupation remains. The occupants had swept their floor into a pit in the corner of the room, where in one afternoon, I found about 30 coins. We cleaned each of these to identify the Emperor and, of course, therefore the date of the shop.
We all gathered round on another day, when a whoop of excitement emerged from the next-door shop, where Professor Frend was working in a cellar. He had just found the lovely bronze statuette of Venus, now a proud exhibit in the Verulamium Museum. On another occasion, we were due a visit from a delegation of about 30 French archaeologists, and Professor Frere designated me to give them a guided tour in their language. Perhaps I was chosen because I had earlier that summer worked with him at the Iron Age Camp du Charlat in France and he assumed I was fully bilingual. I was stumped in preparing for this ordeal by the French term for a corn-drying furnace, but by a stroke of good fortune, I had a French girlfriend at the time, and a quick phone call came to my aid – ‘un furneaux séchér le blé.’
All of us were agog with anticipation as the day dawned for the visit of Sir Mortimer Wheeler. For the younger reader, Sir Mortimer was the doyen of British archaeologists, famed for his television appearances such that in 1954 he was voted TV personality of the year by BBC audiences for his contributions to the programme Animal, Vegetable, Mineral? Wheeler and his wife Tessa had led the 1930-34 excavations at Verulamium, and his reputation of straight talk was well known. I glanced up from my trench mid morning and there he was, entering the excavation precinct. Sheppard Frere went to greet him, and before long, the two great men came to my trench. In those distant days, our finds were placed in a tray and the accumulated fill was put into a wheelbarrow to be dumped on the spoil heap. Sheppard picked up a sherd of Samian Ware from my tray and discussed its date with Sir Mortimer. Then, to my horror, he noted a fresh break on this piece of pot. He asked me where was the missing bit and I had no answer, so he rummaged in my wheelbarrow with his great hands before hauling it out. ‘Be more careful in future,’ he admonished me. To this day, I think I saw a frisson of sympathy on Sir Mortimer’s distinguished face.
Seeing beneath the soil
Now let us fast forward six decades. The new geophysical survey is rapidly extending over the entire interior of the city. Regular internet reports on the website are revealing the layout of the streets, houses, kilns, and walls. The centre of the city had the forum, and theatre that flanked a large temple. The grid pattern of streets divides the city into insulae (blocks), with fine houses with their hypocausts, bath complexes, and mosaic floors in the centre thinning out as one reaches the periphery against the walls. Kris has kindly sent me the latest plan to illustrate what he and his team have achieved. Our early enclosure ditch appears crystal clear as the dark straight line that turns a right angle on its western edge. Apparently, Martin did not take any readings when it passed under the St Alban’s first XI cricket pitch for fear of the groundsman’s wrath. A sinuous dark line is the aqueduct that leads to the theatre, and I can pinpoint precisely where I lost that bit of Samian Ware in the field beyond.
It was there during my two summers at Verulamium that I had my true grounding as an archaeologist. My site supervisor was a fearsome lady, Marion Wilson. She gave us precise instructions on how to wield a trowel, and when my technique strayed, she marched in my direction loudly declaiming, ‘No no no no no.’ Sheppard Frere liked to open a large area, without the squares divided by baulks that Wheeler had pioneered at Maiden Castle. This too I follow, for with small squares at my deep Thai sites, I would have spent half my time up or down a ladder. Sheppard had an eagle eye, and tutored me on looking out for tiny coins. Maurice Cookson had been photographer for Wheeler from Dorset to Taxila, and every photo I have taken on my various digs bears the stamp of his influence. Once, I spent half a day cleaning my square for his attention. He came to take his photographs, looked at my handiwork and growled, ‘That is fine, now clean it.’ I kept in regular touch with Sheppard into his 99th year, calling whenever I could on his lovely Rectory at Marcham near Oxford to a warm welcome. On one of the last visits, he gave me his trowel, with ‘F’ carved on the handle, my most treasured archaeological possession.
And indeed, Kris Lockyear has posted on the internet a special edition of his report series describing that day on 1 September 1959, when Felicity and I found ourselves embarking on a lifelong passion for archaeology. Here it is: https://hertsgeosurvey.wordpress.com/2021/08/23/a-little-bit-of-history.