Monday, 4 April 2011

In a Hole

So there I was at the bottom of a deep hole looking up at the sky.

It wasn't just any old hole of course: it was one that over two thousand years ago had formed a roughly cylindrical pit for storing grain. Once the grain had been removed, the pit had been used to deposit the body of an adult male, rolled in on top of a bed of horse and cow bones; laid down for posterity, or at least until the attentive trowel of an archaeologist had gently lifted him out and away from the probing teeth of a 21st century plough. The pit had once been at the heart of a thriving agricultural community who had on the chalk some 200 years before the arrival of Rome.

We had excavated the pit and emptied its contents, bones and pottery bagged up, soil sieved and sampled, last June, under the scorching summer sun. Now it was spring, and the sun appeared a little less vibrant. In the summer, the whole site had seemed so alive, a community of just over 100 archaeologists, students and volunteers, shovelling, mattocking, drawing, trowelling, wheel-barrowing, talking and laughing. Now the site was empty: a cold rain had swept the interior, earlier snow and ice having broken the exposed surface down into a fine powder. Intrepid weeds had colonised the spaces in-between the backfilled pits and ditches.

For some reason, of all the pits recorded and excavated on site, we had singularly failed to backfill this one. Looking down, on this cold spring morning, I'd seen movement: a frog, helplessly battering itself against the eroding wall of the pit. Without thinking I had jumped in, carefully avoiding the enraged amphibian, and helped it to clamber out (with the aid of my shovel). Movement against the south wall alerted me to the fact that there was another frog down here, and another, and another, and another. None of them seemed particularly pleased to see me, but, having leapt to the rescue of one, I couldn't really abandon the others. Ten minutes later, a full twelve frogs had emerged out of the darkness to bound uncertainly around the mouth of the pit.

It was then that I realised my predicament.

Health and safety is something I teach both at the university and on site. Leaping into a deep, unshored pit that has been happily eroding for almost year, whilst your only other comrades are some 10 minutes walk away at the end of the field, is not something I would normally promote, and it's certainly not something I’d recommend. When the pit had been freshly excavated, the sides were solid, the workforce kitted out in protective gear and with constant above ground support. I possessed neither hard hat nor shoring and, thanks to my previous action with the shovel, was now alone in the dark. I wondered if the frogs had scampered off looking for help (Skippy the Bush Kangaroo had, after all, always found a way to aid his human friends), but I had only known the hapless amphibians for a few minutes: I was not entirely sure where their loyalties lay.

Standing at the bottom of a deep hole with only the clouds above your head to act as a point of reference is a curiously unsettling experience. Today we live in a world so dominated by immense townscapes of steel, concrete and glass, that it is easy to underestimate how disorientating the removal of the familiar can be. Entering the ground, even into the comparative shallowness of an old storage pit, entails a palpable sense of dislocation from the real world. Pits, shafts and mines are ultimately dark, damp and cold, the prehistoric equivalent, perhaps, of sensory deprivation chambers. There are no familiar sounds down there in the deep, what ones there are being muffled and distorted. You can't feel the sun or rain on your face, the wind dies out completely and there are no bright colours or familiar smells. Strange to say, but as I stood at the base of the pit, I felt an overwhelming sense of calm, liberated, as I was, by the concerns of the real world. I had an immense urge to stay there; to lie upon the floor, just as our earlier pit occupant had done, curl up on my side and drift off to sleep. Something at the back of my mind told me that this probably wasn't such a good idea. One slip of the chalk walls and it would be me being recovered by archaeologists when the dig restarted in June.

Using the shovel I made a difficult and thoroughly ungraceful exit from the pit, my last foothold bringing with it a cascading shower of chalk and flint rubble. When I got back to the surface, I found the frogs had long since hopped away whilst my colleagues were still at the end of the track, arguing animatedly about something and nothing.

I took a deep breath and headed off across the field in their direction.

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