It happened again.
Last week a journalist asked me "what's the most exciting thing you've ever found?"
I know I shouldn't get upset, but, as I've noted before, it's the sort of question that defies any reasonable answer. I 'ummed' and 'ahhed' and tried to fob him off with a comment to the effect that "all archaeological finds were exciting", which is true, although, I suspect that in retrospect it probably sounded quite trite. There is, after all, an incredible thrill on finding something, even a lowly struck flint or pot sherd, that has lain undisturbed (and unseen by human eyes) for millennia. I don't really care what the find is (and ok gold or silver would be nice, if unlikely), for it is a vital clue to understanding the past: a critical piece of the 'impossible jigsaw of time'.
The journalist, however, was not budging. "No, your BEST find, something which changed your perception of the past; something that really excited you". I could see that my idea of excitement was probably different to his, so I took another gulp of tea. My mind was reeling from the inability to conjure up some discovery from my past that both he and his audience would judge to be 'amazing': the sort of thing that a man of my age really ought to have found by this late stage in his career. Trouble is, I have yet to locate a Crystal Skull or unearth the odd Cradle of Life or Ark of the Covenant. Certainly nothing that the movie industry (which continually moulds both the public and media perception of archaeology as a profession) says I ought to have back home in my own private museum.
I cleared my throat.
Ok. Mile Oak, East Sussex Late summer 1989. Here I was in charge of overseeing a JCB mini digger cutting trenches across a chalk valley as part of an impact assessment for the A27 Brighton Bypass (now hacking its indiscriminate way through the
South Downs). Two days in and we had found very little. With half an hour to spare before the end of the last day, I got the JCB driver to cut one last trench. Fortunately this came down on a prehistoric henge monument with a rather fine, if small, monolith originally set up within what turned out to be the north-western entrance to the site. The henge was a totally unexpected discovery and the monolith remains, to date, the only standing stone recorded from the South Downs. Mile Oak was also the site where I found my wife to be (not with the JCB).
Interestingly, if people ask (as they now rarely do) what my favourite find whilst working on Time Team was (yes I was there for 3 years - mostly hiding behind the camera), I'm afraid it is another monolith (nothing Freudian in all this I hope). This particular upright came from within the entrance of Migdale henge,
Highlands in and, like Mile Oak, was an unexpected discovery. There was a great scene (lasting about 9 seconds) in the final TV programme where, with 30 minutes of daylight left on the last day of filming, I single-handedly lifted the stone (contrary to appearances it was exceptionally light) and set it back in the entranceway, patted it then collapsed (off camera) into a little heap. There was, I recall at the time, some talk of fixing the stone in place, as a tourist / henge worshipper / heritage feature, but I think it was finally reburied back in the hole from which it had come. Looking through the henge, as the sun began to set on that last day, past the stone and down the length of the Scotland Loch, I felt a tear spring to my eye (the whisky helped).
I came back to reality with a jolt and realised that I had been staring off into the middle distance. The journalist was looking at me in a slightly curious yet concerned way. I smiled.
"Stones then..." he said matter-of-factly, "you found some stones..."
I could see that he was not impressed.
"Standing stones" I corrected.
“Standing stones that were lying down" he nodded, as if that made all the difference - An embarrassing silence fell between us and I noticed that he had stopped writing in his note pad.