Saturday, 22 November 2014

Digging for Troy

Archaeologists are proud to call a spade a spade (and not a hand-operated, steel tipped, wooden handled soil interface device) and covert those hand-operated, steel tipped, wooden handled soil interface devices that slice well, slice deep into the earth, never giving them up to the inexperienced practitioner.

One such digging tool has just sold for a quite incredible $6,250 in the USA, not because of its excellent soil-slicing properties (although I'm sure it has those in...ahem...spades) but because of its erstwhile literary connections. 

The spade was once briefly owned by playwright George Bernard Shaw, who used it to plant a mulberry tree on his 80th birthday in 1936.
Later it was presented to the author Ray Bradbury as a Christmas gift.

Bradbury, a huge fan of Shaw, was apparently so delighted in taking possession of the artefact, that he wrote a poem to commemorate the event. As so few poems are ever written about the act of digging (and as the Press, in their wisdom, published only a few lines), it is perhaps worth setting it down in full:
I hold the dear spade in my hands,
Its vibrant lightnings strike and move along my arms,
The ghost of Shaw climbs up through me
I feel a fiery brambling of chin
I feel my spine
Stand straight as if a lightning bolt had struck
His old voice whispers in my ear, dear boy
Find Troy, go on, dig deep, find Troy, find Troy!
But where, I cry, but where, but where?
Why there, good lad, there there, ah, there
Electric goes his fingers. I quake, start
The old man's ghost is pointing at my heart
Can that be true, how deep, how long the digging, can it be true?
Good grief, shut up, says Shaw, grab hold, fall to!
He steps back in the dust, down in the shade,
And I stand, Christmas morn, with ancient spade,
Great Shaw the First is gone, is dead?
His son stands here, Excalibured,
And crowned my head.
I love the enthusiasm with which Bradbury eulogises both playwright and spade, as if the power of the former fully inhabitants the garden implement. I can understand his feelings. Many years ago I came in possession of a small set of digging equipment previously owned, and used, by Eric Holden and John Pull, pioneering Sussex amateur archaeologists and I well recall the tingling sense that, in holding the pick, shovel and spades, I was in some way connecting directly with both the personalities of the fieldworkers and the sites they had investigated.

I also love Bradbury's sense of emulating Heinrich Scliemann in attempting to find Troy. Recalling the epic trenches cut by hand at the direction of that great German antiquarian explorer in the early 1870s through the Turkish site of Hissarlik, in which over 250,000 cubic meters of soil was displaced by 200 workmen using horse carts, wheel barrows and a small rail track over a 3 year period, I expect that it would have taken the author quite some time to replicate Schliemann's efforts.

Still I admire his courage and, thinking about it, 'Go on, dig deep, find Troy, find Troy' sounds like it may well become the site motto for next year's summer fieldwork project.
Although finding an ancient Trojan city in the middle of the Dorset countryside may prove quite a task.


  1. I thought the site motto was "never forget never forgive" or has it changed now?

    1. Hi, yes, nearly.

      It has been 'Never Forgive, Never Forget, Never For Fun' for a while, but many visitors to the dig have (quite rightly) questioned just how morale boosting such a sentiment really is....(probably not at all). It's actually liberally plagiarised from a 2000 AD story 'Nemesis the Warlock' and is one of the 'jolly' sayings (as far as I recall - it was some time ago) of Torquemada, Grand Master of Termight. Anyway, to cut a (very) long story short, it replaced the (rather less happy-go-lucky) motto "There ain't no Justice - There's Just Us" taken from an early Prog of 2000 AD (I think it was a piece of spray paint vandalism from a Perp involved in one of the many Block Wars of Mega-City One when fighting Dredd and the Justice Department - again memory fades...)...anyway I digress...

      Any new ideas for inspiring Site mottos gratefully received!

    2. How about the Douglas Adams quote you use as a header? I agree with him that there's nothing more useless than a bored archaeologist!

    3. How about TO LEARN IS TO CHANGE?

    4. How about 'death is only the beginning': my favourite quote from the Mummy

  2. I think you might also struggle to find the depth of stratified archaeology as is present at Troy in the fine county of Dorset.

    The spade looks just about brand new, but is that soil I see still clinging to the bottom edge of the spade from when Mr Shaw planted his tree?

    1. Quite - the depth of soil overburden in Dorset rarely exceeds 20cm, so finding somewhere with 20 metres (or more) may, as you note, prove a bit of a struggle (and I would certainly not wish to machine dig to that sort of depth). Mind you, Mark Roberts once observed that 'One man's natural is another man's topsoil' when digging Boxgrove Palaeolithic site (which lay some considerable depth beneath Boxgrove Iron Age and Roman site)....although how that relates to a buried Trojan city I don't know (in retrospect I don't think it does...scrub that line of conversation!).

      You may also be right about the soil on the end of the spade. I don't know whether the good Mr Bradbury ever used (or cleaned) said digging tool. Perhaps, if he realised the last person to use it was Shaw (or one of Shaw's gardeners) then he may never have taken the dirt off, thus providing another link to the great man.

      The plot, as they say, thickens....