Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Where Beth They Beforen Us Weren? - Katherine Langrish

I took a brisk walk out this morning to the Anglo-Saxon grave.

It was only discovered yesterday. We were out for an afternoon stroll in the mellow sunshine, taking a lane that runs out of the village towards the Downs in the distance, when we realised the wide, flat fields were full of widely separated, slowly walking figures (some women, but mostly men) with bowed heads, swinging long metal detectors like oddly shaped proboscises. Every so often one would stop and dig a little hole, pick something up, then wander on. The big farm was running a metal detectors’ rally, proceeds of the camping fees to cancer research.

We started talking to some of the men. One pulled out a wallet and showed us a medieval silver penny. Another had more pennies, Roman and medieval: and belt buckles: and buttons. ‘And over there,’ they all said, pointing towards the furthest field behind a belt of trees – ‘over there, that’s where they’ve found an Anglo Saxon grave!’

Everyone was alight with it. A huge gold brooch had been found, together with some bones. The police had been called immediately and had thrown a cordon around the site. The archeologists were already examining the brooch, which was over in the marquee beside the farm. We headed back to look for ourselves, on the way chatting to a group of three men who wouldn’t have seemed at all out of place at a Saxon chieftain’s burial. Big lads, with acres of tattoos. One had long black hair, another a shaved head. One wore an enormous plaited gold ring on his thick forefinger.

‘Any luck?’ we asked. They were friendly, shook their heads: ‘Nah. Only rubbish today. Here’s what we got, on this table over here, take a look if you like.’

‘If you want some, have some,’ added the black-haired man. ‘It’s rubbish. It’s all going in the bin otherwise. But have you heard about the gold brooch?’

On the table was a clutter of stuff. Bits of pottery, coins, harness buckles, buttons, crumpled tin and lead. ‘Take it! Take it all!’ exclaimed the black-haired man. He shovelled it all into a plastic container. It was heavy.

‘When you start this game,’ explained the man with the gold ring, ‘you’re really excited about a coin or two, but then you get ambitious. Tell them about that ring you found.’

‘18th century, with seven diamonds,’ said the man with the black hair.

‘We’ve all found rings, one time or another,’ said Gold Ring Man. He laughed. ‘Once you start this game, you get addicted.’

We went on down to the tent. The brooch was there on display. It was the size of a large jam-pot lid, with a white coral boss surrounded by an inlay of flat, square-cut, dark red garnets. Around that, a broad band of bright yellow gold, with four set garnets standing out from it. Then more coral. And around that, a ring of intricate silver filigree, now black and dirty. People pored over it, photographed it, stared at it with awe, excitement, and reverence.

‘There’ll be another one,’ the archaeologist was saying. ‘They always come in pairs.’ And he had a look at the ‘rubbish’ the big guys had let us take away. It included four Roman coins, a bit of a medieval ring brooch, some Roman pottery, a lead musket ball the size of a marble - cold and heavy in the hand - and an 18th century thimble. Just a tiny fraction of what still lies under the dusty ploughlands.

So this morning, as I was saying, I walked out to see the site of the grave. Our village is probably Anglo Saxon in origin. The site was about two miles out from the farm, along a flat and dusty track between the fields, tucked away behind a strip of woodland, with a view of the Downs three miles away. It was marked out with striped tape, like a crime scene, and guarded by police vehicles. One of the archeologists gave me a lift the last quarter mile.

‘We think it’s a high status chieftain,’ she said. ‘Seventh century.  We’ve found bones. We think it’ll be a major excavation.’

I stood there, in the sunshine and the light wind, looking at the place where, thirteen centuries ago, some Saxon warrior was laid to rest, and I had a lump in my throat.

Where beth they beforen us weren,
Houndes ladden and hawkes beren,
And hadden feld and wood?

I keep being told by my editor that there’s no market for historical children’s fiction; that it’s difficult to sell. Well, all I can say is, most of the people I met and talked to out on the fields yesterday were enthralled not merely by the idea of treasure hunting, but by the romance of the past. And well they might be, because this is England and the past is all around us. And surely children feel it too?

Where, asks the anonymous Middle English poet, are they who were here before us, who once led their hounds and carried their hawks and owned both field and wood?

Still here, it seems, is the answer.
They’re still here.


catdownunder said...

And not so long ago I introduced a child to "The Woolpack" and, as soon as it was read, there was a breathless, "Are there any more like that?"

John Dougherty said...

Kath, what a marvellous piece of writing.

Elen Caldecott said...

A lovely post!
Made me remember what I liked about being an archaeologist.

Nick Green said...

" They have passed like rain on the mountain, like a wind in the meadow;
The days have gone down in the West behind the hills into shadow."

I think Tolkien adapted that from an Anglo-Saxon poem, or possibly post-Saxon one. But that sentiment seems to be an enduring one.

"Rubbish", indeed! Those treasure plunderers, they let their imaginations be consumed by gold lust and dragon-fever.

Charlie Butler said...

Wonderful post, Kath. And, since the Anglo-Saxons too were given to reveries of this kind, the persistence of the habit in us constitutes a kind of survival.

Eorðgrap hafað
waldend wyrhtan forweorone,geleorene,
heardgripe hrusan, oþ hund cnea
werþeoda gewitan.

(The grasp of the earth possesses
the mighty builders, perished and fallen,
the hard grasp of earth, until a hundred generations
of people have departed.)

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

This is a marvellous Kath... beautifully written with that lovely contrast of the 'heavies' believing it's all junk and the writer holding on to the fragility and mystery of a few Roman coins and framents of lead. Apart from the seed of a novel, there's the structure of a very fine short story in this piece of writing. Hold on to it.

Nick Green said...

>the persistence of the habit in us constitutes a kind of survival...


Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

(Where did you find thorn and eth on your keyboard, Charlie, thou smartass?)

Katherine Langrish said...

'Who can gather the smoke from the dead wood burning,
Or behold the flowing years from the sea returning?'

Yes - Tolkien, not exactly a very good poet, was at his best when writing the alliterative Old English style verse he loved.

I'll try and remember to bring along some of the coins and musket balls to Bath, to show anyone who's interested!

Charlie Butler said...

Where did you find thorn and eth on your keyboard, Charlie, thou smartass?

Wouldst not þou like to know? (Oh, all right, then, I just used scyran-and-paste.)

Katherine Langrish said...

Catdownunder, what a wonderful response from the child who loved 'The Woolpack'- I loved that book too. It just goes to show.

And Elen - you were an archeologist!!??

adele geras said...

Superb stuff, Kath! And that Anglo Saxon poem sends shivers up the spine. Fantastic. I get despairing when I see how history is taught....and it's ALWAYS full of stories and kids mostly love it. Shame on everybody responsible for downgrading it so. As for historical fiction, the trouble is it's mostly single stand-alone novels and as we know they are difficult to sell to people these days. WHY? Have no idea...hope the climate changes very soon for this.

Linda Strachan said...

Yes, please do bring them to Bath with you I would love to see them. There is magic in the odds and ends of history even if it is not always apparent, and even if it is just the way it sets the imagination rushing towards a story of what might have been.

I hate it when we hear time and again that there is no market for historical children's fiction. (let's face it almost everything is difficult to sell at the moment.) These gatekeepers have no crystal ball and are proven wrong time and again when they make sweeping statements like that. The story is the thing and the way it is told - with the power to enchant a new generation of readers.

Penny Dolan said...

Such a wonderful account, Kath! Good luck to you and your little bag of "rubbish" - though it's not in a plastic bag in my mind, but a bundle wrapped in old leather and knotted with hemped cord . . .

History explains who we are. That's why people love it - when they meet it in the right way.

Stroppy Author said...

scyran-and-paste :-) I had to pay £100 to have a special golf ball made with those characters on before I could submit my PhD thesis! And £100 was a lot of money in those days...

This is a lovely post, Kath - thank you! And those lines - were beth they... were indeed the heart of my thesis, so lovely to find them here, with the proper eth and thorn. Nostalgia time in more than one way :-)