The passage of artefacts into the soil is the bread-and-butter of “dirt archaeology”, and my day spent grafting at Northolt Manor got me thinking about the processes involved in how things getting from (above-ground) A to (subterranean) B, and at what point accidental loss becomes deliberate deposition. Medieval archaeology was slow off the mark in contemplating “ritual” explanations for the presence of particular artefacts of more unusual character or context, but is now making up for lost time. A quick Google search threw up this article by James Morris considering Iron Age and Roman-period faunal remains. A good example of progress in this regard in the early medieval archaeology is Helena Hamerow’s 2006 article ‘Special Deposits in Anglo-Saxon settlements’ published in Medieval Archaeology; the most recent volume of the same journal carries a response recommending a more heterogenous reading of such deposits.
Anyway, back to Northolt. As well as slashing down a tract of brambles and ivy, I picked up a fair bit of litter over the course of the day. Unsurprisingly, most of it was plastic: bottles, packaging, and perspex-like bits without an obvious function. But next to a fallen tree was a group of cosmetics: body lotion, red lipstick, hair brush and rescue remedy, with a lip balm a metre or so away. All of the items looked fairly new, but how did they get there? The brands were different, indicating these were not the discarded contents of an unwanted Boots or Superdrug-bought Christmas gift set. There was a lightish covering of brambles, ivy and nettles before I set to work, but this was nothing compared to the dense thicket which shrouded the moat before the commencement of the clearance programme. Just beyond its outer edge on the eastern side runs a well-used footpath, the most likely route of access to the ground where the cosmetics lie.
One of the leaders of the working party, upon seeing the group of items, immediately identified them as the dumped contents of a girl’s stolen handbag. Over the years of his involvement in the clearance work a number of discoveries had been made. From the western side of the moat closest to the church had come a couple of (empty) purses and a cache of costume jewellery. On the opposite, eastern side, a little distance away from the cluster of make up, a “fuel card” had been found during a previous day’s work, and more disconcertingly a carving knife (which the leader had taken home to clean and use in his kitchen). I have no idea if what I had uncovered was indeed the discarded contents of a purloined handbag. But it did make me think how the stories of objects found in “archaeological” situations, be they ancient or modern, can be lost so quickly, and how the interpretations we attach to them upon their rediscovery are coloured by our personal perceptions and awarenesses. Moreover, it makes you contemplate whether the clean-up of such places is impoverishing their archaeological profiles. Not for a moment am I suggesting that littering is a positive thing when viewed from a long-term archaeological point of view, but it does make you question at what point does today’s trash become tomorrow’s treasure.
Keep Britain Tidy. But maybe not spotless.