Digging for Joy

Barry Cunliffe tells how, aged nine, his first encounter with Roman remains in a Somerset field determined his ambition to become an archaeologist.

It all began one hot summer day fifty years ago on my uncle’s farm in Somerset. Normally these short summer holidays, away from the awful monotony of bomb-scarred Portsmouth, were a delight. In those days, innocent of Big Brothers like the Health and Safety Executive, a nine-year-old could be put to good use at harvest time in charge of the horse pulling the cart through the field as the men loaded the stooks of corn, or even, as a great reward, being allowed to drive the tractor back to the farm pulling a rickety cart of full milk churns. But on this particular day there was a lull in activity and I was bored. What could I do? ‘Why not’, my uncle suggested, ‘go into the field beyond the orchard where the Roman villa is buried and see what you can find?’. It sounded promising and after hours of kicking over mole hills I came back, pockets full of tesserae and bits of Roman tile, firmly convinced that I was going to be an archaeologist.

The Pitney villa, as it was known, had been found and partially uncovered in 1827 by a local antiquarian, Samuel Hassel, who had published a booklet, The Pitney Pavement, mostly devoted to describing the fine figured mosaic pavement he had unearthed. Someone had told my uncle about the book and given him a sketch of the villa plan. When the holidays were over my first call was Portsmouth City Reference Library. I already knew well its somewhat limited joys, but not surprisingly it didn’t yeild Hassel’s book. However, the staff were willing to order it through inter-library loan. Three weeks later an astonished librarian reluctantly handed the excessively rare pamphlet of 1831 (‘Fifty copies printed. None for sale’) to a nine-year-old. Required to sit in her full view with the precious document, every evening, for the week that the book was on loan, I copied it out word for word. (Thirty-five years later I finally found a copy in an antiquarian book catalogue.)

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