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Kent Archaeological Review extract

Digging Up the Past - 2.
by Harold Gough.

"O, who will o'er the downs go free?" (old Ballad)

The British Archaeological Association held its first general meeting in the Canterbury district from Monday to Saturday of the second week in September 1844. Those attending were a typical nineteenth century conglomeration of fashionable antiquaries. The programme included a Conversazione and the Unrolling of an Egyptian Mummy and visits to churches, but the distinguished company managed to get in some practical field-archaeology during the week as well. After a learned lecture in the Primeval Section on the first evening, on Early Sepulchral Remains in Great Britain, Charles Roach Smith read some extracts on the actual excavation of Celtic barrows in Derbyshire by Thomas Bateman. Their appetites stirred by this, the party set out next morning for "Opening the Saxon Barrows" on Breach Downs -- along the present A2. The weather was extremely lowering and unpropitious, but nearly 200 ladies and gentlemen assembled about 8 miles from the city, where eight of the numerous tumuli were to be minutely examined.

To avoid delay, the noble President had had the topsoil removed until the workmen "arrived near the spot where they expected would be found the mortuary deposit." Half a page of the account is now taken up with thoughts on the beauty of the scene, but as the detailed examination got under way a snag developed. Only the original text does justice to the scene.

"A thick mist spread over the valley below -- which shortly after, was succeeded by a general drenching rain. In despite of this untoward occurrence, the unsheltered archaeologists, through whom "the storm riddled right merrilie" unflinchingly pursued those investigations after "remnants of things which have passed away," which many of them had travelled hundreds of miles to witness. Nor was the gentler sex deterred by the contretemps from anxiously hovering at the brink of the graves, lest they should miss any discoverey of articles "fashioned by long-forgotten hands." The labourers were the only individuals who at all seemed anxious to shirk the antiquarian operations -- in fact, it was only the ladies so bravely enduring 'the pitiless pelting of the storm' that at all kept them at their work.

"Vainly did the noble President entreat the ladies to seek the only shelter the bleak downs afforded -- that of a windmill -- he was met with the observation, 'that the loss of a dress, which could easily be replaced, was of trifling consideration compared with the equally instructive and interesting researches in which they were engaged.' It was indeed, delightful to notice the feeling with which our fair countrywomen, made for once participators with their husbands, fathers, brothers, and friends, examined every ancient memorial disinterred from the universal Mother Earth. When the sky cleared up, (which it fortunately did, during the examination of the last barrow), those few ladies who had embraced the miller's offer, crowded round the tumuli, and almost passionately expressed their gratification, as beads, and the wire on which they were strung, or amulet, or ring, or armlet, was handed to them for inspection."

This wet activity resulted in the clearance of seven barrows -- a good day's work, one might imagine. In fact, the party then visited the noble President's mansion at Bourne Park nearby, inspected his private museum, partook of a "sumptuous and substantial" luncheon, and then, re-invigorated, they proceeded across the Park and excavated two more Saxons. The proceedings were enlivened by the Reverend W Buckland, Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, with his coat off, a red handkerchief round his brow, and his clerical black smeared with damp chalk, who craftily salted one of the barrows with a ring from his own finger. Lord Albert's man, Charles, an experienced digger, uncovered it, took one look and flicked it on to the spoil heap with his "pecker," quite spoiling the Dean's little joke.

Many of the learned and noble persons present on this occasion were among those who, only 13 years later, founded the Kent Archaeological Society.

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