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Kent Archaeological Review extract

Digging up the Past --
Charles Roach Smith - Man of the Century (II).
by Harold Gough.


Roach Smith, who made his marathon visits on foot to Richborough and Reculver in one day, wrote nearly twenty years later an important book on these two forts and a third, far less well-known, entitled Richborough, Reculver and Lymne, setting out the known facts on the sites before any major excavations had been undertaken. His friend, William Rolfe, had investigated the great concrete platform at Richborough in 1843, but that was all. The book was issued to subscribers in 1850 and Smith immediately began planning an excavation at the mysterious ruined hillside fort at Lympne, known as Stutfall Castle, which had housed the "numerous Turnacensium" according to the Notitia Dignitatum.

He had made the acquaintance of a local surveyor named Elliott and they decided to work together. As no public money was forthcoming, Smith called on his subscribers for assistance, and was almost embarrassed by their response. Elliott engaged the labour force.

"Better or more trustworthy men we could not have had, and they worked well, being almost daily superintended and directed by Mr. Elliott, I going once or twice a week, sometimes staying a couple of days."

These frequent trips from London were made possible by a free pass on the London and South Eastern Railway. The excavations were attracting hundreds of visitors weekly by rail, and the Company showed their gratitude in a practical manner. Another free pass was forthcoming when Smith excavated at Pevensey with M A Lower, and a visit to Hadrian's Wall was also expedited in the same way. British Rail, please note!

Lively visitors at Lympne, jumping on the ruined walls, dislodged and broke a stone by the gateway, which was found later to be an inscription of the Prefect Aufidius of the British Fleet. The stone was encrusted with small barnacles, suggesting that it had been under water before its re-use in the fort construction.

The Archaeological Association were not altogether pleased with the Lympne excavation by Roach Smith and Elliott; the members' compliments were seasoned, he says, with regrets that the Association had not been placed, nominally, at the head of the management of the excavations, but he makes it clear that he felt that their participation would not have been beneficial.

Both before and after his retirement to Strood, Smith was finding an interest in the Upchurch Marshes and their pottery wasters.

"By means of a well-provisioned yacht, armed with probing rods and light spades, and mud boots, we never failed to extricate from the creeks large quantities of pottery, which from some flaw or imperfection had been thrown aside by the makers."

Another site which attracted him was Warbank, Keston, where, he says are yet to be seen the foundation of a stone monument and a stone coffin or cyst.

In his travels he visited all the Museums he could find, and makes stern comments on many of them, or the lack of them.

Sittingbourne might have had the collection of local finds made by George Payne, but the town council refused his free offer, with the result that the material went to the British 'Museum and to Maidstone. William Gibbs of Faversham had made a collection of Saxon material from a burial ground in the King's Field and along the railway, and Smith urged him to dispose of it properly in his will to prevent its dispersal.

"He would have preferred some town in the county, but Faversham and Sittingbourne were hopeless; the Canterbury Museum was stored with a miscellaneous mass; Chatham and Rochester had no taste for public museums or free libraries; and he urged some objection to Maidstone; I think it was that the valuable antiquities there were not arranged or catalogued." So the V & A received the collection, and Roach Smith himself arranged and catalogued it.

The views of William Gibbs on Maidstone Museum were not shared by Smith, for he wrote enthusiastically about it and its founder, Thomas Charles; he described it as one of the best in the Kingdom; we learn that he claimed to have been instrumental in obtaining the famous Egyptian mummy for the museum.

Among private collections he mentions that of Mr Durden of Blandford, Dorset, which he was surprised to find contained Saxon material from Wye and Crundale, Kent, which had not been published; "how they reached Blandford Mr. Durden alone can tell."

Mr Cecil Brent of Palace Grove, Bromley, had a room of Roman, Saxon and Mediaeval antiquities; Mr Humphrey Wickham's collection from the Rochester area had an unsettled future, as the town was not in favour of a public museum; and we learn that Mr G W M Arnold's Museum at Milton Hall, Gravesend, contained hundreds of Roman coins and other items from Springhead. "The limits of the Roman station, as yet, have never been ascertained. From the walls to be seen indicated, in dry seasons, marked by stunted herbage, they appear to have been extensive."

Charles Roach Smith wrote only one more short paragraph after that reference to Springhead; his gift of prophetic observation stayed with him to his last moments.

His three volumes of Retrospections make fascinating reading today after more than 80 years; the full title is Retrospections Social and Archaeological and both aspects of his life are dealt with. A note of good humour runs through the story, and his other interests, including the theatre are introduced. But it is his acute work in the archaeological field which makes him, in a sense, the Man of the Century.

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