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Kent Archaeological Review extract

Digging up the Past (10) --
The Scalpal and the Trowel.
by Harold Gough.

Dr T A Bowes who was born in Herne Bay in 1868, and practised medicine there during his long life, was one of that old school of GPs whose professional life, on a more leisurely plane than today's doctors, allowed him to exercise a keen interest in archaeology, with the aid of the invaluable grapevine provided by his patients and friends. A typical sequence of events might be a conversation with someone who had heard of a 'find' by a gravel digger, a detour, on his round by dog-cart or bicycle, to inspect the site and make contact with the finder, -- the offer of a small 'incentive,' -- a rendezvous at the surgery, after hours, -- and often a trip with basket and trowel to extract the vital objects, and to make notes on the back of an envelope.

The doctor's resident dispenser was a keen and able photographer, and his services would often supplement the record, either in the field, or later, after the inevitably broken pottery had been repaired.

In later years, some of the pottery became part of the nucleus of Herne Bay's Museum, which 'Doctor Tom' was instrumental in forming and fostering, and thus stimulated local interest in the past. In this field he also earned a formidable reputation as a lecturer on local history, using glass 'lantern- slides' made by his faithful dispenser.

The less generally attractive material in his collection, in the shape of a tremendous number of flint implements (and, it must be admitted, non-implements) was stored in a series of 'chests-of-trays,' which towards the end of his life and after, became something of an embarrassment to his native town. After some years in temporary and usually insecure quarters, when the 'Armstrong Bowes Collection' of palaeolithic material suffered the successive hazards of flooding, transportation and vandalism, the best surviving specimens were accepted by the British Museum for use in type-collections. Much of the provenance details, originally on gummed labels in a curious code, had been lost during the sea-floods of 1949 and 1953, but the value of some of the specimens as types was undeniable, drawn as they were from various parts of Kent and Sussex.

The doctor was however fortunate in the opportunities which he had to collect and preserve, either by personal excavation, or at second hand, a good deal of mainly Roman pottery from his own vicinity. In many cases, precise details of find-spots and depths have survived, along with 'atmospheric' details of the discoveries in the texts of some of his 'lantern lectures.'

A good example of his style may be quoted from the script of his very first lecture, delivered to a local organisation in about 1920, on the subject of sonic Roman cremation groups at Millbank, on the Herne/Hoath boundary (NGR TR 203653).

"In April, 1913, I was passing through Maypole, and seeing men at work opening up a new piece of gravel, I stopped and asked them if they had found anything. I was shown the remains of an urn in nearly 30 portions. The contents of the urn had not been preserved. Later in the year, on putting the pieces together I was able to obtain some idea of the shape of the urn . . . Hoping that some more would be found I made friends with the workman (and gave him instructions to save everything) and the result was that in June 1913 I was told that another had been found, and I secured it."

This time he was able to collect the pot in only 19 pieces, and its contents, which were burnt bones in earth, were subjected to his professional consideration.

Then came Burial 3.

"On July 30, 1913, I arrived home from my morning round at 1.30 pm expecting to have, and quite ready for, some food-which however I did not get till later on-as a message was waiting to say that another urn had been found, and that if I reached there by 3 o'clock, I could have it. I hastily gathered together a basket and trowel, and the chauffeur, and I went hurriedly to Millbank."

The burial had been exposed by a fall of gravel, and Dr Bowes was able to 'extract' it himself, together with the associated items, making notes as he went. Besides the urn and its contents, there was an elegantly shaped bottle, a flat dish and a small vase. The fragile nature of the main urn prevented him from removing it and its, contents in one piece. The pot went into 40 pieces, but the filling, weighing 60 pounds, was recovered intact.

"I put the pottery into the basket, and put the cast (the contents) into my Burberry, and carried it home on my knees."

Try sitting in a car with 60lb. on your lap over a journey of 3 miles and you will not want to repeat the uncomfortable experience. Let the 1972 reader remember that this was a car journey of nearly 60 years ago, with suspension and road surface accordingly!

When the filling was taken apart, the bottom 6 inches was found to consist of bones and fine soil, with some strange sherds, burnt material, nails, a struck flint, and a "watch-glass" broken into two fitting fragments. This unexpected object, 11 inches across, thin and concave with nine straight sides, was, and remained a mystery to the doctor. His puzzlement was increased by the fact that a second "watch-glass" was found when a completely crushed pot turned up on the site in his absence. The workman said "Here's the old chap's eye-glass" and handed it to his employer to pass on to the doctor. The employer put it into his wallet for safety without noticing that it was slightly curved; inevitably it reached the doctor as a mass of fine splinters! Not until the discovery of similar glasses in the burials at Ospringe in 1921 were parallels recorded. Some of those found with inhumations bore a coating of lead. It would seem that these glasses were in fact small mirrors, and the RCHM report on Roman York -- "EBURACUM" (1962) page 141, says of them "The mirror glass which might be passed by, by the unwary, as a mere fragment of a vessel belongs to a well known late Roman type of small mirror, originally mounted in a plaster or wooden frame, and no doubt carried in the owner's satchel." This was in a late Christian context at York. The Millbank cremations were of a much earlier date, and the Ospringe ones Antonine to late 3rd century.

Other parallels with the Ospringe burials led Dr Bowes to close this lecture, fifty years ago with these significant words:

"I have told you of the mere chance that brought to light the Ford remains. At Faversham a similar event occurred. It was necessary to put down a concrete bed for a stationary engine. In digging the hole some pottery was exposed . . . These two small spots at Faversham and Ford are only an infinitesimal part of the area of the Roman occupation, so that there is the certainty that numerous treasures still lie hidden beneath the surface of the earth. If in the course of time the digging of deep foundations or of excavations, should expose further finds in this or other districts, we must hope that all of them will be saved and duly recorded."

Dr Tom Armstrong Bowes, MA, MD, FSA, MRCS, LRCP, died in August 1954, aged 85. Much of the known history and prehistory of Herne Bay owes its recording to his enthusiasm and energy. His lecture scripts and the slides which illustrated them are now held by the Herne Bay Records Society which he helped to found nearly 40 years ago.

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