Received yesterday from Laurence McGowan..
I was astonished, in the nicest possible way, when I stumbled across this blog with its accompanying photos. I was a volunteer on the tunnel dig. As a schoolboy I became obsessed with archaeology. I lived near Downton, and when the Roman villa was discovered there I hung around enough so that eventually, when it was clear I was both interested and not going anywhere in a hurry, the Ministry of Public Buildings and Works Philip Rahtz archaeologist, who was leading the dig, found me things to do.
The following year, I was doing the same, mostly washing flint finds, with a team from Cambridge who were investigating the Mesolithic site that Rahtz’s team had discovered whilst investigating the road that led into the villa. Then the following year, I got news that Philip was hoping to find and investigate the Old Sarum tunnel over a weekend. I spent the first day with him. Whilst trying to locate the tunnel, the grave of a small Romano British child was found in a shallow grave. Presumably, from the bracelets, a girl. Apart from museum exhibits, the first real skeleton I had seen and I found it quite moving.
It took the best part of that Saturday to uncover the tunnel entrance but eventually a chink was opened, enough for a torchlit glimpse inside for a few. The dowser in the photograph was Ralph Whitlock, a local farmer from Pitton, well known broadcaster, author a general authority on all things rural. Along with others, this photograph appeared in The Times and drew an immediate shocked demand from the powers that be at Old Sarum, those that were to become in time English Heritage presumably, wanting to know why Philip had allowed such superstitious unscientific methods to be used on a dig they had paid for. Much sweet talking needed from Philip!
Anyway, towards the end of the day, enough headway, and indeed headroom, had been cleared to enable people to crawl in for look. Everyone, that is except me. I had been helping all day the same as all the admittedly older, others and was frankly more than a bit miffed. Especially as everyone appeared to have something to say in hushed tones when they came out. Disgruntled, I truthfully announced that I would have to leave soon to dash down Castle Road to the bus station and get home. There followed glances cast towards me and a huddle. After this I was coyly handed a torch and told I could have a quick peek before I left.
The reluctance was immediately apparent. Written on the ceiling in candle soot was every four letter word, similarly doubtless employed by the adolescents of Salisbury today and no doubt from time immemorial! Philip, it seems, bless him, was trying to protect my presumed innocence and perhaps more general embarrassment. The boy hauling the rope in one of the photos looks like dead ringer for me at that age though I can’t be certain as I’m sure I had my BWS school blazer on, and feeling in mortal dread of getting it covered in chalk. I’m also perplexed as to why the said sooty inscriptions don’t appear in the photo. Had they cleaned them off overnight for propriety’s sake or fear of really creating an uproar in The Times? Who knows. Anyway, in his biography Living Archaeology, Rahtz describes them discreetly as ‘very rude’.
My totally unrealistic dreams of becoming an archaeologist obviously came to naught though after an earlier career in map making and photogrammetry I spent the last 40 years and more of my working life as a potter. So, perhaps in a way I’ve been doing my bit to provide shards for future excavators to muse over and stick back together. By chance, last year one of my pieces was displayed in the museum as part of a Wiltshire Artists exhibition, on loan from Swindon’ Museum and Art Gallery.
This a wonderful item from Laurence and we are so pleased he has been in contact to pass on this story. Thank you.