Memories of Segedunum

The soil is scorched a khaki brown. A transistor, permanently tuned into radio one, plays Afternoon Delight. Diggers, spread thinly across the site, crouch in their own private holes. Their colour matches the ground under foot. Sandals, vests and soft floppy hats, are coated by a thin layer of dust. The landscape, the place, and the heat – suggest Mesopotamia or the Sinai Desert.

But road-signs indicate this is Wallsend, a small industrial town, sandwiched between Newcastle and the North East Coast. Its connection to the Roman Fort of Segedunum, is buried beneath tons of earth and brick foundations. Only the nearby Fossway and Forum Shopping Centre hint at a more ancient past.

Activity is methodical rather than intense. Pottery, coins and long-forgotten keepsakes emerge from the ground: some of these “finds” are seventy or eighty years old, yet they are as strange and unusual as those from a layer below – the layer between soil and scorched-earth. The layer where former inhabitants walked with open-toes, and leather breastplates, and lived a life so far removed from ours – we are forced to root around their garbage for clues.

Across the road, men in various states of dishevelment, go about their business. They live above the south-east corner of Segedunum, in a warren of small rooms. Simpson’s Hotel is a doss-house, a home for homeless men. And the Hotel in its name can only be said with heavy irony. Simpson’s has a past: the former hostel for single shipyard workers; the place where bed, breakfast and an evening meal, could be had for a decent price. By the seventies it’s a wonderfully exotic relic; part of Wallsend folklore; a place you’re not supposed to go.

Down by the waterline ships are constructed, fitted-out and repaired. There’s a railway line supplying the Yards and (in this pre-Tyneside Metro time) a passenger service along the scenic bottom-way. And the famous Ferry Landing rocking quietly with the rivers tide, is where junior diggers eat their bait, and dangle legs over the sides, and watch the splurge of white foaming effluent into the Tyne. But mostly it’s the vast hulls of ships, the shock and awe of metal against metal, and welder’s oxyacetylene arch’s – that throttle the senses.

By contrast, “The Dig” is a haven of peace, where the pace is slow, and the bearded archaeologists have a vaguely monastic air. Some worked as far a field as the Middle East; some are postgraduate students and undergraduates – getting their first taste of excavation. One, a tall, blond haired future archaeologist, is eye-candy for the volunteer girls. Then there is Charles Manser Daniels: the site director, the chief archaeologist or simply The Professor. He’s an academic of the old-school; a Rex Harrison look-alike; a man so embedded in Roman History – he’s named his son after every Emperor.

And there are the local volunteers; kids mostly, who’ve been lured down to the site by rumours of easy money. Who are clueless when it comes to the real business of archaeology: the use of a pick and shovel; the manoeuvring of a wheelbarrow laden with bricks, stones and earth. Yet despite the blisters, exhaustion and pound or so a day – most stay. They work through the hot summer, until it’s time for school again.

Imagine an oblong swatch of earth, about the width of three or four housing blocks; a site office – where plans are drawn and finds cataloged; primitive facilities: Elsan chemical toilets and a cold tap for washing; a rough perimeter fence, and in one corner a giant mound of rubble, the spoil heap; and you have the dig’s basic layout.

This is the summer of 1976. The long hot, sweltering summer. An idyllic interlude, like the one before World War One. Shipyards and engineering firms are busy; the river is awash with boats of every description. People are optimistic, suntanned and eating ice-cream.

Somewhere below ground level, I’m scraping the soil away gently with a trowel. When I elevate my body, I can see across the dig. See the whole thing shimmer, like a grand illusion. The radio is playing Demis Roussos; he’s big in ’76, big in every way. My trowel hits a solid object, so I scrape around it’s perimeter. Eventually a thin white stalk reveals itself, it’s a clay pipe, and apart from glass and broken crockery – this is the most common late 19th, early 20th Century object.

Fast forward a week. Demis has been knocked off the top slot by Elton John and Kiki Dee. I’m down the same hole; down through scorched soil to the Roman layer. My trowel hits another object, its coarse and red – Roman pottery. I call in a professional, and she catalogues the find. A photograph may be taken, if it’s important enough; but this time it’s bog-standard stuff – the classical equivalent of chipped Willow Pattern.

By the end of August, the volunteer numbers have dwindled. Thunderstorms signal a break in the weather; riots happen in Notting Hill. The spoil heap has grown. I’ve found a lot of Roman pottery, and a couple of coins. I’ve bought a t-shirt embossed with the logo “I Dig Rescue” , and pieces of earthenware, inscribed Segedunum 1976. School beckons. I say goodbye to the students from Newcastle University and to The Professor. I promise to return the following year.

No Elvis, Beatles or The Rolling Stones

            In 1977 the dig has moved; the old location is now a building-site. It feels larger, more organized, and the number of volunteers has expanded. Sixth-formers from posh Newcastle schools, rub shoulders with kids from Wallsend comprehensives. Money is more plentiful. The weather is temperate, rather than hot. The languid atmosphere of 1976 is gone. But there’s one constant – Charles Daniels.

There’s a buzz about BBC Serialisation of I Claudius: it’s probably the reason why so many are suddenly interested in Roman archaeology. The Professor is more approachable this year and even offers to assistance to those who fancy studying archaeology.

Somewhere below ground level, I’m working the earth with my trowel. I can see a panorama of the site when I look from side to side. There’s a dullness about the sky , and a darker, sombre tone to the soil. Mahogany-brown has replaced khaki. The radio is miles from my trench, too far for sound to travel. But that doesn’t matter, I have company: “The Chess Professional”, a serious type, who carries a briefcase and is a self-confessed Grand Master. Others come and go, but mostly it’s me, working alone.

My trowel hits a solid object, but this time it’s structural – a grey slab of stone. I don’t actually know what I have, until a passing archaeologist takes notice. He stands, stroking his luxuriant beard, grunting encouragingly. As the afternoon progresses, others, including The Professor, stop-by and take a look.

Without design or skill I’ve hit the archaeological mother-load. Uncovered, the grey slab of stone is a seat, or rather a Roman toilet seat.Somewhere along the line my pay was raised to a Department of the Environment rate, I was on a roll. And so ended Punk Rocks year zero.


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