This Side of the Pond – May 5

By Sarah Pridgeon

You might think it’s all fun and games coming from a continent that has thousands of years’ worth of history dotted about the landscape, but that’s only half the story. In the less publicized version, the evidence of times long past has a horrible habit of getting in people’s way.

Yet another hapless soul has managed to dig up the remains of an entire Roman house in their back garden. It happens more often than you might think: there you are, mowing the lawn and considering the idea of a rockery, when all of a sudden you’ve got a perfectly preserved ancient bathtub on your hands.

In this case, a gentleman from Wiltshire decided to lay some electrical cable because his kids had taken to playing table tennis in the barn. He thought they might benefit from having some lighting in there before someone lost an eye.

The builders had only just started on the job and were digging a trench in the yard when they hit something solid about 18 inches under the surface. This was unexpected, especially when it turned out to be a mosaic.

The Wiltshire Archaeology Service was called in (I like to think they were wearing fedoras and carrying whips like Indiana Jones) along with Salisbury Museum. They confirmed that, yes, this was going to be a problem for the ping pong table.

What the hero of our tale had uncovered was a grand villa once three stories in height, dating from two centuries before the birth of Christ.

Understandably curious, the history buffs kept digging, soon finding artifacts including a perfectly preserved well, Roman coins and under-floor heating pipes. They even found oyster shells, transported for the family’s dining pleasure a full 45 miles from the coast.

They also discovered that the next door neighbors had been using the stone coffin of a Roman child as a flower pot; as the Daily Telegraph put it, “most recently for geraniums”.

Their voices presumably ascending to a squeak, the archaeologists pronounced this one of the most amazing discoveries of recent times. It could, they said, give historians a better look at one of the least understood periods of history in Britain: the time between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Saxons taking over our fair isles.

To the relief of the gentleman who just wanted a safer space for his children to recreate in, however, they then filled the hole back in. Even though it could be the most illuminating find in decades, it’s so big that Historic England can’t afford to dig it up.

Rather than muck up the almost perfect preservation of the site while hundreds of thousands of pounds are raised to fund the digs, they decided to cover it back up. They might well come back later but, in the meantime, our lucky landowner can continue to enjoy his back lawn.

It’s far from the only time that a project has been scuppered by the persistence of history – this stuff happens all the time. In Somerset, the council was in the middle of constructing a bypass to ease traffic congestion a couple of years ago when its contractors came across another set of Roman ruins.

In Canterbury, work to build an addition to the renowned Marlowe Theatre, a project costing about $40 million, stalled when a Roman townhouse turned up underneath the site. That find was particularly irritating because there aren’t supposed to be any Roman ruins in Canterbury.

Fortunately, building work in previous decades had disturbed it too much to make it a viable preservation prospect and, somewhat suspiciously, a lot of the artifacts appeared to have vanished.

Meanwhile in Gloucester, the attractive shopping district not only houses plenty of stores, but a large toughened glass window in the middle of the street. This is a cunning compromise that allows the city to showcase the ruins underneath the thoroughfare without having to block it off to pedestrians and their wallets; inside, you can see the remains of the city’s Roman defenses, a 13th century tower and, excitingly, a structure from Tudor times in which livestock was once washed.

Plans were underfoot to redevelop Her Majesty’s Prison Gloucester at the end of last year when, once again, history stuck its beak in. Underneath the basketball court was an enormous medieval castle that may rival the scope of the Tower of London and dates back to the 12th century. I suppose we’ll just have to find a shed to lock those pesky prisoners in.

Then, of course, there was Leicester City Council’s inspired decision to celebrate the 527th anniversary of King Richard III’s death at the Battle of Bosworth by going on a hunt for his remains. The only trouble was that he was buried underneath a parking lot.

The site did match the location of the Grey Friars Priory, and the find did match all the evidence compiled, but I can’t help but wonder if the housewife out to buy groceries thinks her parking spot was a fair trade for a dusty skeleton.

So while it’s a wonderful thing to see the past in such constant clarity, and to have a window into the world our ancestors inhabited, there are definitely downsides. Particularly for those of us who enjoy the odd bit of landscaping.