Polesworth Abbey, Polesworth,North Warwickshire near Tamworth, is enjoying a two month “time team” style dig in which part of it is being excavated and investigated, before the ground is reinstated again. Running parallel with the dig are a series of poetry workshops to give the forensic cataloguing a voice, a project I gladly signed up to. With over a thousand years of history behind it there is no shortage of inspiration for a writer, as Donne, Drayton and Ben Jonson were inspired on site centuries before.
David Calcutt led the first session with the aim of giving a voice to artefacts which have been discovered, from shards of pottery, to medieval floor tiles. David loves myths and legends and revelled in the opportunity to operate in his milieu. By means of stimulation, he placed lines of prose and verse authored by Donne, Drayton and an unknown monk in front of us to respond to, seeking to draw the historic voice out of us all. The resulting intertextualisation was far more effective than I supposed it would be.
Initially I felt uneasy about plagiarising half a poem, then I remembered Eliots’ Wasteland ,and all those pop songs which happily borrowed lyrics and musical phrases from elsewhere, and reconsidered my position, adopting the critics basic maxim. Is it any good? To my surprise I ended up with a piece which I found satisfying , as a narrative emerged from the line fragments I was offered. To what extent I was fortunate in being inspired by the first fragment allowing me to mould what followed thereafter, and to what extent, by serendipity, the fragments offered a random framework, I am not sure, but the result was something I would never have written on my own, nor was it overtly the work of a third party.
There were three trenches. The first quite shallow, behind the refectory, but in which medieval floor tiles had been recovered in situ, the second deeper and closer to the river, a third , “Area A”,in front of the Abbey by the old stable block had unearthed a mysterious bored fragment as we visited,later believed to have been part of a gaming board.
A clear light brightened the dark water
Promising warmth to frost bitten stone
Teach me to hear the mermaids sing
The flapping beat of a dragon’s wing
Innocence is closing up his eyes
As clenched hands deal the final blow
Now at the last gasp of loves’ latest breath
Her farewell lingers on the morning breeze
I have completed what you desired
The deed is done, to be judged by God and eternity
My first experience of a dig was fascinating. The male archaeologists sported beards and Indiana Jones style hats in joyful stereotype. Excavating apparatus ranged from mechanical digger through to hand trowels. What surprised me was the volume of historical detritus that was being uncovered, and how it all had to be meticulously catalogued, irrespective of obvious value. A roof tile with a dog’s footprint on it delighted as did a floor tile with a fleur di lis motif which certainly predated 1542, the latter of which I was moved to write about:
Floor Tile ,Circa 16th century, Polesworth Abbey Dig
Solitary in kiln baked symmetry
Your underside bears the wounds
Of mortar roots, roughly torn from its bed
Sunlight sparkles over fractured veins
Remnants of green glaze, defiantly glisten
A fleur- de- lis splays for those
Who have fought, worked and prayed
In service to regents, long gone and yet to be
Exhumed to daylight glare
In fragmentary reveal
Your ridged recesses betray
Uncertain colours, long lost, in matt surround
An abused, bruised corner reluctantly flakes
But precise smooth sheer edges define your purpose
Your subterranean russet clay cries
To be interred, once more
From whence you came, in place.
To wrap up the day we were invited to submit a limerick. I was surprised to discover that for archaeological purposes the present starts at 1950, which prompted the following:
Ask the time- and they look somewhat shifty
It could never be simply ten fifty
With their hats, beards and boots
In search of old loot
To them it is always 1950.
A week on, I was interested to see how much progress there had been in physically excavating the site, and it had been considerable. This time Jenny Hope from Worcester was leading the day, and her focus was on experiencing the site using senses other than sight.Her poetry is at its best in celebrating the pastoral and the senses, and she brought those skills to the workshop. Each trench offers a geological, as well as an historic section of what has gone before.
One of the things which struck me was the physicality of the operation, trenches, trowels and trousers smeared with mud which prompted my first poem of the day.Normally any contact with the rare, unfound or undiscovered, is the cry “Don’t touch” but Jenny urged us to do the opposite, to touch- nice!:
The ripped surface drops in sheer sondage
Cloying clay smearing my outstretched palm
Tough and tantalisingly moist unyielding
Its secrets held absorbed congealed
A slippery residue resists exploring touch
Brittle flaking sand flickers
Disintegrating from casual brush
Escaping my flaying grasp
To rest again
Light ash cushions tennis ball bounce no more
Unnatural vertical smooth rough textures teeter
In varying degrees of decomposition
Whilst I was there a visitor had complained that the dig was desecrating the site, an odd charge. Firstly, areas of known human burial wre not being touched this dig. Secondly any dicovery of human remains is treated with reverence and respect. And I suspect that if they could talk to us, they would be quite pleased to tell us their stories, stories which can be extrapolated to an extraordinary extent just by their remains, and their context.
Jenny Hope asked us to consider the dig in metaphor, as undressing the past, emphasising the tactile intimate nature of the task, a valuable interpretation of proceedings. Initially i was prompted to prompt the sensuous, sensual dimension of this approach. However as I did so, I was also struck by the visceral aspect of the dig which was reflected in this:
Exposed to brutal light
Soft layers stripped in stripes
As cruel steel tears at healed ground
Delicate roots dangle, ripped
A torn comfort blanket, rumpled
The disturbed interred
Shrinking and blinking
Glanced at in curiosity
In startled exposure
Defiled and painted in India ink
Remembered for a moment
In a catalogue, in a drawer
To be discarded ,its decay
Untroubled once more
A non-digging day so the site was physically as the day before. Workshop leader this time was Mal Dewhirst whose angle today was to ask us to attempt to replicate the physical strata of the dig with stratification of our poetry drawing upon writing as recent as that written from the Polesworth Poetry Trail,which he had also led, and as distant as that authored in Medieval Latin. This first piece draws from random words and phrases from several hundred centuries and is pieced together by myself in the same way that finds are extracted from the ground whereupon the archaeologists subsequently try to piece together their history. It feels awkward to me, but then finds are made randomly and awkwardly too, so it had value as an exercise.
Fragments Out of Time
The gabble from behind the Red Lion’s shut door reverberated
Stella clenched in hands rotund and stumpy
Allowing men to forget in meditations of excess
To loose the bonds of the accused , searching for soft peace
The bell tolls for all ghostly and bodily victories
Bringing light to the blind
Robbed of foolish painted things
To still survive in immortal song
Leaving echoes of Welsh hooves
Steadfast in the High Street
By his help and grace it is done
I was starting to become familiar with the site by this time. And as the archaeologist becomes more familiar and confident with the dig so as a poet I found myself becoming more comfortable with my surroundings. To date, the weather has been uniformly good and as I wandered around outside a heron flew by looking down as it flew. Those familiar with the area will know that the river Anker and canal are close by with pools of standing water also present. I wondered what the heron would make of this as herons have glanced down for centuries on changing human development, but a broadly similar landscape. This poem was inspired both by the idea that the heron might mistake the white dig tents for lily pads from above and by the history that the herons forebears will have witnessed.
Roughly fired tiles still bake careless paw prints
Eager hands claw tense ground
From above glanced from grey heron path
Pedalling across an indifferent sky
White lily pads flutter in canvas murmur
Hinting at shadowed movement
Walls hunch hidden from Viking glare
Still crouched in silence
Enclosure breached by betrayed vows
No magnificat rises from stubby rubble
Earth which now takes no service only hears it
Absorbing fresh dead
Whilst rent ground lays bare
What we already knew once
Another hot day, with the workshop this time being led by Matt Merritt who teased us with a mysterious strap line of “The Edge”.Matt is a journalist, ornithologist, historian and poet. Today he kept his curlews and swifts in their roosts and instead chose an original historical perspective on th day.
A week on, another shallow trench was underway , some six inches deep and with nothing revealed other than subsoil The trench containing the drain and lavatories had been pumped clear of water. Tim Upson Smith was visibly excited about what analysis of medieval excrement might reveal, as a toddler proudly announces to their parents while sitting on their potty “Look what I have done!.”
An established pattern for the extraction and cataloguing of finds is now clear, what interested us today was what was lying around that in the future might be excavated and pored over. A child’s perspective is always instructive, a plastic football left lying around providing recreation for the diggers is no different from any other find for a child. Was it the very football that Abbess Osanna had kicked some nine hundred years previous? “They are digging for treasure” one child exclaimed. Correct.
I began to look around for what had been discarded now, in the same way that the diggers were looking for what had been discarded before. The front trench was abutted by an old garden tip from which sprouted the largest thistles I have ever seen- at least around nine metres tall, a black nylon tarpaulin was being used to sift through some of the detritus and was wearing already, by the manor house the wheel from a child’s sit and ride toy lay in long grass next to a single glove. That was all good enough for me.
Spoil fed giant thistles sway,
Guardian sentinels of the past
Below ,black tarpaulin frays,
Under spewed weight
Its fringe like artificial whiskers
Touching now and then
Hanging off its pink painted axle
A plastic wheel rests
Almost consumed by weeds and nettles
In fading farewell
Palm up, a glove’s fingers stretch
Its ripped fabric partially enveloped
All lie waiting to be discovered
My involvement in this dig has stirred my interest in, and awareness of, all things archaeological. Two stories caught my eye this week.
The first was the story of centuries old seeds being recovered from the sediment of Bristol Docks, the remnants of ballast discharged from ships trading over the centuries and this particular find some three hundred years old. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2184912/World-garden-grown-onboard-barge-seeds-discarded-Bristol-docks-300-YEARS-ago.html
The second was that of the death of the controversial British Archaeologist James Mellaart, a British archaeologist and author who is noted for his discovery of the Neolithic settlement of Çatalhöyük in Turkey. He was expelled from Turkey when he was suspected of involvement with the antiquities black market, specifically in the mysterious Dorak affair in which a mysterious woman met Mellaart on a train and purportedly took him to see a unknown find of world significance: http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/HL0508/S00224.htm
The former story echoed Tim Upson Smith’s love of delving through dirt, the latter belied any staid image that archaeologists might have for some. The uncertainty of most archaeology prompted:
Find or fraud
Inside or outside
Above or below
This way or that
Now or then
It all depends
As the day unfolded the significance of Matt Merritt’s “edge” unfolded. It comes from the Medieval and Anglo Saxon fondness for riddles where you may write around it, referring to it without revealing what the “it” of the title was. It is a useful way to prompt writing from a fresh perspective.
Trenches radiate around
In pronounced symmetry
Ground lies punctured
By spade and trowel
The Abbey watches, hub to all
Where nuns seldom spoke
Diggers make inflated claims
For uncertain finds
Watching where they tread
Shoulders hunched and tired
Earth sand and robber rubble
Is turned once more
Whilst those who till the land
Pray for a good year.
What future archaeologists will make of 21st century detritus in a thousand year’s time is an intriguing thought, and one which caused me to consider how much of contemporary culture will survive, and what our future diggers will make of it. I could not resist the pun with the “I” generation and suspect that the windows play will certainly be lost, but who could resist including “Tomb Raider” “ Lara Croft from such a piece?
Found in a Pit
I-phones, I – pads, I –mmac
To be cherished for a moment
For transitory gratification
Before technological stratification
Whose exact order may be lost
Does Super Mario come before Lara Croft?
Flat screens larger than windows
Windows from which you could see
But not touch
A vision distorted
Of cracked glass and
Broken discordant keys
Part two follows as the second half of the workshops after 1/9. Meantime i should like to record my thanks, appreciation and admiration to the archaeologists, volunteers and Fr. Phillip who have made all this possible with their good humour and hard work.
Dig the Abbey and Dig the Poetry continues until 1st September. An exhibition will take place displaying the story of the dig and finds, and the prose and poetry which resulted a week later between the 7th-9th with readings on Saturday 8th. For more information: