The three of them stared down into trench. Tantalising glimpses of carved stone were visible poking through the bottom of the deep-sided hole left by the digger.
‘As soon as they started to uncover the stonework, I realised there could be something important under here.’
The groundwork on Abbey Cottage’s new wildlife pond had come to a standstill for the time being, but Ruth had deemed that a small price to pay for the possible discovery of previously undiscovered archaeology. She had taken a few photos and, following a very tentative email to the county archaeology department, had received an enthusiastic response from Martin Spencer, an archaeology professor at the local university.
Having naively expected the stereotypical white-haired professor, Ruth had opened the door this morning to Martin, a presentable forty-something and Kate, a Canadian, who was introduced as one of his research team.
After taking preliminary photographs and measurements, Martin climbed down a stepladder into the trench, turning to retrieve his backpack from Kate. Meticulously he unpacked and laid out his tools like a surgeon preparing for an operation. Two triangular pointing trowels, one large, one smaller; a mini spade; a kneeler; a measuring tape; a course brush; a roll of small plastic bags and a marker pen. There was also a mysterious looking fabric roll tied with a bow. Kate joined him down the hole, in attendance like a theatre nurse. Ruth watched from above, fascinated.
Martin had placed his kneeler beside the exposed stones and was peering over the top of his half-eye glasses. Using the larger trowel between thumb and forefinger, he meticulously scraped around the outer edges of the carved stone, pulling soil away to expose further detail. Kate carefully shovelled any discarded earth into a bucket. When the bucket was almost full, he passed it up to Ruth who tipped it next to the larger mound of soil. She was careful to ensure it was kept together as Kate had explained they would be sifting the spoil for smaller finds later.
Martin chatted as he worked, asking if Ruth had ever been involved in any archaeological work previously.
‘Never, but I’m fascinated.
‘Well come on down and have a go. After all, it’s your garden.’ Ruth needed no persuasion, although three was definitely a crowd down in the trench.
‘See here,’ pointing to the side of the trench with his trowel, Martin said, ‘you can clearly pick out the layers formed during different historical periods. Having taken a look at the stone finds down here, I would say we are most definitely standing in the mid to late Medieval period.’
Ruth leaned closer and was thrilled to find herself peering at evidence of hundreds of years of her garden’s life.
‘Now, use my kneeler, hold the trowel like this and gently scrape away at that lump of soil just there.’ Martin handed Ruth the smaller tool. Its handle was stained with years of use and fitted her palm perfectly. She was captivated. Rapidly her hand shook with the effort of the painstaking work as a small silver coloured object was steadily revealed. She was finding the smell of the earth and the anticipation intoxicating.
Martin gave her clear instructions to place the point of her trowel under the find and to carefully lift it out. He was undoubtedly accustomed to mentoring students.
As Ruth lifted, most of the excess soil fell away. Martin untied the canvas pack and, selecting a brush from the collection of small tools, passed it over.
Ruth brushed gently, revealing a small coin. Her hand was shaking almost uncontrollably.
‘Oh wow, look at that. It’s fabulous.’ Incredulity affected her voice as she squatted on the soil, the ancient find cradled in her palm.
Martin handed her a water bottle and under his expert guidance, Ruth cleaned the little silver disc. The design on one side of the coin became legible. She strained her eyes to see the detail. She could just pick out a man’s face. He had curly hair and wore a crown.
‘That’s Edward the Third.’ Kate was close behind her now.
Ruth turned the coin over and continued work on the other side, revealing a cross stretching from top to bottom and side-to-side. By now the metal was flashing in the sun’s rays.
‘Is it silver?’
‘Yes.’ Taking it from her, Kate held it close enough for her to see the detail and, every bit the professional archaeologist, explained the find’s significance.
‘It’s a long-cross penny. They were minted during Edward’s reign, so this is brilliant dating evidence for this layer. Undeniably medieval. The coins were introduced because the previous short-cross pennies were in such a bad condition, people had a habit of clipping bits off them for their silver content. The cross on these goes all the way to the edges to try to stop that practice, although it was relatively unsuccessful.’
Ruth was hooked. To think she was the first person to handle the penny for almost a millennium.
‘Now for the carving. This could take some time.’ Martin gently brushed earth from a small chink of stone.
Slowly and with unwavering patience, Martin continued to guide Ruth through the method of scraping, clearing and brushing until the majority of the stone, with its carving, was clear of the earth. Ruth’s knees ached, her wrist was stiff and dust and dirt seemed to have permeated into every fold of her clothing, but each scrape of the trowel revealed more detail, spurring her on.
‘It seems to be intact.’ Martin straightened with a grimace, rubbing the small of his back. ‘I think Kate and I had better have a go at lifting it together. It’s going to be pretty heavy. We’re well used to this.’
Ruth was only too pleased to relinquish the responsibility, climb out of the hole and take over the photographer’s role. Martin slid his larger trowel under the stone and Kate reverently gripped both sides as they made a combined effort to lift the weight. It seemed to be firmly embedded. Martin returned to scraping and brushing, then again they pulled. This time with an almost audible sigh, the carving’s centuries-old bed relinquished its hold.
‘Holy shit, that’s a pretty impressive specimen.’ Kate was hoarse with effort and exhilaration.
The two staggered backwards under the dead weight of their treasure. They bent to lower the stone onto the earth floor. Only then was its full beauty revealed.
‘It’s magnificent. No doubt about it being ecclesiastical and 12th to 13th century. It’s safe to come down again, Ruth.’ Martin beckoned from below.
With the carving’s facial features fully revealed, Ruth could see Kate had been right. It was a female. The woman was wearing a wimple or some other headdress which completely covered her head and which wrapped right under the chin. The effect was one of extreme piety. The stone’s natural milky tone added to the carving’s ethereal beauty.
‘Look at the skill in those folds of fabric, she’s exquisite.’ Ruth’s forefinger traced the cool face. The nun’s eye’s stared back, almost knowingly. Momentarily Ruth felt the nun could see into the far recesses of her mind.
Kate’s voice broke the spell, ‘I’d say it’s a corbel, wouldn’t you, Martin?’ And at Ruth’s puzzled expression, ‘You see she has a flat back and head? It would have been secured to a wall and supported a stone shelf. A kind of bracket.’ Kate wiped a fragment of stray soil from the nun’s cheek and caressed the face, just as Ruth had.
‘Undeniably 12th century, which ties in nicely with our coin dating evidence.’ Martin’s voice cut in. ‘And it does look as though we are dealing with either part of the main building, or possibly the infirmary. Ruth, I think we may be looking at the remains of Tinchester Abbey. ‘