Simon joined the PAS in 2018 and is part of Surrey County Council’s Heritage Conservation team, based at the Surrey History Centre in Woking. Here he tells us about his background and why he’s interested in archaeology.
How and why did I get started in archaeology?
I have always been slightly obsessed by archaeology, which has led me to become involved in various ways since my first digs with the Surrey Archaeological Unit 25 years ago. I have worked on sites spanning the Mesolithic to the early medieval periods and in all sorts of archaeological roles including teaching, academic research, fieldwork, laboratory analysis and archiving – most recently in the Department of Archaeology at the University of Reading. All of this experience has given me a great deal of understanding about the different kinds of materials and artefacts which people have used in the past.
What is my greatest achievement in archaeology?
Working on the excavations at Lyminge in Kent, which uncovered an Anglo-Saxon royal palace complex and magnificent feasting halls likely once owned by King Æthelbert. The work I did on this project helped demonstrate how the site’s environment and land use developed across its history. It also showed how stable the landscape and ecology has been in that part of the Kentish Downs – right back into the prehistoric period. The excavations produced some nationally significant finds, including a rare Anglo-Saxon plough coulter and a large assemblage of vessel glass.
What period of the past most interests me?
Probably the early medieval period, which offers an intriguing blend of exciting stories and considerable mystery. Although we know a good deal about the history as well as the names of the individuals and events which defined it, the sheer amount we don’t know enables archaeology to dramatically increase our understanding.
What objects most interest me?
I must admit to being particularly fascinated by jettons, which are ubiquitous detector finds and very evocative relics of the medieval and post-medieval periods, with their attractive designs and often enigmatic mottoes. These were the functional components of a type of medieval calculator which allowed people to undertake the complex arithmetic needed to run large estates (and indeed entire countries), whilst not requiring them to be able to even count past five.
Which of the finds I have recorded is my favourite?
Probably the 1914 ‘willing’ badge , which saw a wonderful united effort on the part of local heritage groups, the PAS and local detectorists to research the object and save it for the public. It was generously donated by the finder to the Surrey county archives.
What is my favourite archaeological object?
I would have to go for the Alfred jewel in the Ashmolean Museum. This little object, an æstel (or reading pointer) terminal named to King Alfred himself is the perfect example of a ‘portable antiquity’ found quite by chance, although long before the days of detectors. It tells us a story about the resurgence of the kingdom of Wessex in the face of the Viking threat and the importance of Christianity, literacy and learning during Alfred’s reign.
What is my favourite historical site or monument?
Roman Silchester (Calleva Atrebatum) which is quite near to where I live, was once the capital of one of the most powerful early British tribes and subsequently one of the largest cities in Roman Britain. Today you can still walk around the walls, as it was never reoccupied or built upon after its abandonment in the fifth century. Archaeologically it is a huge influence on the distribution of many of the types of Iron Age and Roman artefacts that turn up in my part of the country, as Western Surrey sat very much within its hinterland.
What are my other interests outside archaeology?
Aside from archaeology my time is mostly spent looking after my two-year-old daughter, as well as playing guitar and filling my house full of vintage hardback books which I occasionally get time to read.
How do I see the future?
The impact of the PAS has already revolutionised our understanding of material culture across many periods and hopefully this work will continue to be possible in the future. The PAS continues to shed new light on old problems in archaeology, especially as the results of new studies and techniques become available. The future will largely be determined by how well we can resist the seemingly constant cutbacks to funding for heritage bodies, museums and archaeological research which continually threatens to undermine what we have achieved and what we try to do.
Five finds from the PAS database and why I like them
SUR-07E25F – a copper-alloy badge found in Send, Surrey
This little “willing” badge represents a local scheme instigated in 1914 by the then High Sheriff of Surrey, John St. Loe Strachey, to ensure that men who tried to join up but were turned down on medical grounds would be recognised for their efforts and not pilloried as “cowards” for failing to be in uniform. It was the first of its type and was followed by similar national schemes later in the war.
SUR-93184C – an Iron Age coin die found in north-east Hampshire
Iron Age (or more correctly, early British) coin dies and evidence for minting are incredibly rare. This little object is one of only a handful of dies ever found from the period. During this time, mints were mobile and probably associated with the movement of the retinues of powerful tribal leaders. This example, one of two known from the area, is associated with the core of the tribal territory of the Atrebates, on the border of West Surrey.
LON-9CACA2 – a jetton found on the Thames Foreshore in London
Jettons provide a wonderful insight into the psyche of the late medieval and post-medieval world and this gloomy and gothic examples from Nuremberg, which looks like a Heavy Metal album cover, is about as good as they get. It shows death in the form of a skeleton standing behind a rich lady, reminding her that life is short and death is everyone’s fate.
SUR-4655A8 – a Bronze Age arrowhead found in Merstham, Surrey
One of the great contributions of the PAS has been to transform our understanding of how and where certain types of artefacts were made and used. A great example of this is a group of Bronze Age copper-alloy barbed-and-tanged arrowheads, such as this one which I recorded in Surrey, which are modelled on earlier flint types. Before the PAS only a single example was known from Britain and that was thought to be a continental import. Now many more have been recorded and we know them to be part of the indigenous metal-working tradition of middle Bronze Age Britain.
LON-852E59 – a post-medieval ceramic jug found on the Thames Foreshore in London
This jug is a wonderful example of the diversity of the PAS database and shows that it’s not only detectors which find interesting things! It’s a fine example of a type of post-medieval pottery known as Border Ware, from the Hampshire/Surrey borders which dominated the market for fine table wares in London. This pottery was probably made in kilns very near to where I live, which was one of the most important areas for pottery production in the country during the 17th century.