An Unusual Find
It is the second night of the second day of the annual week-long Southerton University Archaeology trip. Finding that he was between digs and in the country for a short while, I have invited my friend, the renowned Sebastian Sax, along for a few days.
“The most dangerous trip I have ever been on?” He ponders, a long pause milking my students for every drop of their anticipation.
He is always great value, especially for the first year students, most of whom recognise him from his various appearances on television, either as a regular guest on Time Team, or as a pundit on one of several late night culture shows that like to make use of his expertise in matters of popular archaeology, on the rare occasions that a big find sifts up to the mainstream.
He dips his head low to the fire, until he is almost horizontal to the dirt, and stays there until the cigarette perched between his lips is well-lit.
Upright again, he reflects once more on the question, and then answers it.
“The most dangerous would have to have been a jaunt ten years ago in the Arctic. A pack of colonial boys had stumbled across what looked like evidence of Dorset culture while on a routine surveying trip, and had asked me along for some insight.
I became so distracted by the find – which turned out to be your standard ancient Inuit remains, by the way – that I failed to attend to basic below-freezing-conditions safety.
On turning too suddenly and catching my fingers against a marking post, I snapped two of the buggers clean off.”
He pauses to take a lung of smoke, and notices some of the lads eyeing his hands with suspicion. Cigarette in mouth, he raises both appendages, and wiggles all ten digits for all to see.
“It was the index and middle finger of my right hand, and luckily I had the sense to scoop them up with some ice, if not much sense besides.
A team of yank doctors sewed them back on quick-smart, and I’m pleased to say that I now have full use of all fingers, bar some scarring.” He winks. “And thank god. I don’t need to tell you how important a good Englishman finds those particular digits.”
Some of the students laugh. I’m not entirely sure that they have fully recognised Sebastian’s reference, but I suppose that that is what the innuendo is for – a good wit always has a contingency plan to receive a positive response!
The laughter and chatter bubbles up, and Sebastian takes it as an opportunity to take a swig from a silver hip-flask. The students are restricted to hot chocolate and camp food, but I know full well that some of them have alcohol back in their tents. I allow the transgression – they have been worked fairly hard, the last two days, and I don’t want them completely disillusioned with the business of digging.
That’s what Sebastian is here for, after all… One of the last of us to still make archaeology look like exploration, he provides an excellent conduit to the halcyon – and perhaps, mythical – days of rugged men exploring dusty tombs and caverns, of unearthed secrets, and all for the glory of the Empire.
The trip falls at the end of the first term, and for many of the greener students, it is a cold, hard and unglamourous first look at the life that they have begun to dig out for themselves. With more then twelve-odd weeks of my dry lectures, and endless study of theory, Sebastian’s presence here reminds them of the reasons why the field appealed to them in the first place.
One of the girls, a quiet lass called Sian, raises a shy hand, once the laughter dies down.
“Why archaeology?” she asks.
“Well…” he says, “… with a name like Sebastian Sax, I wasn’t ever going to get a proper job!”
His modesty gives lie to his competence, of course. Watching him, you could be forgiven for thinking that he is all ego and machismo, but the fact remains that, despite all the flash, Sebastian is a bloody good dig man. My students, still mildly pragmatic with teenaged cynicism, might find some of his tales a little tall, but having been on a good few trips with him, I can give testimony to their veracity.
The truth of the stories doesn’t seem to matter too much, though – the students continue to eagerly drink them in.
One of the boys has just asked him about the weirdest find that he has ever encountered, and he has responded quickly, as if there is no question as to the answer.
“By far the strangest dig I have ever encountered was in the mid-West of Wales – in the eye of the pig, as I think of it – in the hills not far from a place called Devil’s Bridge.
As you can probably tell, I could never be mistaken for a Welshman, and the locals didn’t seem too happy to be calling me in, but still and all, they called, and I went.
The particular dig that required my expertise was in a part of a bigger complex of excavations, and many artifacts had already been found, of various levels of interest and rarity. At this point in time, the particular signature of the area was that identifying a context for each find was… problematic.
That is, stratification was all cock-a-loop in that part of the mountains – they were finding Roman era spear-tips in deeper rock than Mesolithic bone and axe-heads – the sort of head-over-arse nonsense that can really throw an amateur.
It can happen, to a degree, with hills and mountains, depending on local geological conditions, of course – strata can shift and mingle with the movement of the earth, but I have never seen such a mess as I saw up there with the boyos.
Still, the locals were used to the confusion of riches that they were finding by the time I arrived.
What they weren’t expecting to find, as they carefully excised a partial skeleton – Homo heidelbergensis, exquisitely preserved – was the edge of something large and, apparently, composed of orange/yellow factory-machined metal.
Unsure of how to proceed, they called me in.”
Sebastian stands up abruptly, and brushes off his trousers.
“Call of nature, lads and ladies. I may be some time.”
And with that, he disappears into the darkened wood. The students remain silent for a few moments, but soon, conversation starts to bubble up, about the day, about the cold, about whatever youngsters talk about these days, and about Sebastian’s stories.
Before long, he returns from his toilet, and without comment retakes his place at the fire. By the time he has retrieved another cigarette, and lit it, silence has resumed.
“So, anyway, where was I? Ah, yes, they brought me in, and I supervised the slow uncovering of this peculiar discovery. Over a few days, the find began to take shape.
And the most unusual thing about the now visible artifact was that it wasn’t actually unusual at all!
What we found was nothing more than a typical British Leyland bulldozer! The only bizarre thing about it was it’s discovery so deep in the rock.”
Sebastian partakes of his flask once again, and allows the revelation to sink in.
“Remember that the use of big yellow trowels in archaeology is a relatively recent scandal – this fellow was way outside of his normal operational arena.
What’s more, the vehicle showed very little sign of damage, beyond a crack in its windshield. Only a little dirt had managed to find its way inside the cockpit, and other than the lack of any driver, this area was perfectly preserved.
Among other items, we found an mp3 player, power run down, where it had fallen under the seat. Later investigation showed that the player was almost exclusively full of Britney Spears songs, an aberrant fact in and of itself.
Further to these findings, we soon discovered that attempts to trace the vehicle’s previous whereabouts was impossible. Serial numbers were untraceable, and only threw up further questions. And the license plates, only given a cursory look because of the ease of forgery, were all as out-of-time as everything else about the digger, and the dig, dated as they were for some time early next decade.
In fact, many things about this find continue to be uncovered – we first uncovered the damn thing back in ‘86 – we only learned what the music player was all about, or were able to read its contents, a few years ago, and as far as the manufacturers are concerned, there’s a while before we catch up to the thing on the production line.”
He throws the stub of his finished cigarette into the fire, and grins softly.
“And that is the weirdest find I have ever encountered. And that, I promise you, is a true story.
Does anyone have a cigarette?”
The laughter and chatter and tall tales and silliness continues into the night, although one by one the students start to drift off to the warmth of their sleeping bags.
Some time around 2am, one of the girls, seeming quite smitten with Mr Sebastian Sax, asks him: “Which was the most exciting expedition that you ever went on?”
And Sebastian, slightly weary with the alcohol, the smoke, and the lateness of the hour, but still ever the charming man, softly says, “Why, this one, dear girl.” Then he pauses. Continues. “Or perhaps the next.”
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