Monday, September 21, 2009

the unexpected

The archaeologist has on black boots, combat trousers, a black fleece – an academic paratrooper, dropped in to explain to this ramshackle rookie band the theory of Neolithic causeway enclosures. He supports his speech clearly and professionally from the belly, reaching almost to the back of the crowd, periodically hesitating, leaning forwards, touching his nose, continually pulling himself back to the simplest terms. We are so high on this bare hill, the world seems to turn below us. The wind cuts through the group, rattling our ripstop. My two girls hug my legs for warmth. The land falls steeply to the left into a valley long since occupied by a domestic glacier of houses and roads and shops. And then standing off further still, the sea, a dark curve of grey leading away to the edge of everything. Even though much has changed – that mobile phone mast, the racecourse, the houses and the roads – it feels as though the people who dug these banks and ditches seven thousand years ago must also have stood here like us, bullied by the wind but holding their ground, narrowing their eyes to the horizon.

‘Although there are no traces of any settlements here, this was a busy, well-used site, with abundant evidence of meat preparation, a mixture of ritualistic celebration and the mundane – though of course those things were probably much more intermingled than they are today.’

‘Daddy I’m cold.’
‘Hold on a minute, Eva.’
‘Can I go on your shoulders?’
‘When we move on.’

‘If you look over this way, towards the edge of what would have been the outer and fifth encircling ditch. This is where a number of burials were excavated. One was of a high status woman, in good health, about twenty, fine teeth, about five foot six, buried with great care in a grave whose walls were supported with blocks of carved chalk. In with the woman were several grave goods, including what were almost certainly loom weights, some pottery containing food etc, and a collection of fossils – echinoids, or sea-urchins – which, up until the last century, were often picked up as good luck charms by shepherds. Known as shepherds’ purses, colloquially, I think. Now, the other interesting thing about this woman was the fact that she died late in childbirth. The remains of a full-term foetus were found inside her, its head engaged, ready to be delivered. There is no evidence that she was killed or sacrificed before giving birth, so the assumption must be that she died in childbirth.’


‘Interestingly, a few feet away, the grave of another woman, similar age, but rotten teeth, much poorer overall condition. This woman was buried without any ceremony at all. Flung into the grave, her right arm trapped beneath her like this, her legs any old how. A ruthlessly quick disposal.’

‘Probably the midwife,’ someone says behind me.

‘Now – if you’d all like to follow me to the next area…’

I put Eva up on my shoulders.
I make horse noises. She laughs, tugging my hair and back-heeling her wellingtons into my chest. Chloe skips on ahead.

I remember a woman Rae and I went to, a home birth. The baby had become stuck and both the woman and baby were in danger. As soon as we were in the room and set up, the midwife performed an emergency episiotomy, a bold cut of such dimension that the baby came tumbling out into Rae’s hands, blue, but soon rubbed and chivvied into life.
The midwife straightened, pushed her glasses back up her nose, surveyed the scene through the bloodied lenses of her glasses.
‘Well,’ she said, then blew out her cheeks.
I passed her a clean towel, and she wiped her face and hands.

‘That was unexpected,’ she said.


lulu's missives said...

Hello Spence,
Sounds like you're having an interesting 'break'.
Nice to hear you mention your girls.
And finally, really like the midwife.
Mistress of the understatement.
x jo

Anonymous said...

I've been perusing photos of Scotland taken by residents and visitors lately, Spence. They're posted on the BBC News Scotland site. Thanks to the photos, I was able to envision what you and your daughters were looking at, high up on that hill. It's like a mini-vacation. And then your comment about the childbirth caught me up and took my breath. Grand writing!

samrad said...

thanks spence

Always a pleasure to read

Spence Kennedy said...

Thanks Jo
Yeah, she was a very cool midwife indeed! The mother was utterly exhausted, her husband too, and both were teetering on the edge of a full scale panic. It was a terribly fraught situation, and she handled it with enormous strength and compassion. Amazing!

Thanks BW
I'll check their website out. I had no idea about these neolithic features. The one we visited, local to us, I must've passed by a thousand times without realising the significance. We had an interesting morning - and then back to a friend's house for wine and lunch, so all in all, bliss!

Thanks samrad! Always a pleasure to get comments like that! :)


Tom102 said...

Rather profound, but a very good read never-the-less.

Thank you Spence.


Spence Kennedy said...

Thanks Tom
I have to say I was very moved by the experience. I've been to a few historical sites - stone circles, castles, old buildings etc - but this was one of the rare moments when I felt a really strong sense of connection. Seven thousand years between that poor woman dying in childbirth and us standing on the hill listening to a description of her grave, me with my two girls, and a recent experience of a woman in real difficulty giving birth - I mean, these people used stone axes to cut down trees, but they were suddenly as identifiable and present as any of us on that hill. It quite shook me up!

Thanks for your comment!

uphilldowndale said...

Wonderful as ever Spence. My imagination has been caught by the Anglo Saxon finds in Staffordshire, and the coroners comments about how many must have died to bring such a collection of artefacts together

Spence Kennedy said...

That story about the Staffs hoard is pretty amazing.

Funnily enough, I was thinking about that today as well. I'd gone to pick up my eldest daughter from school. Every Friday the whole school has a short cross country run, and just before they set off, they go through a kind of All Blacks Haka. The sound of three hundred voices sounding out together was really impressive, and when they actually all set off, you could feel the ground vibrate. As they all came pouring up the hill towards where we were standing, I tried to imagine what it must have been like on a battlefield, with thousands of warriors all chanting and moving together. God knows how terrifying that would've been!