History In The High Street

Margie Hofman

Copyright 2001 by Margie Hofman

Several shops at the end of Canterbury high street were pulled down and before the new buildings went up, the Canterbury Archaeological Trust excavated to see what they could find.

An amazing medieval world has appeared, narrow lanes and tiny houses, wells and cess pits (all unhealthily close to each other), pieces of china, coins, jewellery and lots and lots of Roman roof tiles. It has proved to be one of the biggest archaeological finds in northern Europe in recent times.

Roman soldier costume by neighbor
Roman soldier costume by neighbor.
The Trust asked for volunteers to wash the finds and as I thought I would never have the chance to get close to so many Roman and medieval artefacts, I volunteered. All the finds have to be washed with a toothbrush! A group of four volunteers sit in a portakabin and the archaeologist (45 are working on the site) come in if they have found something precious or unusual.On my first day a man came in with a complete stirrup which was dated 1400.

They asked me if I would help to show people around the site. There is a high walkway around the area and after the archaeologist showed me the points of interest I turned up on my first day to find the three other stewards had bad colds and I was the only one to do the explaining. I sat in a corner and did a hurried read through the notes and then took my first group of tourists through.

Lots of Roman material coming up, Canterbury is not particularly interested in the Romans, you dig a hole here and there is bound to be something of interest. The Romans had three attempts to invade Britain from 43 AD and stayed until 410. They were disliked by most people when they were in England, although many stayed and married English women and had their own families. When building a new pub in local Castle Street, the builders found two skeletons jammed into a hole and anxiously called the police who said "Don't worry there is a sword laying next to one of them." We can only surmise that the ancient Brits had had an argument with them and buried them under the mud floor. Their swords now lay in the Roman Museum in Canterbury, together with the beautiful mosaic floor found after the war.

Further back is the site of the friary of the Augustin Friars, oyster shells dyed red and blue proved to be a puzzle at first but the archaeologists decided they were used for ink wells .The children want to know the grisly bits about bodies, yes they have found 25 bodies and two skeletons last week, these are presumably of the monks. The archaeologists realised they were working on the edge of a cemetery which probably goes all the way under the present day shops. In the rubbish pits silver oyster shells can be seen shining in the rain, this used to be a poor man's food but the opposite is now the case.

Hampered by the terrible weather the archaeologists are hurrying to excavate as much as they can before the bulldozers move in . Everything is carefully photographed and recorded and the television Time Team programme are down here quite often and a complete film of the site should be shown in the autumn.

Suddenly from the area at the end of the site, near the modern road appears a road 10 foot wide, extremely large stones, interspersed with Roman red tiles. Here we have a Saxon road dating from the time of Alfred the Great, probably made in the year 850. It is with great excitement that we watch as the dark foundations of little houses are found,so small but it would have housed a family of maybe five.

Who was Alfred the Great? Most English school books tell us while hiding from the Vikings a poor peasant woman took him in and told him to look at her cooking, he sat there wondering what his next move would be and burnt the cakes, she berated him for his laziness. Please forget about this trivial story. Alfred was the first King of the English, England at that time had many kings, Kings of Wessex, Kent, etc., when they weren't fighting off the Vikings they were fighting each other. Alfred organised them all and defeated the Viking marauders, giving England peace and stability.

At the end of the site is a series of small dwellings, one has burned red mud, the archives of Canterbury are researched and we find it belonged to Godwin the Smith who rented his house from Canterbury Cathedral in 1166.

On the last week of the site, the body of a small baby is excavated in the Roman courtyard (the rest of the house is now under the high street and built over) other finds include an intact Roman perfume bottle .

The bulldozers were due to move in and at 4 a.m. myself and another worker went in to remove Roman tiles that were sticking out of a trench (nothing was going to be saved, it was going to be used for landfill) I pulled out 15 beautiful red tiles and brought them home in a bag and put them in the hall. My husband came down the stairs OK but I fell down. I then went to iron something and burned my arm on the iron. I went to walk out of the room, the door has shut and I bang my arm on the brass handle. Enough of that - the stones are firmly put outside in the garden.

The new dig continues on another site, there will be archaeology here until 2006.

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