Eric Houlder of the Pontefract Archaeological
Society has been our guest speaker at the beginning of every season for about
the last 10 years. In September he spoke about the Towton battlefield skeletons
in his talk entitled 'Mortal Remains'. His society has received the Pitt Rivers
Award for the top excavation in Britain - St Aidan's sunken ships in the bed of
the River Aire. His involvement with the Time Team programme in Castleford is
recounted in the following article.
DIGGING WITH THE TIME TEAM
Time Team is justifiably one of Channel Four's most popular programmes. Wherever I go giving talks, people ask me about it and how it fits into the world of archaeology.
However, until recently my attitude has been ambivalent, for there has been much criticism of the programme from professional circles. The format, that a complete excavation in three days, seems to go against the ideal of research work, even though much professional practice during the last twenty years has involved rushed rescue of sites threatened by 'development', which inevitably means destruction of the worthwhile in favour of the profitable.
A major criticism has been that the programmes rarely if ever show people recording i.e. with drawing boards and cameras. Everyone knows that discovery without recording is unscientific. If the criticism is justified, then Time Team would be no better than the average treasure-hunter. By chance, I recently had an opportunity to find out the truth.
The foot-and- mouth epidemic has caused problems to many people who live and work in a rural environment, and obviously our hearts go out to all affected. A little-appreciated side effect has been the cancellation of much excavation in rural areas. In April 2001 this meant that Time Team had to quickly seek an urban site, so they moved up their schedule and targeted Roman Castleford.
The team normally consists of the famous personalities, such as Phil Harding, Professor Mick Aston, Tony Robinson, Carenza Lewis, etc. There are also a number of professionals who sometimes appear on screen, like 'Mick the Dig', plus a varying number of outside experts who come in when required. Obviously, more actual workers are needed to shift the earth, and these are usually recruited from local professional units.
Readers may have seen in the national press that the Pontefract Archaeological Society won the highest award for unpaid excavation in the British Archaeological Awards last year. As Field Director of that Society I am normally in charge of the award-winning team, but it was still something of a shock when I received a phone call from Channel Four asking the Society to supply five experienced diggers per day. Shortly afterwards, the archaeologist in charge of recording rang and asked me to assist with the site photography, my particular forte.
I will not go into the problems of fitting thirty experienced diggers into five per day times three, except to say that the only dissension was from an inexperienced person who wanted "to be on the telly". My own role was to help with the preparation for still photography and the actual shooting. This often brought me alongside the personalities, except Carenza who was not present on this site.
I found them to be exactly like their screen personae. Phil turned out to be just as bluff and straightforward. He and Mick carried on the same banter that we see on screen, even including me in it when I took my time over a picture of a cremation. Both of them were suitably impressed with my 1960's Weston Master V exposure meter.
Everyone who was working got a Time Team ID badge (which we now treasure !) and each was allowed partake of the excellent Channel Four location catering, which included frequent flasks of coffee and sandwiches on site as well as a two course main meal at lunchtime. The southerners were somewhat puzzled to hear it called `dinner', but this was not the only Yorkshire-ism they misunderstood. One group, late off the site, found there was no food left (the local MP who has shown no interest in local heritage until now had just been fed!). The producer handed out cash, £6 each and asked if it was enough! In Castleford, it is possible for two to eat for a fiver, so everyone was more than satisfied.
The same producer, on finding that I had been a teacher, 'persuaded' me to help out showing school groups around on the final day, a Monday. This was quite rewarding, for it brought me into contact with Tony Robinson who is a natural with children. He never refused to sign autographs, and posed for pictures with so many groups that it must have been exhausting. On one occasion, I was addressing a group of primary children when they all suddenly stared to the side of me and one boy whispered, "It's Baldrick!" It was too!
He addressed me by Christian name and asked if I would mind if he spoke to the children. Did I mind? He told them of the three days intensive digging and filming, of the miles of film and tape, and of the weeks putting it all together before the final programme was ready. He also mentioned sums with loads of noughts on the end. Even the children with little interest in their past will be glued to their sets in January 2002.
Most of my time was spent taking pictures for Kate, the professional in charge of recording. My friend Nick, a talented archaeological surveyor, assisted with the planning. We were both impressed with the standard of recording, even though none of it was actually filmed. This latter point is really the crux of the original concerns. No one saw recording simply because watching photography and planning on TV must be like watching paint dry! The viewers want to see discoveries, and in a fifty minute programme, that is what they get.
I shall always remember my time with Time Team. I have my ID badge, group pictures of 'my' team with Time Team, and my own pictures. Having appeared on archaeological programmes from Chronicle in the sixties through to this recent experience I have to admit that television archaeology has improved. Yes, it concentrates more on the 'goodies', the spectacular finds, but it also interests more people. The increasing applications to join local societies speak for themselves.
South Yorkshire Times. July 7th 1951.
The question was asked a few days ago by one of the younger people, why the railway sidings near Denaby Crossing are called "The Bonemill Sidings".
It may, therefore, be of interest to revive a subject I dealt with 20 years ago (writes T.H.) when an article appeared about the one-time pottery that existed in Denaby Main, where the present "Bonemill Sidings" are situated.
The writer can recall the ruined buildings, including a chimney stack, which for many years stood in the present sidings yard, and it was here that the pottery was first situated, and then later it became a bonemill.
It reply to my paragraph in Denaby Notes in 1931, someone, who gave his initials "W>S." gave the following information in a letter to the Editor.
"Your Denaby Correspondent asks if the site of the pottery at Denaby Main can be located. Many older readers will recall that it stood on the South side of the railway, somewhere between the end of denaby lane and the level-crossing. This was where the pottery in question was situated. It was originally established by Messrs. Alcocks, of Burslem, for the manufacture of firebricks. In 1864, however, it was acquired by Mr John Wardle, who in conjunction with Mr.W. Wilkinson, commenced to manufacture all the ordinary kinds of printed earthen ware, pearl body and cream ware in all the favourite patterns, from new copper plates.
Really good tea, dinner, coffee and toilet services were produced, with yellow or caned colour ware, and decorative tiles from Conisbro' clay.
Later a branch pottery was established at Conisbro' (?Where?).
The distinguishing mark was the Staffordshire knot, with the words "Wilkinson and Wardle, Denaby Potteries". Somewhere about 1870, the manufacture of earthenware at these works ceased, and the factory was converted into a bone and glue works. Hence we get "Bonemill Sidings".
On Saturday, May 12th fourteen stalwarts from our Mexborough Heritage Society set off in a mini-bus on our trip to Barnard Castle and the Bowes museum. This actually came about because our long promised trip to Towton Battlefield (to be shown around by Eric Houlder) had to be cancelled because of the foot and mouth crisis.
I was a bit disappointed at first, but I shouldn't have been because, firstly, Saturday dawned a brilliantly sunny day, pretty rare this horrible rainy year, and secondly because Barnard Castle turned out to be a very interesting place, with not just the castle ruins to look round, but a very pleasant town with a square and many shops to browse around.
One of the attractions was a sort of market cum Antique Fair which you could lose yourself looking at everything and also many teashops and food joints catering for just about all tastes.
We opted for sitting on a form, eating our sandwiches and people-watching which is always an interesting occupation.
Later at 2 0' clock we arrived at the Bowes museum which I didn't realise was an enormous mock - French chateau, built specially to house fine furniture and art work purchased mostly in France by John Bowes and his wife in the 1840's to the 1870's. I enjoyed this extraordinary collection, but personally I enjoyed looking at the actual clothes that people wore, as it seems to bring the past back to life for me as nothing else can.
Then at 4 o' clock we congregated upstairs and waited for a highlight of a life size silver swan, which when wound up, performed its party-piece of looking round, pecking at the water and catching a fish. As swans do not eat fish in real life, this was billed as "The only fish-eating Swan in the world".
We arrived back in Mexborough at 7 o' clock, driven very ably by our lady bus driver and we were ready for the drink we had at the George and Dragon. A really good trip I think, was had by all.
As I mentioned in last month's newsletter, tonight will be the last meeting of the society at 'The Masons', as from next month meetings will be held in Mexborough Library. Access will be through the rear door from the car park, don't try the main doors, they will be locked. This will be only the third venue used by the society and takes us a step further towards our 'own place', but it takes us into the realms of running the society on a more professional manner. The grant application to cover the rent at the library was fortunately successful, we were awarded the full amount applied for, giving us funds for two years rent for the meeting room and the archive room. We have these two years to turn an empty room into an invaluable asset for the people of Mexborough and to prove its worth, who knows were this will lead?
The next step is to arrange funding for furniture and I.C.T. equipment; we have already had a visit from the man from IKEA. He was very helpful, making suggestions, drawing plans etc; he even gave us a computer-generated picture of what the room would look like. To our surprise, when the quote arrived it was very reasonable and well within our grasp.
I hope you have all read your copies of the proposed constitution and give your approval tonight; it is essential if we are to move forward and implement our plans for the society.
As some of you may know, we have, in the past, approached Doncaster Council with enquiries as to the future of Dolcliffe School. Each letter or phone call has resulted in a confusing and disappointing response. The school is now empty, the clothing factory has closed and the owner moved on. We have, through our membership of Mexborough Community Partnership, sent a letter to the council asking yet again what the future holds for this dominating building, and what a splendid community hall/archive it would make. I suspect however the market price for such quality stone will tip the balance!
Christmas should be much brighter in Mexborough this year thanks to 'The Bright Lights Appeal', as you may have read in 'The Times' some members of The Community Partnership have worked very hard raising funds for Christmas illuminations. To help with their fundraising they have arranged a Caribbean Night at the Empress, come along and start the party season early, Friday 9th Nov.
Our own Christmas visit is very popular, and I would guess that if you don't buy your ticket tonight you will miss the bus!