Occasionally, I go metal detecting. Thus far, no enormous gold hoards have been discovered on my watch – how surprising – but I do find other things which are far more intriguing.
Most of the things I dig up are unrecognisable; to the point where I’m tempted to throw them away but my eternal optimism that the lump of twisted metal I have in my hands might be ‘something interesting’ ensures I never do, or at least, not until one of the other detectorists, who actually knows what they’re doing, has seen it.
This is probably a good thing if these examples are anything to go by.
A few weeks ago, I dug up a bit of metal that looked like one of those things old people put under the legs of chairs to stop them marking the carpet. This thing (pictured left). I assumed it was part of a tractor, but once again, ever hopeful, I stuffed it in my finds bag and kept going.
At the end of the day, when I looked closely, I realised it had two lines round it and a little hole drilled in the bottom from both sides, which didn’t go all the way through.
You know what this is? It’s the equivalent of one of those plastic medicine spoons. The hole is to keep a pill still – they were round then – the line is to mark out half a dose and the drill hole on the underneath is so it stands steady.
What I find so amazing is that everyone but everyone in the… I dunno, 500, 400 years preceding 1900 would have known exactly what that is and what it’s for. And me 100 years later? No clue.
Turns out it was a hand guard; something people sewing canvas or leather would use, similarly to a thimble, but in the palm of their hand. The ridge is the but you’d put the end of the needle into as you pushed it through.
Almost anyone alive from the Middle Ages to the early 20th Century would know exactly what it is, as instinctively as we know what a car tyre is, or a thimble.
Why was it there? Because everyone in the village would work on the fields and the women folk and kids would come out and picnic there, in the summer. That’s why one of the best places to detect is near the hedge under any old trees, because it’s where the workers’ families would have sat and where they would all have had dockey (elevensies) and lunch.
What amazes me about this is how much of history has been taken for granted and thrown away. I’m sure it’s something most people are aware of. How many times have you gone into an antique shop, seen some kitchen implement and thought, “Bloody hell! I remember using one of those at my granny’s house!”
Well, OK, maybe that’s just me but it does intrigue me how many aspects of our world, which we intuitively understand today, our vernacular surroundings of stuff, if you like, will probably flummox our antecedents. Exactly the same way that the vernacular, every day items of 70, 80 maybe 100 years ago regularly flummox me.
It also amazes me how a learning a few simple things about how our predecessors lived, and finding these unremarkable, vernacular items, illuminates their world. Suddenly it is real, alive and with substance.
So what has this to do with writing?
Well, I suppose, the first thing is my favourite topic, that you can build a rich and complex world with little more than a few hints. That if you give the right information as a catalyst the reader’s imagination does the rest. Second, how fast life and the world moves and how soon things are forgotten. Most of the items I find were in common use from the Middle Ages; earlier in the case of the hand guard, until the early 19th Century. That’s 500 years. 80 years later and I don’t know what they are. Such is the price of progress.
Third thing… how amazing it is to find a truth in history. When the causes and factors behind so many world events are down to interpretation it’s incredible to find things that can be expressed as black and white facts; it’s that and this is what it was for.
And to make the header post for Facebook more interesting, here is a picture of Chewbacca, my cat, who died 18 months ago, sadly but who was very cute.