Pat Bull unlocked a peeling black door and showed me into a small brick-walled room. On the plain wooden table which almost filled the space were small polythene bags and boxes, labelled in black feltpen with numbers and letters.
At one side were several patterned terracotta tiles, thick and tapering towards the base. What was the dull-grey metallic dome, from which projected a metal stub – half of an Amazon’s breast-plate? She must have been as strong as legend suggests, because the extremely heavy base was made of lead; Pat thought it might have been the base for a candle-holder or something similar. She slipped a tiny metal disc out of its polythene envelope and showed me the simple depiction of a ship on one side and the letters ‘S E L’ on the other. ‘We’ve found several of these,’ she said, ‘and one thought is that they’re salt tokens’.
Pat is a former President of the West Cumbria Archaeology Society, and WCAS and Grampus Heritage have been engaged on ‘digs’ at Holme Cultram Abbey at Abbeytown on the Solway Plain for three seasons. The Abbey, set up in 1150 by Cistercian monks, has had a complicated history and is now a mere fraction of its former size – you can read elsewhere about its past, and the arson attack in 2006 that nearly destroyed it.
The current archaeological digs to discover earlier parts of the building are funded by HLF with the involvement of the Solway Wetlands Landscape Partnership and have so far uncovered the remains of cloisters and the wall of a refectory. As I watched the diggers carefully scraping away soil with trowels and placing pieces of bone and pottery in black plastic seed-trays for examination, Pat told me how they had found several graves that had been broken into, their covering stones destroyed.
But they had seen the edge of one intact stone, and on excavation had found an engraved rectangular grave-slab.
Nearby another had also been found – just these two remained untouched. Looking at the still-sharp letters of the inscription I could easily imagine the thrill of finding these handsome objects. When the dig finishes in early October, the excavations will be covered and filled in, but for now, briefly, I was able to see stones that had been carved six hundred years ago, and later had been hidden when the cloisters were knocked down.
The monks had a major influence on the appearance and productivity of the Solway Plain; woodland was felled, land was drained, sheep were reared; iron-smelting works have been discovered, and large salt-pans were constructed to evaporate sea-water for salt.(The Crosscannonby saltpans on Allonby Bay, pictured, date from about 1630, and were not built by the monks.)
Another object on the table was a fine pin with a rounded head, for fixing a shroud. Pat opened packet after packet, showing me metallic fragments – a piece of leading from around stained glass, a book clasp, a tiny spur, something that looked like a mustard spoon (or was it for removing ear-wax?); and fragments of coloured window glass and pottery. I felt privileged to be able to see these finds, to be able to hold them and feel their weight – it was so different from seeing them in a museum collection. It restored them to practicality, as objects that were useful and had been used, rather than objets to be catalogued and dated, made abstract.
‘I can show you what’s in this box if you like,’ Pat smiled – and she carefully unwrapped a thin gold-coloured disc and held it out. The detailing of the patterns was very fine, and on one side she showed me the pattern that was an angel. These tokens were called just that, ‘angels’.
My thanks to Fiona Smith and Solway Wetlands Partnership for allowing me to use her photo of Pat Bull (back left) in the ‘room of artefacts’; there are more of Fiona’s photos from the event here.