Local Archaeology at the river Trent

A couple of years ago Martin Rundkvist pulled together a series of blog posts from around the world under the head­ing The Ever-Present Past: Your Nearest Site. My nearest site is prob­ably an air-raid shel­ter from the Second World War, but des­pite three trips I couldn’t find any vis­ible remains. If you live in the UK there’s a very good chance the closest archae­olo­gical remains will be some form of civil defence from the 1940s but — until large num­bers of the British are will­ing to accept the war is over — it’s going to be hard to per­suade people they’re heritage.

There were two sites I could find and I was equidistant from both of them, so I chose Derby Silk Mill. Not every­one has a World Heritage Site on their door­step. If I’d gone a couple of miles in the oppos­ite dir­ec­tion this would have been the site posted.

Swarkestone Bridge

Swarkestone Bridge

This is Swarkestone Bridge, the longest stone bridge in England. It crosses the river Trent and its flood­plain. There’s been a cross­ing here since at least the fourteenth-century, but the cur­rent bridge mainly dates from the Georgian period with most of it built at the end of the eighteenth-century. It’s about a kilo­metre long and someone has kindly put up a video about it on YouTube.

I say mainly because often there’s dam­age from acci­dents; being a Grade I sched­uled ancient monu­ment isn’t giv­ing the bridge that much pro­tec­tion and it’s com­mon to see rebuild­ing going on. The bridge needs to be used as it’s still the main route from the city of Derby to Melbourne and the south of the county. A sens­ible solu­tion might be to build a second bridge along­side the old bridge and have each one take traffic in one dir­ec­tion obly. However, it’s prob­ably more cost-effective over the life of an indi­vidual admin­is­tra­tion to leave it to be dam­aged and replace it bit by bit, so in some ways it’s also a mod­ern recon­struc­tion of what a Georgian bridge might look like if it wasn’t rebuilt on a reg­u­lar basis.

The remains of a night of soup joy.

The remains of a night of soup joy.

It’s easy to over­look that ancient monu­ments have a life which changes in dif­fer­ent eras. If the bridge were purely Georgian, then it wouldn’t be around in the 21st cen­tury. The idea of sec­tion­ing of areas of the mod­ern world and declar­ing them to be the past gives them quite a bit of pri­vacy. It’s com­mon to find evid­ence of social activ­it­ies that you wouldn’t want to share with the wider pub­lic at ancient sites. For instance the tombs I vis­ited in Tunisia were quite deep in beer cans, which wouldn’t be some­thing you’d want out in the open in an Islamic coun­try. Visiting this morn­ing I found foil, a spoon and evid­ence of a small fire by the side of the bridge. It was hid­den amongst the under­growth and out of sight of the local houses and pub. Clearly this is evid­ence of a soup party. Obviously see­ing as the pub, a short dis­tance away, serves food people wouldn’t want to be seen pub­licly con­sum­ing home-made soup there. The land­lord would get tetchy. So instead, after a few drinks, they go the the pri­vacy of the bridge away from the mod­ern world and heat up small quant­it­ies of soup in a metal spoon over an open fire.

I don’t know of any archae­olo­gical stud­ies of mod­ern soup con­sump­tion at ancient sites, nor of extreme icing. Extreme icing is where you get the icing sugar and ice through a syr­inge and hypo­dermic needle so you can do the really fiddly bits on wed­ding cakes. Why someone would take a wed­ding cake to an ancient site is a mys­tery to me, but clearly they do because it’s not unusual to see the syr­inges and needles. I don’t know if you could get fund­ing for that kind of archae­olo­gical research though as it’s ver­ging on the socially useful.

A bridge too far.

A bridge too far.

If you’re a sym­path­iser of Bonnie Prince Charlie then Swarkestone marks the end of the road south. It was here where Jacobite forces, invad­ing from Scotland, came to a halt. Charles Stuart had invaded prom­ising his allies that had assur­ances that the English would rally to his cause. At Swarkestone he was forced to admit he’d received no such prom­ises. His coun­cil of war voted to return to Scotland.

Derby might also mark one of the few examples of Englishness as a form of self-defence. The Scottish army camped by Kedleston Hall one its way back. Supplies are import­ant, so someone from the army approached the hall to secure food for the 5000 sol­diers. Seeing the size of the army and the poten­tial ruin of his house­hold it is said the lord of the manor insisted every­one turn off the lights and pre­tend they were out. This surely has to be a mod­ern inven­tion, but I do like the idea of the lord pick­ing up a reproach­ful card slipped under the front door: “We called this AM/PM to pil­lage your hall for victu­als but there was no reply. Please con­tact us to arrange a more con­veni­ent time. Regards, the Jacobite Rebellion.”


When he's not tired, ill or caught in train delays, Alun Salt works part-time for the Annals of Botany weblog. His PhD was in ancient science at the University of Leicester, but he doesn't know Richard III.

1 Response

  1. mrund says:

    Yes, clandes­tine cook­ing is quite com­mon at these sites. You may also find small empty con­di­ment pack­ets and dis­carded latex saus­age skins.