The author that first got me interested in landscapes- not just the look, but the feel, the sense of deep history, was Alan Garner. We did his book The Owl Service at school, and from time to time I have dipped into his back catalogue, many of which are allegedly for children, but they are almost too good for them.
In the latest Current Archaeology is an extended article on Alderley Edge, Garner’s stamping ground, a place with ancient and mystical relevance as well as having been mined for thousands of years. The quality of Garner’s sense of place is confirmed by his role in dating the earliest mines. Archaeologist Chris Catling notes that Garner’s Weirdstone of Brisingamen is imbued with the landscape and folklore of Alderley Edge , and :
Garner sought to uncover the true age of a wooden shovel that he had been given as a schoolboy in 1953 by the headmistress of the Alderney Edge Council School, and that he subsequently carried with him everywhere – through National Service and his studies at Oxford.
Experts at the Ashmolean Museum said it was a ‘child’s toy space: Victorian’; the British Museum thought it slightly older: ‘possibly a Tudor winnowing fan; possibly a peat-cutter’s spade – no older than medieval.’ Forty years on, Alan found a more sympathetic archaeologist – John Prag, then Keeper of Archaeology at the Manchester Museum – who sent it for radiocarbon dating. The results showed that the shovel dated from 1750 BC, the middle Bronze Age,m and subsequent study has confirmed that tool marks on the shovel were made by Bronze Age implements.
That shovel had been found in 1875 by miners working he 19th century copper mines that burrows deep into the Edge; tests showed that its remarkable survival was due to the preservative effects of copper and lead impregnation. It came out of a pit ‘some three to four yards in depth’, that also contained numerous grooved hammer stones or mauls. These hammers, Alan Garner recalls, were quite distinctive and so numerous on the Edge that they were used as doorstep in the cottages and farms of the area.
The survival of the shovel in Gardner’s possession is incredible, but it makes me wonder how many other bits of old stuff are gathering dust somewhere, and of all the stuff that has been disposed of because technology had not existed to declare its true worth.