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Letter from England

The Scientist's Garden

Excavations in an English garden reveal the evolution of the nation's culture across thousands of years


Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Letter From Opener


Within the rolling landscape of Gloucestershire in southwest England, at the edge of the sleepy town of Berkeley, is a hill that was for centuries one of England’s most desirable plots of land. A church, a castle, and a manor house with extensive gardens all jostle for space—testaments to the hill’s commanding view of the surrounding plains and its location at the highest navigable point of the River Severn, the longest in the United Kingdom. The setting, at once bucolic and strategic, has seen the whole of English history, from times of marginality and austerity to periods of great wealth and influence, from Neolithic hunters and a Roman temple to a kingdom of witches and Norman townhouses. Stuart Prior, an archaeologist at the University of Bristol, encouraged by this long history, commissioned a geophysical survey of the area in 2005 and has directed excavations every year since with his colleague Mark Horton. What they have found is some 6,000 years of English history—a history that shows just how much the island nation has been shaped by wave after wave of invaders.


The hill itself is asymmetrical, steeper on one side than the other. It is crowned by a stunning church, built in the twelfth century, but with earlier, Anglo-Saxon origins. Perched on the steeper slope is one of the grandest and most complete Norman castles still standing. And on the gentler side, there is a manor house surrounded by a typical English country garden that once belonged to Edward Jenner, eighteenth-century gentleman physician and pioneer of the smallpox vaccine. From the garden, a short uphill stroll leads to the castle, while a walk downhill leads into Berkeley.



In the garden today, the sweet smell of cow parsley drifts on the breeze and mingles with the pungent aroma of wild garlic. Pink cherry blossom petals rain down on a lush green lawn, and rosebuds promise glorious scents to come. But these sensual delights are not of much interest to Prior and his colleagues. Rather, the archaeologists are fascinated by the deeper geography—layers and deposits that reflect the social transitions that punctuate English history.


Historical records hint that the hill was an important location well before the Normans arrived in England in A.D. 1066 and subsequently built the castle and church. A previous renovation of the church, for example, turned up Roman tiles, a tantalizing hint. Ideally, Prior, Horton, and their team would have preferred to start their excavations at the top of the hill, around the church and its graveyard, but because digging in sacred ground was not possible, they opted to begin on the peripheries of the hill—in Jenner’s garden and, on the other side of the hill, in a paddock belonging to the castle.


With the potential for a deep, complex site below, entirely excavating several acres was never a possibility, so the geophysical surveys were critical in determining the best locations for trenches, each of which was carefully chosen to shine a pinpoint of light on the past. The early excavations confirmed that the site was indeed deep. From the disparate trenches—each like a piece in a three-dimensional puzzle—the archaeologists have succeeded in extrapolating the hill’s history and in developing a mental image of its belowground geography.




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