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Burn Layer

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It's only because the light changes, when the cloud edge races over the site, that you look up and see them arrive. You're sitting by yourself down at the far trench, scale plan of the tessellated floor on your lap and context file open, adding index numbers after the thing's been drawn. It's taken most of the morning, this plan, and it's a good piece of work. Three square metres of Roman floor converted to 1:20 on permatrace, exact and elegant, recorded with every detail, every tumbled tessearae, every variation in burning. The floor will be gone in two days, bagged and labelled for conservation. The drawing's a permanent record, just like the photographs you took before you walked all over the thing with planning frames and a plumb-bob and your muddy safety boots.

The colours don't show on the drawing. They won't really show on the photographs either, despite the careful changes in exposure for each duplicated, indexed shot. But the clay tiles of the floor are shaded from crimson to black, fired by the heat of fire and rage. It's a violent sunburst of colour that reflects, mute and emphatic, one cataclysmic event.

Dig a hole anywhere in Colchester and you'll find burnt Roman pottery. There's a burn layer across the city - Colchester, the old, first Roman province capital Camulodumum - up to a metre thick, tumbled walls and wattle and tiles and charcoal fired by a single blaze that burnt over two days and two nights, two thousand years ago. Boudicca's first sacked city, defenceless against an estimated sixty thousand strong British army, the governor run to Gaul and the garrison two hundred scrabbled together legionnaires.

Tacitus describes the last stand of the Romano-British settlers, taking refugue in the stone walled chambers of the new temple to Claudius. After two days, he writes, the lamps went out. The British took to the roof. In darkness, the settlers could hear the tiles crash to the floor as the tribes broke through. They'd been hoping, of course, for rescue, although the Ninth Legion under Petilius Cerealis had already been repulsed and Paulinus, with the Twentieth and the Fourteenth, was on Anglesey. No rescue came. Dio Cassius says the settlers died violently, as sacrifices in the sacred groves of the druids, pledges to the Celtic god of war after whom the city was named. It's a possibility. There's only ever been one body found in the burn layer, and that disturbed.

It's more likely that most settlers had already fled. Sixty thousand disorganised tribesmen and women, with wagons and children and supplies, do not travel quickly. And every excavated structure in the burn layer is remarkably free of everyday goods - complete pottery, brooches, metalwork - the kind of belongings left behind by people killed defending their own homes. Looted, robbed out, or snatched in flight, Camulodumum's material culture is gone with its inhabitants.

The houses remained. Wattle and daub, tiled, square where the Celtic farmsteads were round and thatched, built in serried blocks compared to the disorganised huddle of native settlements, the houses burnt. The fire started by Boudicca's tribes reached temperatures of 1200 degrees, firing clay and cracking glass, destroying the settlement that had been for forty years capital of the Roman Province of Britannia. It's that fire which coloured the little, inch-square clay tessarae of the floor you've spent the morning recording.

That's the thing with archaeology. It's not tidy. It's not exact. But it is a direct, visceral connection to the past, real in a way written history can never be. Dio writes, Boudicca wore a golden torc. A tunic of many colours. A thick cloak fastened with a brooch. Incidentally, Dio died in 235AD, so although every description you'll read of Boudicca quotes his words, it's not exactly accurate. Archaeology allows you to know the surprisingly heavy weight of a golden torc, know that in your hands and against your skin it feels warm and soft. Under the Lion Walk shopping centre in the centre of Colchester, in the ruins of a town house, archaeologists found traces of a couch so old and battered neither the fleeing settlers nor the British tribes bothered to save or loot the thing. But, burning, the weave pattern of its tweed covering impressed against the carbonised wooden frame. That's the kind of weave, the kind of patterning, that made Boudicca's cloak. When you saw your first Celtic pennanular brooch, you were shocked by the size of it, three or four inches across, and the delicacy of the workmanship. Conspicuous consumption: power and wealth as clearly shown two thousand years ago as it is today in the diamonds and gold of a rock star's rings.

A year ago, you worked on a late medieval almshouse site under a nineteenth century graveyard. There, you found a piece of green-glazed medieval sandy ware with the thumbprint of the potter pressed into the clay, just where the handle was pinched onto the body of the pot. Five hundred years old, and the thumbprint's still there, the whorls embossed and faintly sharp under your own skin.

For the last three months, you've been working this site. It's an irregular triangular trench at the bottom end of a car park, and it's already three metres deep. The machines went in first, stripped out a metre of modern infill and drains, and under it the medieval floors and pits of this town centre site. It's beautiful stuff, rich with finds and complicated as only an urban site can be, but this is Colchester, and here people only get excited when the first Samian rolls out of the soil. It's imported Roman pottery, a rich, deep red, the molded patterns as sharply defined today as they were two thousand years ago. The Romans built Colchester, saw it destroyed, and rebuilt it after the rebellion, and here in the city it's all about that defining moment.

Here, the burn layer that covered most of the site was expected. The floor you're recording came as a surprise, the first tesserae tumbling out of charcoal-rich burn layer debris loose, as if they were just misplaced tumble. Then, under the blade of the trowel, you found the first two tiles in situ. A week later, you're looking at three square metres of Roman townhouse floor just as it was when the settlers fled, and everyone from the County Archaeologist to the Young Archaeologist's Club have come to see the thing. After the local newspapers sent down a photographer, the visitors peering through the open-wired Herras fencing around the site doubled. "Have you found any gold, then?"

No, you say under your breath, fuck off. It's the fifth time you've been asked that today. Out loud, you say, smiling, "Not yet." Archaeological units cling to existence through developer contracts and public funding. There's an information board up by the entrance and an open day on Saturday you won't get overtime for working. It ticks off the educational outreach boxes in the tender that won the unit the contract to dig this site and these days, publicity matters. There'll be three school trips next week.

Official visitors, people with credentials, people who know other people, they get hard hats and site tours. When the cloud covers the sun, and the colours of the floor change in shade, when you look up and see them, you're not surprised. There's two of them, and one of them you know. That's Philip, the unit director, small and dark haired and after thirty years in Southern England still with a soft lowland Scottish accent. With him there's a woman in jeans and boots and a heavy jacket, nothing unusual. Except the stance of her, confident and assured, and the way she walks, poised like a warrior, and you think involuntarily of Irish sagas and Boudicca's painted tribeswomen ("dressed in black like furies with dishevelled hair, brandishing torches," Tacitus says) because you're an archaeologist and your references are always going look backwards. And for a moment, the breeze that arrived with the cloud flicks strands of her dark hair over her face in generous curves and you see, you think you see, the blue tattooed lines of a Celtic warrior princess. Then the breeze lifts and she's almost ordinary again, a practical, forceful woman, beautiful in the way that many women on site are, women who work with their hands and know how to structure an academic argument in three different languages. Woman who can rustle up tea in an empty field and shift forty barrow-loads of heavy clay ditch fill a day, day after day.

But you bend over the plan again, because time is short and because they won't speak to you, these visitors. You're site fodder, not even a supervisor, and although you're lucky enough to have worked for the unit for two years you're still living out of a rucksack in a rented room and your pay covers your food and your mobile bill and your beer and nothing else. That's the price you pay for doing a job you love.

You're nearly done with labelling the contexts on the plan. In a moment, you're going to have to find someone to help with the EDM, take the measurements that link your plan and the floor on it to the national grid and height above sea level. Preferably before afternoon break - you're already thinking about a cup of strong tea and the chocolate digestives hidden in your site bag, and half of you is waiting for the site supervisor's cry of "Spoil!" Clear up your loose soil, leave the site tidy, it's time for break. Lunch. Home.

If the sun was out, you'd have known you were being watched by the shadows on the soil. But it's not, and the woman's voice startles you, rich and low.

"And this is... ?"

"It's a tessellated floor," Philip says. "Almost intact. You can see it running into the baulk. We haven't found one like this since the Highgate site in '82."

"Interesting to see it in place," the woman says, and her voice sounds almost amused and you look up and she's looking at you and for a second there's a darkness in her eyes, like the dip of a raven's wing, like the flight of a spear. Flame shadow.

"This whole area's street frontage," Philip says, and he starts talking about the evaluations the unit did over the road five years ago and the lines of the Roman streets and the grit and cobbles from the road picked up on the other side of the site.

You're listening with half an ear, because you've been stuck with this floor for the past week and before that you were digging medieval pits and it's good to know the big picture, see the site in context. But the other half of you can see nothing but this woman looking at you.

It's not like falling in love. You've done that and this is nothing like. It's like... like you know each other already, and yet there's a part of you that feels as if kneeling wouldn't be the wrong gesture, not to this woman. She could be a warrior princess, a druid priestess, both. You look at her and feel both focused and blurred, as if there's nothing but you and her on the site. The hairs on the back of your neck bristle and your right hand cramps around the pencil.

"We've got a thirty percent sample rate, but post excavation funding's going to be the biggest issue, of course, now English Heritage cut back the grants..." Philip says, and then his cell rings and he turns away.

"Did you find amphorae?" the woman says to you. "In the corner? There were olives in it?"

You did. There were shards, and almost half a base, bigger than your spread hands when you lifted and bagged the rough pottery. Inside it, there had been something organic, charred black against the fired reddish pink of the fabric. You hadn't thought you'd ever know what it was - someone, in four years time, or five, would have known, after all the tests have been scheduled and paid for and run and reported, but you? You'd be on some other site in the rain, looking at some other soil.

"Yeah," you say, surprised, and she smiles, tight and small.

"We took handfuls," she says, "And ate them on the road, on the way to Londinium. There were dried figs, and raisins."

Bemused, you stare up at her, because she looks sane, this woman, powerful and confident. Not the kind of woman, not at all the kind of woman who believes in a past life as an Egyptian princess or an Indian spirit guide. Or a Celtic tribeswoman.

"You'll know when you need to find me," she says, and smiles, and it's a different smile, bright and sharp as a blade. "When you need me."

She doesn't ask your name and you don't ask hers. But you'll meet again, you both know it.

After the fire.