Those Old Gods

Chapter 3. Saturday: the art of being kind

So many gods, so many creeds,
So many paths that wind and wind,
While just the art of being kind
Is all the sad world needs.

Ella Wheeler Wilcox, The World’s Need

Bob Gill was a retired solicitor, an amateur archaeologist of long standing and high repute, and president of the local archaeological society into the bargain.

When word had reached him that a farmer had uncovered ancient masonry at Nettleton, out in the middle of nowhere beside the Fosse Way, he went to look, and his report was so promising that the society decided to excavate. His judgement had proved spot-on. Under his direction they had now spent two and a half seasons on it, each of a fortnight at Easter and a month in the summer, and had already exposed an impressive rural temple and parts of some associated buildings. And there was obviously a great deal more still to find.

This summer, the first week of the dig overlapped with school term, but Bob knew with pleasure that from the second week he would have the services of young Don Muir, the Archdeacon’s son. He had been with them ever since they began at Nettleton, when he had just turned thirteen, starting as a complete novice but revealing a skill and a patience way beyond that of the other regulars.

That’s one of the drawbacks of amateur archaeology, Bob reflected wryly. Christine Banks, his supervisor, was thoroughly reliable, of course. But the rest of the old faithfuls were society members, and you had to take what came. It was hard to persuade them to work down a layer at a time, not to burrow indiscriminately away in pursuit of fancied buried treasure. Unless you kept a close eye on them they might not even notice when the soil they were trowelling changed from orange to black.

But Don was a natural — disciplined, meticulous, eagle-eyed — who understood what he was uncovering as far as anyone could understand it at first sight. He was too young to be made a supervisor — that would put older noses out of joint — but Bob entrusted him with important jobs as a matter of course, while he himself and Christine supervised the less competent.

And this year they were to have another youngster with them. His father had written quite recently to say that he had heard about the dig through the Archdeacon, and to ask if his son could join them. What was his name? He found the file. Ah yes, Mark Bushby, son of the rector of — he smiled at the heading on the notepaper — Chew Magna with Nempnett Thrubwell and Ubley. Better put him with Don to learn the ropes. They should get on, for Don was a friendly soul.

Both of them would be camping in Bill Dring’s field, the only ones who were. Thank God for a helpful landowner who not only allowed them to dig, but lent them a field for volunteers to pitch tents in. The site was inaccessible without your own transport. Everyone else, being much older, had a car and commuted daily. The boys obviously could not. Mark lived the other side of Bristol. Don — well, he lived at Pucklechurch, not all that far away, and might possibly have cadged lifts from his parents. But they were busy people and he preferred to be independent. Knowing the Archdeacon, Bob could not blame him.

On Saturday morning, the first day of the holidays, the Muirs’ car was the first to nose up the track to the camping field. They knew the drill. Don’s tent was a large and sturdy one, easy to set up. They had just dumped his clobber inside — sleeping bag, clothes, food, cooking equipment — when the Bushbys appeared. The parents were old friends, but the boys had never met, and regarded each other warily. Both were subdued, even cagey. Mark’s shoddy little tent dated back to the early days of Mr Bushby’s marriage, before Mark arrived, when he and his wife had bought it for cheap holidays. Not having touched it since, he had forgotten how it worked and Mark had never used it. Between them they sussed it out and got it up beside Don’s.

“Hope this keeps the rain off,” Don said pessimistically, fingering the thin cotton. He did not offer Mark the hospitality of his own spacious tent. He might have to, if it came to it, out of sheer humanity. But not till then.

When Mark’s gear had been unloaded, the parents made to leave — clergymen work hard, even on Saturdays — amid the usual shower of exhortations.

“You’re the old hand here, Don,” ended his Mum. “You’ll show Mark the ropes, won’t you? Got your mobile? Don’t forget to give us a ring from time to time.”

Before driving off Philip Bushby had a quick word with the Archdeacon. He wished he had more time to spare for his son. He wished he was better at coping with the problems of adolescents.

“Thanks for putting us on to this, Kenneth. Mark’s been very low recently. I don’t know why. But I’m hoping Don’s company will perk him up.”

“And I am hoping the same for Don. He is in a similar state.”

But he did not say why, nor voice his qualms about what the boys might get up to. He had considered stopping Don from coming at all, but felt that would be unreasonably harsh. Anyway, Philip was thoroughly decent and reliable, so his son should be too. But then, but then — he and Janet were decent people, he hoped, and look at their son …

The cars gone, the boys inspected each other again. Not quite with suspicion, because both were here to get away from malice and bad feeling, and were hoping for the best. But they inspected with caution, because their trust and their confidence were in tatters. Their shells were in full use.

Don saw a tall boy with straight mousy hair, a long narrow mouth that looked a stranger to smiles, and hazel eyes that seemed to have their shutters down. A closed face, but one that promised strength should it ever open up. Mark saw a figure a couple of inches shorter, with an unruly mop of black curls and a younger face, potentially lively and mobile, but weary in the mouth and the dark brown eyes. Neither felt in the least attracted to the other, for their passions were switched off.

Don broke the awkward silence. “Well, there’s not much to show you here. Water from a tap outside the hay-barn over there. Cattle trough under it, useful for washing in. We look after our own breakfasts and teas. Bob’s happy to buy stuff for us — milk, bread, anything within reason. The farm’s a mile away and nobody ever comes here, so you can pee anywhere. For crapping, there’s a Portaloo at the site. But don’t use that just for peeing — it fills it up unnecessarily fast. Down there, just wander discreetly off. Preferably out of sight of Miss Dinsdale, who’s an old prude. Doubt she’s ever peed in her life — much too disgusting a habit. For lunch someone brings in a crate of sandwiches and things, for everyone, and old Mrs Prichard makes endless brew-ups. We work from nine to five in theory, though it’s pretty flexible. Reckon that’s about it. ”

“What do you do in the evening?”

“Get my head down early. Saves on batteries. But I read. Listen to my walkman. Or sometimes go to the site and brood. I get a … sort of calm feeling down there.” An odd thing to confess to a stranger, but he looks as if he could do with some calming. “Come and see it, if you’re ready, and meet Bob.”

“Where’s everyone else?” It was nearly eleven and there were no cars in the field.

“Oh, on the site. They don’t come this way. They park on the Fosse Way.”

Don led the way across the camping field and along the hedge beside a level field of ripening wheat. They climbed a stile, and immediately the ground dropped away and a view opened up. Here Don stopped. He was beginning to feel better, away from his parents’ heavy hand. In company with this quiet bloke who for some reason he already felt an affinity with. At a place which always had the power to soothe his mind.

“You get a good overall view from here.”

They were standing on the right-hand side of a small valley, looking down it. It was utterly typical of the region — there must be hundreds like it in the Cotswolds — but it gave off, despite the activity, a curious atmosphere of peace. Below on their left flowed a small stream, flanked by occasional trees and with steep ground on the far side. Across the valley in front ran a narrow road.

“That’s the Fosse Way. The Roman road. It would all have looked much the same in Roman times, except for the field walls and hedges.”

Along the verge were a number of cars, and on their side of the stream and of the road was the site itself, showing up as a series of trenches and brown spoil tips, peopled by a dozen figures, mostly on their knees but one or two pushing wheelbarrows. Not far from the road was a sizeable wooden hut with a bright blue Portaloo alongside.

“That’s the site hut. The temple itself’s at this end, near the stream. Just beyond the last tree. We’ve pretty well finished digging that.”

“Why here? The temple, I mean.”

“Ah. Big question. We’re not talking about Romans proper, of course. Not Italian Romans. The guys here were Britons. OK, they’d borrowed quite a bit of Roman culture, and after a while most of them could speak Latin, round here. But they were still Britons, and they probably spoke British among themselves. So the architecture of the temple isn’t Italian, it’s British. And the god here was British. We’ll never know why they picked this spot, but they must have thought it was sacred. So they built the temple here, and people came to say thank you to the god for doing whatever he did, or ask him to do things for them, and give him offerings.”

“Who was he? What did he do?”

“Interesting. In the towns and forts they often worshipped imported Roman gods, of course. But a lot of pre-Roman gods survived too, specially out in the country. Like Nodens at Lydney. Like the one here. We think he was called Maponus. A very British name. It means ‘the youth’. He survived in Welsh legend as a sort of hero called Mabon. His main centre was up north, beyond Hadrian’s Wall, where there are quite a lot of altars to him. Up there they identified him with the Roman Apollo and called him Apollo Maponus, and the carvings show him with dogs or with a lyre. He seems to have done the same job as Apollo, looking after hunting and music.

“But this is the first time he’s turned up this far south, and he seems different here. But we’ve no idea what he did. We’ve found a bronze plaque inscribed ‘To the god Maponus.’ Plain Maponus, no Apollo. And a few little figures, and some broken bits of bigger statues. But no sign of dogs or lyres. Just a young man, naked.”

“If the temple’s finished, what are you digging now?”

“Well, it all turned into quite a settlement. Just beyond the temple, down by the stream, there’s a building which seems to have been a hostel, where people who came here could stay over. And we’re finding more and more buildings up the slope to the right. One of them was probably the priest’s house and another the bath-house. Yet another’s got so much broken pottery outside that it looks like a restaurant to feed the visitors. We think another one was a shop, selling tourist tat. You know, Roman equivalent of postcards saying ‘Souvenir of Nettleton’, or little figures of the god to put on your bracelet. Just like now.”

“What sort of date?”

“Started early in the second century and gradually grew. Hit its peak in the early fourth century. Then declined, maybe suppressed by Christians. Then revived again, only to be smashed up for good around 400, maybe by Irish raiders, maybe by Christians. Or that’s how it looks at the moment, but it’s all up for grabs. There aren’t many places where we’ve got down to the earliest levels. Er, you done any digging before?”

“No, but I know what you mean. Stratigraphy. Latest layers on top, earliest at the bottom.”

“That’s right. You dig down layer by layer, going back in time. Very carefully, very slowly. Well, not really dig. OK, you use a shovel on the topsoil, but below that it’s all trowelling. Scraping. Brushing. Finishing one layer in a trench before you start on the next. Most of it’s just a slog, not exciting at all. You’re not going to be finding coins and things every minute.”

“I know. I watch Time Team.”

“Well, yes, but even on that they only show the interesting bits.”

“What’ll I be doing?”

“No idea. Let’s find Bob and ask.”

They walked down through the site. The workers, men and women, were all middle-aged or elderly. They greeted Don with delight, and obviously regarded him with affection and respect. Don introduced everyone, and Mark tried to keep up with the names. Finally, at the hut, they found Bob, a rotund and jovial man with a round red face crowned with a thatch of white hair, rarely seen without a pipe in his mouth. He welcomed Don like a prodigal son, and Mark with warmth.

“Thanks for joining us,” he said, beaming at him. “I hope you’ll like us. We’re all dotty, mind you, but harmlessly dotty. This is your first dig, is it?”

“Yes, Mr Gill.”

“Bob, please. Nobody calls me Mr Gill. Well, I thought of putting you with Don. He knows his onions, better than most of us, and he can show you the ropes. That OK with you both?” They nodded. “Well, look, Mrs P’s just got elevenses brewed up. Grab a mug from her, and Don, you show Mark round and explain what’s what. You’re up to date to the end of our Easter session. Then come back to me and I’ll fill you both in on what we’ve found these last few days. Mouth-watering, I can tell you!”

So they grabbed a mug of coffee apiece and Don gave Mark a conducted tour. The temple, which stood on a small knoll, was not in the least classical. When complete, it had had an octagonal central tower — the sanctuary itself — surrounded by an octagonal lean-to portico of columns on a low wall. All of it had now been cleared and its limestone walls rose barely three feet above the original ground level. The higher masonry, Don explained, had been robbed over the centuries for re-use elsewhere.

The hostel lay at a lower level, beside the stream. It was a large square, the uphill side consisting of a long narrow hall, much of which had been cleared down to the floor.

“Entrance hall and reception desk here, we think. Nice and easy to dig because it’s all above water level. Near either end” — he pointed — “a doorway and a flight of steps down to an open courtyard. Little rooms leading off the courtyard. Bedrooms, we suspect — that’s why we call this the hostel.

“And that’s where the trouble starts. You can see the trenches down there have all got water in. The stream’s flooded since Roman times. It’s dumped masses of silt on the valley floor, which has risen in level. So the stream level has risen too. And so the courtyard and bedrooms are deep in silt. And in water — we haven’t reached the floor there yet, but it’s well below stream level. It wasn’t then, of course, but it is now. Bob was going to get a pump in, so we can go on down. Hope he has.”

The other buildings, notably the shop and the restaurant, were still at an early stage of excavation, and had little yet to show.

They sought out Bob again, who brought them up to date. “You’ll have seen that this last week we’ve finished on the temple. There’s nothing new that upsets our dating. The deposits were very jumbled, and there was a George III halfpenny surprisingly deep down, as if somebody had been rootling there quite recently. But opposite the door we found four lovely things. One was a defixio. Well, I think it is. It looks just like those from Bath and Uley and suchlike.

“Oh, sorry.” He had noticed Mark looking puzzled. “A defixio’s a curse. If you thought someone had done you wrong, you got a little sheet of lead and scratched a message on it. ‘Dear god, so-and-so’s nicked my ring, or whatever, and if he doesn’t bring it back please afflict him with horrible diseases.’ That sort of thing, sometimes with lots of gory detail. Then you usually rolled it up, so nobody but the god could read it, and left it in the temple. It was quite a habit in these parts. There’ve found lots in the spring at Bath, and at other temples too. But ours wasn’t rolled up — it’s got a nail hole for fixing to the wall. But the handwriting’s a pain to read, so I sent it off to Tom Rowson in Oxford. Can’t wait for his report.

“Right. Find number two is still here.”

He led them into the hut. There stood a limestone altar, with one front angle broken off. They squatted down to look. It was inscribed in beautiful and regular lettering:

Maponus inscription, broken

“Wow!” exclaimed Don with delight. “So it was Maponus! Not even Apollo Maponus!”

“Pretty certain now. Don told you about him?” he asked Mark, careful that he should not be left out.

“Yes.” Mark was thrilled. Coming on top of what Don had spelled out so clearly, this was gripping stuff. “What does it say?”

“Well, we haven’t had the experts in yet, and my Latin’s pretty rusty, but this is where I’ve got to. The first two lines are easy — ‘To the god Maponus.’

“The third line’s difficult. It seems to describe Maponus, but the last word looks like coniugi, ‘husband or wife,’ and iuvenum is ‘of young men,’ which is very odd.

“The next two lines are names, men’s names, with et — ‘and’ — missing between them. Good British names too, not Roman, even though it’s in Latin.

“And the abbreviations at the end are the standard formula for dedications, with the last letter lost — remind me what they stand for, Don.”

Votum solverunt libentes merito.

“Oh yes, thanks. So the whole thing says ‘To the god Maponus, spouse of young men (or whatever), Vepogenus and Brigomaglus willingly and deservedly discharged their vow.’ That right, Don?”

Don was staring at the altar, frowning. “That’s right, Bob. All except ‘spouse,’ which is weird. Anyway, coniugi is too short. Look, it’s all beautifully laid out. Coniugi would end here.” He pointed. “But the line ought to be symmetrical and end about here. Looks like there are four or five letters missing, not just one. We want a longer word. See what I mean?”

They saw, but could not help.

“I take your point,” said Bob. “It is beautiful lettering. Second century, surely. Earlyish second century. Yes, you’d expect the lines to be symmetrical.”

“Wait a mo. Pop should be back by now.” Don fished out his mobile and called home. “Sorry to bother you, Pop, but a quick question. They’ve found a lovely altar, but it’s broken. There’s a word C-O-N-I-V-G, broken off. A noun applying to a person, in the dative singular. Coniugi is the obvious answer, but it’s too short. Could you have a look in the dictionary, please, and see if there are any other nouns starting with coniug … ? Thanks.” He waited with pencil poised over Bob’s pad, then scribbled. “Right. Right. That’s the only other one? Thanks, Pop. We’ll show it to you when you’re over. Bye.

“There’s only one alternative to coniugi,” he reported. “Look.”

He rapidly copied the inscription, adding the missing letters. It now read

Maponus inscription, complete

“There. Coniugatori. It fits the space beautifully.”

“What does it mean?”

“A uniter. Someone who unites. It’s used of Hymen, the god of marriage who unites couples in love.” Pop had sounded disapproving. As well he might.

“Maponus, uniter of young men?” asked Bob. “Well, I agree it fits much better on the stone. And I suppose it makes more sense than ‘spouse’.”

It smacked of gay partnerships to him, as if Vepogenus and Brigomaglus had set up the altar as a thank-you to the god for bringing them together. Time was, very recently, when he would have found the thought repugnant. But he must have grown more broad-minded, because it no longer bothered him a bit. Yet he was reluctant to put ideas into the heads of a pair of adolescents, both sons of clergymen. Better move on.

But Don had ideas in his head already, and when he glanced at Mark, who had been following intently, he sensed that he had too.

“I wonder who they were,” he said thoughtfully. “Vepogenus and Brigomaglus. But we’ll never know.”

“Find number three,” said Bob, moving on with determination, “is here too.” He opened a box. Inside was a thin bronze sheet with a crusted green patina, about six inches by four, and somewhat bent. It bore a message created by punching little holes as if with a nail.

“MAPONO BRANVS ET DOCCO V.S.L.M.,” Don read out loud. “To Maponus, Branus and Docco willingly and deservedly discharged their vow. Plain Maponus again. And two male names again. But we’ll never know any more about them either.”

“And find number four,” said Bob triumphantly, having kept the best till last, “is another one that isn’t here. He turned up a week ago, the very day we restarted, and I’ve taken him down to Bath, to the museum, for a good wash and brush up. But here’s a photo. Only a snap, not a proper one yet. We found the god himself!”

He laid a small colour print on the table. It showed a head (“life-size” said Bob) carved in honey-coloured limestone, broken off at the neck, a bit encrusted with soil, but beautifully made. A young man, even a boy. The cheeks and chin were smoothly rounded and the mouth smiled gently and enigmatically, not unlike an archaic Greek statue. But this was no Mediterranean product. It was blatantly British. The eyes were slightly diamond-shaped, with their pupils and irises lightly marked in. The almost wig-like mop of hair was deeply sculpted into snake-like tresses, waving in the voluptuous curves beloved by British artists.

Bob was right. It could only be Maponus himself, fixing them with a gaze of serene compassion. Don, as he stared, felt an unaccountable tightness in his throat. Or was it so unaccountable? He had been missing serenity and compassion for too long. And once again he sensed that Mark, motionless beside him, felt the same.

“Isn’t he splendid?” Bob broke the long silence. “Ordinarily, he’d have stayed in the museum. But Miriam’s bringing him back next week, and you can meet him in person. Somehow I felt he ought to be here for the duration, presiding over our feeble labours. Getting daft in my old age, aren’t I?”

“No, Bob,” said Mark, who had hardly opened his mouth all morning. “Not daft at all. He’s got a right to be here. This is his place. Where he belongs.”

The others looked at him with surprise, and interest, and approval.

“Well, let’s get you to work,” Bob said. “I’d like you to have a go in the hostel, if you would. Various reasons. We’ve sorted out the uphill end and I want to see what happens round the courtyard. The water’s lower than it was at Easter, and yes, Don, we have got a pump now. Start by clearing out one whole room. It’s likely to go quite deep, in sticky silt, and it’ll be hard work. Too hard for the others. And you’re going to get dirty. Very dirty. Specially your feet.” He looked at their trainers. “Not got wellies? Well, try those for size.”

There was pile in a corner and, as they hunted for ones that fitted, Don’s eye was caught by the tray of last week’s small finds lying on the table. Ordinary bits of pottery and coins and suchlike went into small plastic bags, each labelled with precise details of where it was found. More fragile and important things were honoured with a sturdy plastic box. There was only one box in the tray. Quite a large one.

“What’s this, Bob?”

“Oh, a knife. From the shop. It turned up yesterday.” Bob sounded unenthusiastic.

“Mind if we look?”

Despite his reservations, Bob could not say no. They would have seen it anyway if they had been here when it was found. Don opened the box and lifted the cotton wool padding.


He could not restrain himself. His randiness might have been beaten out of him, but even the Archbishop of Canterbury would goggle at this sight. The knife, held to a stiff plastic sheet by elastic bands, was about eight inches long, half of its length a corroded iron blade, half of it a bone handle. And the handle was carved, exquisitely carved, into a phallus. Not life-size, but very lifelike. It was uncircumcised, slightly curved, and from the taut skin and the part-retracted foreskin it was obviously erect. Don made way for Mark to see, and looked across at Bob with amused interest.

“Who found it?”

Bob could not help smiling at the memory. “Miss Dinsdale. I nearly had a heart attack when I saw what she’d got. But blow me, she was tickled pink! Pleased as punch!”

“No!” Don was astonished. “But she’s so straight-laced! She has a fit if she spots you having a pee behind a bush a hundred yards away with your back to her.”

Bob laughed. “Well, she’s turned over a new leaf now.”

Wonders never ceased. Don looked back at the knife. “Was this on sale at the shop, do you suppose?”

“Yes, I’m inclined to think so. There’s a panel that looks as if it’s meant for the owner to put his name on, but it’s blank.”

“Yes, here,” said Mark, pointing. Over a length of a couple of inches the texture and roundness had been neatly shaved down to make a flat panel.

“It was at the back of the shop, where we think there was a wooden floor. I’ve a hunch that an assistant took a fancy to it, hid it under a floorboard, couldn’t account for it at the next stocktaking, got the sack, and nobody ever recovered it. Pure guesswork, of course.”

This was meat and drink to Mark. Re-peopling the past fired his imagination. But Bob was still anxious to move on.

“Right, let’s get the pump in place.”

They carried it down, a neat little two-stroke job with variable speeds.

“Let’s try this room.”

Bob lowered the intake pipe into the water, a couple of inches deep, at the bottom of the trench nearest to the stream, and laid out the discharge pipe. He explained the pump’s controls, started it, and checked that the water was flowing into the stream.

“Best leave it running all the time, provided you adjust the speed so that it doesn’t suck air. But it’ll need refuelling twice a day. I’ll leave that to you.”

They stood looking down into the murk of the room. The truncated tops of the visible walls were a foot below ground level, and the standing water was a foot lower still. There was a doorway opening into the room from the courtyard, and the bottom of a window opening could be made out in the wall opposite. One side wall was exposed.

“Assuming the door and window are central,” said Bob, “the other side wall should be here. Making the room about, what, eight foot square. So open up sideways till you meet that wall, then go down evenly, as usual. But this muck is so sticky you can’t trowel and brush it. I suggest hand shovels, and sort of push the stuff in with the trowel like a miniature bulldozer, going down say half an inch at a time.

“As far as we’ve got, there’s been absolutely no stratigraphy. Just solid silt. Likely as not it’ll continue that way, so you needn’t be too pernickety. Be careful, of course — I needn’t tell you that. But first, you need to dig a sump to get the water level down. It’s likely to do least damage in the doorway, I think. And keep deepening it as you go down. Dump on that tip over there. OK?”

The boys collected tools and a wheelbarrow and dug a foot-deep hole underwater as a sump. The dark brown mud was firm and they did not sink in when they stood on it. But it was disgustingly claggy, and one of them had to stand by the barrow to scrape it off the spade the other heaved up. By the time the sump was done and the pump was pumping merrily, it was lunchtime.

Lunch was utterly informal. People sat on anything handy within chatting distance, and banter flew around. Mark was the only newcomer, and they were measuring him up.

“Don must be a very good friend of yours, Mark, if he persuaded you to join this madhouse!”

“Oh, Don’s not my friend,” he blurted without thinking, and blushed. “I mean, yes, he is a friend, now, but I’d never met him before. Not before today.”

He cast an apologetic glance at Don. If only I could handle a simple conversation, he thought gloomily. Like a normal human being.

A little later, talk swung his way again and they quizzed him about where he lived and what he was doing at school and, more slyly, about his girlfriends. That hurt, of course, but he could not take offence because their good nature was obvious. After all, in their innocent and elderly eyes, all teenage boys have girlfriends, don’t they? But he was slow in answering and Don, as if sensing his discomfort, drew the conversation away. Mark cast him another glance, grateful this time, and wondered about Don’s girlfriends.

Lunch over, they worked in harmony. They widened their trench until the wall appeared as expected, and lowered the new bit to the old level. They took turns to empty the wheelbarrow. It was hard work, demanding little thought, and rather soothing.

Then there was a diversion. On many digs, workers are expected to stick religiously to their own patch and not be distracted by what is happening elsewhere. Not so at Nettleton, where delights were democratically shared. Bob did nothing to forbid it — digs should be fun. Old Mr Wilmot, who was working in the restaurant, found a large sherd of pottery. He took it to the washing table to clean the soil off, peered at it, and cackled.

“Heehee! Look at this! Something to do with sex!” People converged, and it was passed from hand to hand.

“What does it say, Bob?”

“It’s from an amphora. The writing’s like a label, describing what was inside. But what it says, search me. Where’s Don? Can you help?”

Don took it. It was a bit of the body with part of the neck and of one handle. Painted in faded black on the shoulder were the words


“Yes, an amphora.” He had no need to dredge his memory. “Dressel type 17. Late second century. Once held garum. Fish sauce. The writing’s short for cordula Sexana penuarium excellens. ‘Tuna sauce from Almuñécar, top wholesale quality’.”

He looked up at the amazed faces, and smiled wanly. “No magic. Almuñécar’s on the Costa del Sol. I was there on holiday at half term. You can still see the factory where they made this stuff. And in the museum they’ve got the brothers of this amphora.”

He passed it on to someone else and jumped down into their trench. Mark, when he rejoined him a few minutes later, was astonished to see him crouched in a corner with tears on his cheeks, looking very young and utterly defenceless. After a moment’s hesitation he put an arm round his shoulder and gave him a brief squeeze. He had not done that to anyone — and nobody had done it to him — since his mother died. For the life of him he could not think of anything to say, or anything else to do, but his heart bled. He simply knew that this gentle and intelligent boy had a big problem. Which made two of them.

As Don soon discovered. An hour later, Mark was on his haunches in the trench and Don was just back from the tip with an empty barrow when Mark heard a voice saying, “Don’t you remember, Chris? He can’t tell the difference.” He shot to his feet in terror. All he could see was a middle-aged woman with a sheepish-looking man beside her — Hilary and her husband Jeff, he thought their names were — talking to an older woman he had not seen before. He looked at Don in wide-eyed and open-mouthed enquiry.

“Who’s the other woman?”

“Who, Chris? Christine Banks, the supervisor. Bob’s assistant. She’s only just got here.”

“What were they talking about?”

“Oh, Jeff’s notorious for not being able to distinguish between different layers.” Mark closed his eyes and let out a long breath of shocked relief. “What’s up, Mark? You look as if you’ve seen a ghost.”

“Nothing. It’s all right. Sorry, don’t mind me.”

He bent down again, turning his back to Don’s curious but sympathetic gaze. But it was a minute before he started shovelling.

When the bottom of their trench was level, they both worked down below, and developed a new routine. Squat on your hunkers or kneel on a plastic kneeler, hold the shovel in one hand, scrape a thin layer of muck into it with the trowel in the other. When the shovel is full, empty it into a bucket. When the bucket is full, empty it into the barrow. When the barrow is full, take it to the tip. Barrowing trips were welcome, for the smell of ancient silt was strong.

Mark worked slowly at first, terrified of scraping too much at a time and being blasted for incompetence, but by imitating Don he gained confidence. They found absolutely nothing except a carbonised twig deposited by the water. Don sealed it in a plastic bag in case it was needed for radiocarbon dating, and demonstrated the system for recording the position of any object in a trench, in three dimensions.

They also met a layer of grit. “When a river floods, it’ll have solid stuff in suspension,” Don explained, “and the heaviest bits sink first. So a layer of grit marks the bottom of the silt from a later flood, and the top of the silt from an earlier one.” From time to time, to confirm they were not missing anything, he emptied a bucket into a big sieve and riddled the silt away in the stream; but nothing was ever left behind.

It was hot in the sun, and it was peaceful. Apart from the interruptions, there was only the soft chug of the pump, the clinking of trowels, the murmur of conversations in other trenches, and the tinkle of a cascade on the stream nearby. Don had been right — the work was far from exciting. But despite the false alarm, Mark was happier than he had been for a long time, doing a useful job in an interesting place among kindly people. Don was happier too, back where he belonged, where he could put his distrust and rebellion behind him.

Both poked their heads a little further out of their shells and began to chat. Not incessantly, and interspersed with silences that were not in the least awkward. Their subject was archaeology. Don did most of the talking, with anecdotes about past seasons at Nettleton and with information from his store of knowledge, which was far more extensive than Mark’s. From time to time Mark sat back on his heels and looked at Don as he expounded. From time to time he offered a parallel garnered from Time Team, or threw in a question.

They were taking the first steps towards getting to know each other, on safe, neutral, uncontentious territory. Each was seeing a new face which carried no threats or suspicions from the past. Each had been stuck in a chapter of his life’s story which he had read and re-read and agonised over until his heart was sick. That chapter was not yet closed; but now, in the calm of Nettleton, each of them could take a clean page and start sketching the first immature introduction to a new chapter.

Work finished at five. Together they refuelled the pump and put their tools away. Together they went back to the camping field to wash in the cattle trough. Together they spread their filthy wet jeans out in the barn to dry — “better wear shorts tomorrow,” Don commented. Together they prepared a meal from their combined stores. Way back this morning, Don had not intended to do that. But his gas stove was far better than Mark’s ancient methylated spirit one, and they had already moved close enough to make separate cooking unthinkable.

“Don, if you don’t mind,” Mark announced when they had eaten and washed up, “I’m going back. To where we stopped this morning, above the site. To have another look.”

To absorb more of the Nettleton calm, was Don’s diagnosis. Yes, it gets to him the same way as it gets to me. We’ve a lot in common. And I reckon he needs the calm. Just like I do.

“Mind if I come too?”

He saw that Mark was pleased. So they went, and sat, and looked, and thought. Not a word passed between them, but they came back in the twilight closer than when they had gone.

“Thanks, Don,” said Mark as they reached the tents. “It’s been a good day. But I’m knackered. I think I’ll turn in.”

“So’ll I. And yes, it has been good. Night!”