I have often been asked how I ‘got into’ archaeology and history and what it was that drove me down that route. Oddly, it’s quite easy to find the start point. I was five years old, it was 1963, and we were on holiday on the South Coast. My parents took us to visit the excavations at Fishbourne Roman Palace, then at an early stage. The experience fascinated me, even at that age. What transfixed me was the notion that here was a place where people had once lived ‘long ago’. It had gone beyond being a story. It was clearly a reality because there was the evidence in the form of rooms and mosaics before me, but the incongruity of it all emerging from the ground was tantalising. On one hand you could reach out and touch the time, and in another those people and their lives were beyond reach. There were other visits in later years to Hadrian’s Wall and Lullingstone Roman Villa. For some reason these appealed to me far more than medieval castles.
In 1972 I queued for four hours to see the Tutankhamun Exhibition at the British Museum. That was a whole exponential leap in my consciousness because here were items that looked as if they had been made last week but which were already immensely old when the Romans arrived in Britain.
In 1974 I saved up on a paper round and went to Pompeii, travelling the following year to Rome with family friends. What I can’t explain is the craving somehow to access the time past. I went to Durham University to study Archaeology in 1977. I’m afraid I found the course impossibly boring, even downright banal. I realised I was far more of a historian. I took Egyptology as a subsidiary and came within an inch of changing to that. In the event I changed to a more general history degree. Working in TV After university I got married and went into the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation), taking time out in 1983 to visit Egypt for the first time. This was an explosive experience. I was mesmerised, not just by the experience of being in a tomb or temple, but by the hundreds of lifetimes invested in building them.
In the Valley of the Kings I was more taken by the piles of stone flakes that litter the valley floor to this day, every one hacked out by tomb workers 3,000 years ago or more and many still bearing flecks of copper from their tools. By this stage archaeology and history were still just hobbies. While at the BBC I took a single honours History degree at London and then an MA in Archaeology at UCL. This coincided with the extraordinary phenomenon of Billingsgate, where the remains of the Church of St Botolph lay on top of Roman wharfs.
The Past | April/May 2021