As this is only the second post of my blog I thought it would be a good idea if I got straight down to business and discussed some serious archaeology. As some readers may be aware, there has been a good deal of controversy about the way the famous antler frontlet head-pieces from Star Carr (North Yorkshire) were used. These strange items consisted of the upper skulls of red deer, complete with antlers. The inside of the cranial bones had been smoothed away and holes had been drilled for a leather thong that must have tied the head-piece onto the wearer’s head. I suppose today we’d describe them – and several were found at that extraordinary site – as fascinators. I have illustrated how they may have been worn in my extraordinarily comprehensive synthesis of British Prehistory, Britain BC (p. 88).
What makes these strange-looking hats truly remarkable is their date – around 8500 BC. The site where they were found has been described as a hunting camp (which it almost certainly wasn’t) and controversy still rages as to whether they were disguises worn when stalking deer, or whether they might have been part of a shaman’s regalia. My inadvertent experiment proved that both interpretations are probably correct. And I say inadvertent advisedly, because most archaeological experiments only take place after months and months of meticulous planning. Mine happened entirely by accident – and its effectiveness can be judged by the fact that it very nearly killed my wife.
I was put in mind of this experiment this morning, when I came across three eggs that had just been laid by the new hens we’d bought last autumn. The hens and the cockerel that accompanies them everywhere around the farm and garden are Cuckoo Marans and they lay wonderful, deep brown eggs, which I photographed on our draining board after my wife Maisie kindly washed the thick deposits of hen poo off them. And that reminds me, bird poo will play an important part in my next blog post, which will be about the origins of hedges in the British Neolithic. But we have more serious matters to consider here.
The link with chickens will become clear shortly, but five years ago, when the experiment took place, I was struggling with the manuscript of The Making of the British Landscape (which followers of this blog will discover I’ll mention at every possible opportunity – at £15 for 812 pages it’s a real bargain). Most authors have to establish a fairly rigid daily routine if they are to meet their publisher’s deadline. In my case I rise early every morning, usually around 5.30, leaving my wife to sleep on for a couple or so hours. Then I take us both up a cup of tea. The first thing I normally do after tip-toeing downstairs is put a kettle on the Aga and make myself an early cup of tea. Being somewhat old-fashioned, I hate the modern habit of making tea in mugs and like to use a proper teapot. It’s important to me: part of being British. Anyhow, once the hot water has been poured into the teapot I cover it with a tea-cosy and leave it on the stove while I go into my office and turn on my laptop, ready to start work. Then, after the kitchen timer has rung for five minutes (and the tea is now properly brewed) I return to the kitchen and carry the covered teapot back to my desk. At that point I remove the cosy and pour myself a large mug of tea. That was my routine five years ago, and it’s still precisely the same today.
Now I don’t want to get side-tracked at this crucial point in my story, but blogs have to be informative and we have gone too far without providing readers with a link and an excuse to stop reading about my morning cups of tea. So I’d like to point out that the pint-sized mug I still use every morning was made at the Gladstone Pottery Museum at Longton, just outside Stoke-on-Trent, in Staffordshire. I love that museum. I know it has been said of many places, but it really is a survival from a vanished age. I adore its lack of slickness and the whole-hearted enthusiasm of the people who work there. If I had my way, everyone should be forced to visit it at regular intervals. But I digress.
So to return to the experiment, my office can be chilly at 5.30 AM, and given the fact that there are no onlookers , I think it quite reasonable that I can be allowed to do something a bit eccentric to keep warm. Nobody would object if, for example, I wore two dressing gowns, or wrapped myself in old curtains. Poor fellow, they’d all say, he’s cold and he has to wrap up to keep warm, especially at his age. But that’s not what they’d say if they came into my office and found me wearing a tea-cosy on my head. They’d regard that as hopelessly eccentric. Even comical. But what they would fail to realise as they scoffed, is that the tea-cosy has been warmed by the pot. So it’s like putting on the most deliciously snug thing you can imagine. And off-hand I can’t think what that might be, except that it would be very, very snug: just like a well-warmed tea-cosy.
Again, I don’t suppose that any eyebrows would be raised, even at 5.30 AM, if the tea-cosies in our Fenland farmhouse had been shaped like a bowler hat, a baseball cap or even a policeman’s helmet. In those cases I could have worn them on my head quite openly, indeed at a jaunty angle. Unfortunately, however, our two tea-cosies are accurate representations of animals, largely I suspect because we both like animals and spend most of our lives surrounded by them. One cosy is a chicken, the other a tabby cat.
On the morning in question, I placed the warmed chicken on my head and then turned back to the computer to wrestle with the intricacies of the British landscape. Sometimes, if the writing is going well, I quite forget about what may be sitting on the top of my head and don’t remove it until I catch my reflection in the window, or on the screen. Then I remove it quite quickly – especially once the sun has risen. Nobody likes to look a fool. But on this particular morning, as luck would have it, I hadn’t seen a reflection and was still wearing the chicken when I closed down my laptop and went through to the kitchen to make a cup of tea to take upstairs.
It’s odd how sometimes when things start to go wrong, other seemingly unrelated events can somehow synchronise with them, to turn a minor mishap into a major disaster. And that’s what happened in this instance. Maisie had been having a very restless night. On the previous day the last lamb had been born and it had been a difficult birth. Having been sheep farmers for over twenty-five years, we’re now both reasonably good at dealing with ewes’ obstetrical problems, but this particular birth had been very heavy going. Indeed, Maisie, who is very good at dealing with internal lamb-tangles, had trouble sleeping – directly because of it. I know what it’s like: you see gory images, together with all sorts of imagined horrors, and it soon becomes impossible to drift off. Counting sheep doesn’t help, either. The result of all this was that Maisie hadn’t managed to get any shut-eye at all, until about five AM, which might help explain why she was still rather restless when I sneaked off to work half an hour later.
I can recall that we had already arranged for someone to visit us about something important that morning. I can’t remember what it was, but my diary showed they were due to turn-up sharp at nine. Had it not been for this appointment I would undoubtedly have left Maisie to sleep for longer. But it could not be. So I decided to wake her as quietly as I could, and offer what I hoped would prove an enlivening cup of tea. Up the stairs I crept. And into the bedroom. I didn’t open the curtains in case the light disturbed her. I placed the tray on her bedside table and then, on an impulse, did something I’d read about as a boy. I blew softly into her ear.
Now I can dimly remember reading in some comic or adventure magazine that the Indians of the American Great Plains believed that it was dangerous to wake someone violently, or else their soul might leave the body in fright. Consequently they would gently blow into a sleeping person’s ear and the waking up process would then be smooth, pleasant and peaceful. I still don’t know where I went wrong: maybe I blew too hard. Or too abruptly. But at all events, Maisie suddenly sat bolt upright, her eyes as large as saucers. I pulled back instinctively, which was also probably a mistake, her terrified eyes were now like fried eggs. Her petrified gaze then encountered the chicken tea-cosy on my head. And at that, the poor woman fell back on the sheets, in deep shock. Instinctively, I immediately removed the cosy and threw it out of sight. In hindsight, this was also probably a mistake, because to her semi-comatose mind the hideous Chicken Beast had instantaneously transformed itself into her husband.
She called me many names in the hours that followed this scene, but I don’t think Francis or Professor Pryor were one of them. So now I have made a firm resolution. I will only wear a tea-cosy on my head if it’s absolutely necessary – and believe me, that will have to be a very special occasion. I wore one – the cat I think it was that time – when recently we watched the Royal Wedding. Somehow it seemed the very least I could do to honour the young couple. But I am also in no doubt; those ancient hunters at Star Carr were dead right: something unusual, worn on the top of the head, can be a devastatingly effective disguise.