Time Team Series 20. My Second Episode: Rig Day

I’ve just been walking across an idyllic English country house’s huge park, but my mind wasn’t on beautiful vistas and statuesque tree-lined avenues. Sadly my eyes were on the ground and my thoughts were far from tranquil. I was only too aware that for a few years this place was no rural idyll. In fact it stood on the brink of Hell – or perhaps the closest thing mankind has yet perpetrated to match that Biblical inferno.

This next Time Team couldn’t be more different to the last, which was prehistoric and perched on a hilltop in the west. This one is on flat or gently undulating ground in the east of England, and far from being prehistoric ,it’s a mere 97 years old (i.e. 1915).  So does being younger necessarily make it less important? The answer to that has to be a resounding NO! In my Birth of Modern Britain (on p. 157) I claim (and still assert) that the great iron bridge at Ironbridge in Coalbrookdale, near Telford in Shropshire is the most important archaeological monument in Britain – and that was built in 1779, whereas Stonehenge, which I suspect most people would have chosen, dates from around 2500 BC. To my mind a site’s importance lies in what it represents – in what it stands for. And what could possibly be more important than the birth of the modern world and the rise of the individual – which is what I believe that great bridge has come to symbolise.

There were many unexpected, often long-term, consequences following the rise of the industrial era. Sadly such gradual change isn’t being taught at school, where the emphasis is on short, easily identifiable one-off ‘past-bites’, such as the Tudors, the Normans or the Blitz. This is a terrible shame because it’s the threads that tie it together that make history – and indeed archaeology – so fascinating.  These under-lying links and connections are what we must understand, if we are ever to learn lessons from the past.

It wasn’t just coincidence that I mentioned Ironbridge, because the emerging industrial world would give rise to widespread political and social upheaval – and for at least two centuries. One of the later manifestations of these profoundly important changes was the Great War of 1914-18. In the first quarter of the 20th century, and right across Europe, class barriers were breaking down and long-established, but rigid, heararchies were collapsing. And make no mistake the changes were huge: everything was affected: even human appearance. Just compare the flowing gowns and corseted profiles of statuesque Edwardian ladies at Ascot, with a scantily-clad ‘20s flapper jitterbugging in one of those new, trendy jazz clubs. A mere decade separates the two images. Those seemingly superficial changes reflected something far more profound beneath the surface, and they came at a huge and horrible cost in human life. Read any good writer of the time – F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway, D.H. Lawrence – and you can detect the ever-present anxiety and guilt of the inter-war years. With hindsight, the Second World War was inevitable.

The Great War wasn’t the first truly modern war: that dubious honour goes the American Civil War (1861-5), but WW1 was when killing became routine and almost industrialised – and what’s more, society accepted it, if only just. But these new ways of mowing-down enemy soldiers in their thousands had to be learned and taught by someone, somewhere. And that’s what we’ll be doing tomorrow: we’ll be investigating a place where the most ruthless, mechanised and lethal killers of all, learned their grisly trade. Normally I think of Time Team as ‘fun’. But not now: no, I’m afraid this one’s going to be grim…

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