Why Archaeologists Make Good Detectives

As most of my readers will know by now, I’ve written a crime/thriller (The Lifers’ Club) with an archaeologist (Alan Cadbury) as the detective. Then as soon as lambing is finished, I’ll resume work on the second book in the series, which for the time being I’m simply calling AC2. I’d always known that the way archaeologists work and think would make them good sleuths, but just two days ago a real life mystery was solved, not as it happens by Alan Cadbury, but by my wife, Maisie Taylor. This time the subject wasn’t crime, but a wonderful garden ornament, which for years we simply called the jardinière – as that is what it resembled. For those of you unfamiliar with the word, my Shorter Oxford Dictionary traces its origins to French (1841) and defines it as: ‘An ornamental stand or receptacle for plants, flowers, etc.’ Or to put it in even plainer English: a tub.

Our jardinière is made-up of eight tapering panels of unusually red, unglazed earthenware, which I have assembled as best I can (which isn’t very well). Sadly my reconstruction doesn’t bear very close inspection, largely because some of the panels are broken and it wasn’t very easy to repair them invisibly, although Maisie did a very good job forty years ago, using a mix of Araldite and brick dust; the point is, the mends must all be strong enough to resist frost and allow the object to be used in the garden again. There are four ornamental and four plain panels, which I imagine were meant to be distributed alternately, but sadly I couldn’t get that to work, so I’ve re-assembled it with most of the decorated panels facing forwards, towards the lawn. I’m well aware it’s not perfect, but our garden isn’t a museum. Anyhow, here’s a picture of the jardinière as it now is, planted with a few bulbs surrounding a young Cornus alternifolia argentea shrub. It forms the focus of a small border and though I say so myself, it looks very good there, especially in summer (when this photo wasn’t taken).


The story of how Maisie came to be the proud owner of the jardinière is interesting of itself and here are her notes to me describing how it happened (the title, I’m afraid is mine, with apologies to Swift; my comments are in square brackets):

The Tale of a Tub

1977 – travelled [by train] to the Institute of Archaeology several times a week [Maisie was a student there, commuting to London from Huntingdon]. Became on nodding terms with a number of people as the same group tended to share a compartment, because all needed to work on the journey.

One winter evening the train stopped in the middle of nowhere, and the lights went out [sudden power cuts were a regular feature of the time, brought about by strikes]. Began chatting. Turned out the other people were two barristers, a man who did something analytical with computers, a man who wrote history books, a brain surgeon and me. One thing we all had in common was we were all doing-up old houses. The others had Georgian/Regency farmhouses; I had a little Edwardian cottage next to the railway.

After an hour or so the lights come on and train continued – back to normal.

The following year, the man who knew about computers said he had dug something up in his garden, and as he knew I was an archaeologist, and lived in a turn of the century cottage, I might be interested. So he invited me to have a look.

It turned out to be an Arts and Crafts jardinière in fragments. The same date as my cottage. He liked it, but thought it out of place in the ‘Georgian’ garden he was creating around his beautiful Georgian house. So he offered it to me, and I accepted.

I planted it, although someone once suggested it might be a decorative well-head.

Meanwhile, Back to the Plot…

To be honest, we thought no more about it; then a few years ago I decided to attempt a slightly better re-assembly, as the whole thing was starting to fall apart, largely thanks to the efforts of rats and mice who were seeking somewhere dry for the winter. The rebuild took me a whole weekend, and we had plenty of time to examine the original workmanship more closely – and it became clear to us, that it was a piece of exceptional quality. It also had several clear stamps which looked Arts and Crafts – the lettering was a give-away; we could make out certain words, something like: ‘wheel within … a wheel’; Maisie even made rubbings of them, but then something else cropped up and we both found ourselves doing other things, and precious little time to relax with a large Victorian flower pot.

The stamp of the Compton Pottery, Guildford. The motto reads: “THEIR WORK WAS AS IT WERE A WHEEL IN THE MIDDLE OF A WHEEL”

The stamp of the Compton Pottery, Guildford. The motto reads: “THEIR WORK WAS AS IT WERE A WHEEL IN THE MIDDLE OF A WHEEL”

Then a couple of weeks ago Maisie came across the distinctive wheel-like stamp when reading a reference to the Compton Arts Guild, near Guildford, which was set up in 1899 by various artists, including the distinguished painter G.F. Watts and his wife Mary. It was Mary who founded and then became the leading light of the Compton Pottery, which remarkably survived until 1954. They used the local clay which fired to the distinctive bright pinkish-red of our jardinière. The company produced a huge variety of garden ornaments, which you can see on-line (Google ‘Compton Pottery images’) and at the Watts Gallery, Down Lane, Compton, Guildford, Surrey GU3 1DQ.

Well-heads feature among their range of items, and as I’ve already mentioned, it has been suggested several times that our jardinière is one of them. Personally, I doubt it. Well-heads, even ornamental and model ones, always have thick, vertical walls because they were built to support the well winding-gear, which could be quite heavy, especially when lifting a bucketful of water. So the walls of the well-head were always vertical and never splayed, like the relatively thin sides of our jardinière.

Anyhow, it’s a very beautiful thing and it would be nice if one could see more real crafts and hand-made material at British garden centres, which tend to be packed-full of injection-moulded coy nymphs in concrete – and as for those horrible plastic gnomes

Two panels

Rose panel

Daffodil panel

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