We have been collecting a terrific collection of broken pottery, glass, coins and other objects from the garden, none of them older than the 19th century, and all of them completely valueless, but what an endless source of fascination! It was a tradition started just for fun by my mother in my parents’ first home, and one that we pursued in the numerous gardens that followed. If one looks close enough, with every turn of the spade gardens can produce fragments of a home’s previous life.
Buildings are oddly vulnerable. The bigger they are, the more costly they are to maintain, and there have been some truly tragic losses. Some became unfashionable and were knocked down to be replaced by more up to date versions. Death duties have crippled some estates, and whilst some have been saved by the National Trust or independent tourist programmes, others have been too costly to maintain without prosperous estates to support them. Many of those hanging on by a thread were maimed to the point of no return by military occupation during the Second World War and fell into decay before being pulled down. The demolished Emral Hall and Broughton Hall, both near Worthenbury, pull hopelessly at the heartstrings. By contrast, much smaller properties have a better chance of survival because they are not as costly to maintain. Many manorial villages survive long after the demolition of the manor, albeit with some buildings lost and new buildings added.
Objects, things that were first imagined and then created by human endeavour often combine to form parts of the story of longstanding homes. The things that we dig out of gardens are inherently disposable and are often far more successful survivors of past indignities than buildings, relics of previous realities and other lives. The smaller and more everyday that something is, the more likely it is to be broken and subsequently discarded. Broken objects found on archaeological sites or in modern gardens usually began their lives as the items least valued by their owners. This is why so much of archaeology is based on domestic pottery. Easy to manufacture, cheap to purchase, and subjected to every form of indignity, pots, plates and cups break easily and are thrown away.
Only very rarely do archaeologists or gardeners find, for example, much in the way of Roman helmets, coin hoards, Celtic shields, Fabergé eggs or diamond tiaras. These are rare and exceptional objects, usually found in gallery cabinets bristling with security. In the field, if they are found at all they are usually in graves or other specialized sites. That’s because people tend to take care of valuable items, ensure that they are buried with them, bequeath them to descendants, sell them to collectors, donate them to museums or even recycle them into other objects. It is the everyday objects, or their surviving fragments, that archaeologists today are able to use to build up impressions of past livelihood. It is these fragments of everyday people that make up the bulk of our knowledge of how life was lived on a day to day basis, not the riches that reflect the lives of the rich and famous, although they too add something important to the overall picture.
Most of the tiny broken elements of domestic life that we have been retrieving from the garden can say very little, if anything, about the history of a house, its occupants or the garden itself. Nevertheless, every find, no matter how trivial, is a good moment, and once in a while something turns up that is very well worth drawing attention to. Two bottles, for example, bear the embossed name of the companies that sold, respectively, beer (the Chester Lion Brewery) and fizzy soft drinks and medicines (Edisbury’s of Wrexham) at the end of the 19th Century, and these both tell truly absorbing stories about the era that produced them. In fact, there are so many bits of bottle and jar (both glass and stoneware) that I begin to wonder if a previous owner was a distributor of beers and mineral waters. If not, the house’s occupants seem to have downed a lot of fizzy drinks in the late 19th Century!
Overall, the never-to-be-completed jigsaw puzzle is its own comment on the way in which rural houses accumulate and discard objects of everyday life, and finding them is its own reward.