Another week, another micro-dig courtesy of the Pub Dig team, and this time Rory and Paul are at the Six Bells in St Albans, Herts. Built in c.1600, this is the only pub standing within the walls of old Verulamium, once the third biggest city in Roman Britain.
Last week Paul and Rory found what was apparently the first Roman archaeological evidence ever unearthed in Alfriston, but there is no such shortage here – we’re told in the first few minutes that St Albans is fairly stuffed with Roman remains, with features emerging ‘every time people put in a drain’. There had even been some rather nice painted wall plaster found at the Six Bells during extension work a few years back. With such a promising start, what would the Pub Dig team find? As it turns out, it pays to think big.
This week the team are digging in the pub car park, and their discussion about were to put the trenches highlighted the perils of urban archaeology. ‘What would be worse to dig through, Paul?’ Rory asks faux-innocently. ‘An electric cable or a working sewer?’
With these hazards neatly side-stepped, the real work can begin. The Six Bells dates back to the 17th century but what was there before? ‘Medieval partying’, the team conclude, uncovering evidence of a possible 11th-12th century hostelry on the site. Their definition of Medieval as ‘from the Norman Conquest to Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries’ is likely to ruffle a few Anglo-Saxonist feathers – a rare slip for a series that has otherwise been impressive in its level of historical details – but this also prompts an interesting discussion of the thousands of pilgrims who flocked to Medieval St Albans, seeking the shrine of Britain’s first saint, the eponymous Christian martyr reportedly beheaded on the site of the city’s cathedral in the 3rd century AD.
Part-way through this episode Rory jokes about their ‘pub-shaped time machine’, and it is true that each programme fairly flies through the centuries, rarely resting in any one era for long. It is a thought-provoking reminder that brilliant stories can be uncovered in very ordinary places, even in a short amount of time or in a small area, but it is also a frustration of the format. We are given fleeting glimpses of tantalising leads, bright flashes of potentially intriguing narratives, and it makes you long for more time to follow each of these up.
This is particularly true once the Pub Dig team start to uncover Roman material at the Six Bells – and not just any Roman material, but an entire panel of painted wall plaster that had simply peeled off the decaying wall of an abandoned building and fallen face down onto the ground. As the Pub Dig archaeologists hand Rory pieces of green and red-and-yellow striped plaster, it is clear that this is a gorgeous find. And they only have two days left to investigate it. Paul rallies the troops with a cry that seems destined to echo around sites all over the country: ‘It’s trowel time!’
The hours creep on apace and more exciting finds emerge, not least a chunky wall which appears to line up with another on the far side of the car park. This is interpreted as evidence of a huge 1st-2nd century building – a bit of an extrapolation, perhaps, though not implausible (would that they had enough time to excavate the area in between!) – and a game-changing discovery, if true.
But what was the structure? A grand public building, perhaps? The team’s first theory is a temple, which would make it the ninth to be excavated in St Albans to-date. This prompts one of the most provokingly brief history cameos of the series so far, as Rory learns about an enigmatic cult practised in Verulamium, with unique evidence of skulls being de-fleshed and displayed during the Roman period. This is a subject that could have supported a programme in its own right and we were left rather hungry for more information on these strange rites.
Back on site we are treated to more of the charming silliness between Rory and Paul that makes this show so enjoyable to watch. Their chemistry is really engaging, keeping things light no matter how technical the information being conveyed – this series does seem to trust its audience to understand – and take an interest in – the nitty-gritty of archaeological practice far more than many others, despite its popular appeal. In a finds-tray scene there is a lot of laddish clowning (‘I always took you for a pink toothbrush man’; deliberately misreading a pottery maker’s stamp as ‘Gavin’) but also a beautifully clear explanation of what Samian ware is and what it can tell us about a site. All in all, a great dig with some great finds – but we definitely need a documentary on the skulls of Verulamium.
To see our interview with Paul Blinkhorn and for more information on the four pubs featured in the series, click here.
Reviews of previous episodes:
Episode 1: Chatham, Kent – hunting Elizabeth I’s lost dockyard, once home to the fleet that defeated the Spanish Armada.
Episode 2: Alfriston, East Sussex – chasing smugglers from the notorious ‘Alfriston Gang’.
Join us next week for the final dig of the series, where Paul and Rory will be in Banbury, Oxon., visiting a pub once frequented by a young Oliver Cromwell.