Today, I finally ‘got’ History.
I’ve not had a great relationship with the subject in the past – I just couldn’t see the point of learning about something that happened years ago; it was irrelevant. My journey wasn’t helped by a strong dislike for my high school History teacher. She didn’t seem to like me from the outset either (called me an attention seeker, which was probably true as my attitude was not exactly ‘eager to learn’!). I can clearly remember my first History lesson, in which she began by writing on the board, ‘HIS STORY’. It was all about man, which put me off from the start. Perhaps I was a feminist without knowing it, or the idea of ‘man’ was too arbitrary, but I really couldn’t relate to or engage with the subject. She also wrote and repeated loudly the word, ‘EVIDENCE’. I can hear her booming voice even now!
Skip forward about 30 years, and History came back into my life in a rather unusual way. We had moved into a new house and, after having various building works done, we finally got round to having the driveway paved. The builders turned up with their diggers to remove the remains of the lawn, which had been damaged beyond repair by building materials over the past 12 months or so. Their job for the day was to level the ground, ready for laying a base for paving. As they began to dig, they soon noticed a strange object that had come to the surface, and on closer inspection they realised it was a human skull! They called the police who came to inspect and duly seal off the area as a potential crime scene. They erected a tent over the ‘grave’ (slight indentation in the ground!) and guarded our driveway day and night for 3 weeks while the skull and another bone were sent off for analysis to determine their age. If the bones were less than 70 years old (which everyone who saw their crumbling, discoloured form agreed they were not), then an investigation would need to take place.
After 3 weeks the somewhat surprising news came back that the bones were probably from the Anglo Saxon era, so the police packed up and left, saying that if we dug up anything else we could do what we liked with it. The children eagerly spent the next day carefully excavating with trowels to see what else they could find. Amazingly, they dug up virtually the whole of the rest of a human skeleton, carefully brushing the bones clean with paintbrushes in the way they had seen on television. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and an incredible story for sharing with their classes at school.
We gave the skeleton to the local high school, who eventually decided to pass it on to the local library in Croydon. Somehow the skull also ended up in the library (after it had returned from Florida where the carbon dating had taken place), and they decided to carry out some further analysis in an attempt to find out more about the person’s possible life and death. They found both male and female traits in the skeleton, he or she was in their 30s when they died, and they had gum disease and curvature of the spine (possibly due to heavy manual labour).
Today, we visited the exhibit the museum staff have put together in their ‘Riesco Gallery’, with the skeleton as the central feature. Upstairs, there is a small but very well displayed collection of other artefacts and memorabilia from Croydon’s recent and ancient past. I never knew that the artist Bridget Riley was a local – I love her Op Art! I also didn’t realise that Croydon had a film studio before there was even one in Hollywood, thanks to a Mr G H Crick. It’s exciting to think I’m following in the footsteps of a local through my filmmaking endeavours.
After discovering all of this information I was struck by two things: my family’s story is now part of Croydon’s story; we have a history of our own that is displayed in a museum for others to see. And the Saxon man or woman’s story now includes mine: a wife, a mother, a Croydon filmmaker and artist, whose children found his or her bones in their driveway around 1,300 years after he or she had died!
So, ironically, a skeleton has finally led to History coming to life for me, and I feel a sense of gratitude to him or her for reminding me that the land I live on was once lived on or used by dozens of other people, each of whom had a story of their own. It’s important for us to tell these stories; people’s lives are never ‘boring’ or ‘irrelevant’, and they are often connected to us in ways we don’t even know until we dig.