I have to agree with the writer Paul Theroux and his love of the train as the medium for travelling. Although I have done nothing on his scale (read his books The Great Railway Bazaar or The Old Patagonian Express for a taste of his epic journeys) I, too, feel that the journey matters more then the destination. I believe it to be a fine metaphor for life itself as well.
I found myself, as every Monday and Tuesday morning, pounding down the rail tracks on the way to York. Half way through the journey I was joined by a bulky man sitting opposite me with a large camouflaged backpack, bulging at the sides with this and that. He flew at midnight tonight he said, six and a half hours to a land of camel spiders and the ever present threat of IEDs. It was his second tour, six months long. I wished him luck as he jumped out of the train doors at York station.
After a fast and thunderous wheel through the streets, I found myself at the archaeology base ready to start the day properly. As normal the talk flowed easy and well through a variety of topics. The big talking point of the day was the fact that Alice Roberts was on site to film for her Digging For Britain TV series. The topic was Viking age York, and is due to be shown sometime around mid to late Summer on the BBC. Although we didn’t really get to talk to her it was interesting to see archaeology being filmed for the masses. Archaeological education and entertainment outreach helping to invigorate the youth of tomorrow, just as the summer season of excavations begin across the country.
After this brief interlude of celebrity archaeological intrusion, we carried on cleaning finds. One of the more interesting finds today was the finding of a single Viking animal metatarsal skate. As described on this interesting site, the skates (likely 10th Century AD) were used as a form of transport across ice during winter, and were tied on using leather thongs whilst the user pushed themselves across the ice with the probable help of two wooden poles.
On the example I helped clean, it was clear that the skate probably hadn’t been worn much as the underside was little worn. Nevertheless it was interesting to see such an artefact in the flesh having only heard of them from other Scandinavian sites, both historic and prehistoric.
On my journey back to the railway station I passed the modern population of York and thought of those that had gone before. The current site at Hungate criss crosses many different historic slices; from 3rd to 4th century AD Roman Eboracum, Viking Jorvik, to the later Medieval and Post Medieval city of York. It is easy to think of past populations as pieces of pottery, discarded brick or tile but this not always the case. As the quite frankly massive Lloyd Bank Coprolite shows, sometimes even the shit survives the journey through time!
The journey home was as pleasant a train ride as I’ve had. I was thankful that the train slowed several times during the trip, as I had chance to look at and admire the Medieval agricultural technique of the ridge and furrows. They are found throughout the North East, the landscape relics of a bygone age. Today only the cows were happily lying down on them and chewing the grass.