Category Archives: garden finds

Bottles in the soil – garden finds

Buried glass bottles can be delicate things and can break easily when the soil is being worked, so I thought myself lucky to unearth this one. It’s a Victorian ink bottle and is very similar to one held by the Museum of London, which dates their piece 1866-1900.



Being octagonal in style, it may have once held ink for a rubber stamp and carried a label like the one below.

octoenglishinklabelMore here

The property I found it on was once the village post office and this bottle must have been discarded over 100 years ago. Other items occasionally surface from the garden here – this is where the old slate pencil popped up.


Another little piece of history turned up last week in the soil of a very old garden in Witney, Oxfordshire. Old gardens in Witney are a good source of garden finds and this fragment pleased me. I’m pretty sure it’s the neck of a salt glazed gin bottle, possibly Dutch, and 18th or 19th century.



Finding part of a gin bottle in this particular garden brought a smile to my face as a small gin story could go with it. A couple of years ago, I was working in the front garden which faces onto the pavement. The owner, an extremely respectable older lady, was talking to me there when one of her neighbours, known to both of us, happened to pass by. They chatted for a moment or two and, since she’d recently had a fall, he enquired after her health. Then he leaned in a little more closely and, after a perfectly-timed pause, asked quietly, ‘Was it the gin?’.


Finding fossils in unexpected places – gravel

I don’t care for the human world just now – there is madness in the air, uncaring behaviour towards all living things and little love being shown for those who need it most. I don’t approve. Sometimes I have to turn away and look at something else. That ‘something else’ jumped out at me from the apparent mundanity of the gravel in the courtyard at home and has turned those previously rough looking stones into something much more interesting and far from mundane.

gravelNot very exciting, is it?

shell-fragmentLook more closely and details emerge

It happened that as I walked from the car to the gate one day, my eye caught a pattern of grooves in one small round stone. Looking more closely I realised it was a fossilised bivalve, worn almost smooth but still showing its original shape and these last blurred features of its previous self.


I have some other very similar fossilised bivalves picked out of a Jurassic cliff face in a quarry so compared them and thought they might be related. If both are roughly the same age, that likely makes them from the Callovian era of the middle Jurassic, some 163.5–166.1 million years ago.



Going back outside with a magnifying glass, I put down a kneeling mat and crawled around to see what else was there and was rewarded with a variety of fossils. Nothing large or pristine, but fossils nonetheless. In around half an hour I’d found sponges, sections of belemnite, a couple of sea urchins, fragments of corals and quite a lot of bones and shelly pieces.


boneMy retired-GP dad said this is ‘possibly the epiphysis of a long bone’

There was one piece I longed to be a worn tooth but someone with far more knowledge than me assured me it was also bone. That was a little disappointing, but there you go.

maybe-toothI wish this could have been part of a tooth

Since that first piece was found, I’ve been marvelling that the layer of dull grey stones outside contains so many remains of creatures which lived up to 166 million years ago. At their youngest, they’re probably from the Cretaceous, some 145–66 million years ago.


There you have it – I craved distraction and found it right on the doorstep and in pleasing quantity. I also found someone else who looks at gravel.


I found a crayfish in a really weird place

Over the years that I’ve spent in gardens, I’ve come across all sorts of curious things – chocolate eggs, lost toys, hundreds of clay pipe stems, old bottles, fossils and oyster shells – but on a day in 2010 I made the oddest find to date. I was happily pruning a rambling rose that was trained against a lovely old Cotswold stone wall, when a flash of blue appeared amongst the foliage. The first thing that came to mind was a faded Hydrangea flower head, but there weren’t any Hydrangeas. Looking closer, I was astonished to find, hanging in the branches about 2m from the ground, a long-dead crayfish.

I admit that I’m not especially familiar with crayfish, wildlife on dry land has always been more my area of interest. I’ve watched them scurrying about the bottom of a shallow stream in the Lake District and I’ve been served them once, though I would rather not repeat that experience. A more fiddly and unrewarding meal I have seldom eaten. Crayfish haven’t been part of my life, so to come across one dangling in a rambling rose was a considerable surprise.


Back indoors, I set out upon the agreeable pursuit of looking things up and discovered that there is only one native crayfish in the UK, the freshwater white-clawed crayfish (Austropotamobius pallipes), which is increasingly threatened by an invasive American type, the signal crayfish, Pacifastacus leniusculus. The signal crayfish eats everything in its path and damages river banks by digging deep burrows which cause the river banks to collapse. Crayfish need lively-flowing streams and rivers to live in and it happens that there is a lively-flowing river running through this town, the river Windrush. I then discovered that signal crayfish have been found in the Windrush and realised that many of the  holes I’d seen in the banks are likely to have been dug by them. Comparing the shape, colour and markings of the claw of the crayfish I found to the one shown here, I concluded that it is a signal crayfish.


So how on earth did this crayfish get itself from the river, some 500m away at the closest, and into a rambling rose in a town garden? The only answer I could come up with is that it was caught in the river by a heron and then dropped as the bird flew over the garden. Did the heron simply lose its grip on the bony shell or was the crayfish putting up its last fight and struggling to break free from the heron’s beak, snapping its claws at the bird’s face? Or maybe another heron was trying to steal the first heron’s catch and the crayfish was dropped as they argued. I’ll never find out how it got into that rose, but it reminds me that the world is vast, that there are countless questions I’ll never even ask, let alone be able to answer. There’s no looking this one up, it will always be a puzzle, but a bit of mystery is a good thing.


Garden finds – Jurassic fossils? Yes, lots of them

A common find in some gardens are fossils, mostly of shelled sea creatures. Courtesy, I assume, of the worms, they turn up on the soil surface. Many are conglomerations, a fused mass of differing species which are hard to tell apart but others are quite clean and can be identified.

bivalve-2Most of the fossils I find are pretty crusty looking, like these

Finding fossils at a height of approximately 225m above sea level seems odd when you first think about it, especially when the area is about as far from the sea as you can get on this island.

cotswoldsThe fossils were found about where the pointer is

How did they get there? Here I turned to geology for answers. At the time these fossils were living, some 170 million years ago, the layout of the continents was very different, much of Europe was under a warm and shallow sea and Britain was farther south than it is now. It was only when the single great continent that was once Pangaea split apart that we begin to see anything recognisable as the planet we live on today.


The fossils I’m looking at today lived, I think, during the middle Jurassic era called the Mesozoic. They are a sea urchin (echinoid) and clams (bivalves or brachiopods). The bivalves interest me – they attached themselves to a surface under water by a stem called a pedicle and thereafter lived their lives in that one place.

two-bivalvesMid-Jurassic bivalves found on the soil surface

bivalve pedicle

Showing how they attached themselves to a surface

Which leads me to the next thing – a curious thing about bivalves from this era is how unsymmetrical and plain lop-sided they can be compared to many we see today. The ‘why’ and ‘how’ of it prompts me to ask a question that the class was asked often when I was studying horticulture – ‘What is the advantage of this adaptation?’. It’s a good question and one to be asked often. In this case, my guess is that these ancient shelled creatures evolved to take advantage of the water current and the food it carried, their shells formed so as to move to and fro smoothly as the water flowed past them.

unsymmetrical-2Try to imagine the water currents this bivalve evolved to live in

unsymmetrical-1Or this one

Alongside them lived sea urchins (echinoids), which differ from the bivalves in that they can move around to hunt their food. The piece of echinoid I found was lying on the soil surface and I believe it is called Clypeus ploti.

clypeus-plotiA fragment of Clypeus ploti

I found a little about it in a pdf about the geology of the Cotswolds:

‘This particular species of echinoid lends its name to the uppermost beds of the Inferior Oolite Group (the Clypeus Grit) and has been known locally by various names such as “Chedworth Buns”, “Poundstones” or “Fairy Loaves”. Superstition said that keeping one in your house meant that you would never run out of bread and were protected from witchcraft. They were described by Sir Thomas Plot in the 17th century and in reality are fossilised sea-urchins from the Middle Jurassic and would have lived in the warm, shallow tropical seas at that time’.

I suppose having part of a Chedworth Bun means we may always have a crust to chew on and, given the nature of the soil in this area – pinkish-brown clay full of rubble – we shall need it. Being protected from witchcraft would also be handy.

clypeus-ploti-2A whole one looked like this

You could easily keep drilling down through all this material and study it for the rest of your life. I often wish I had the time necessary in order to find out about all the things that interest me, but there are just too many of them, and finding out one thing so often leads to half a dozen other intriguing subjects. With the time I do have, I skim the surface to try and gain a rough awareness, to be added to the ever-growing net of events and species that make up the natural history of this remarkable planet. All this started by looking at the ground beneath my feet.

The book I turned to in attempting to identify these fossils, as well as others, is one of a series on British fossils by the Natural History Museum called ‘British Fossils – Mesozoic‘. They are very useful books with beautifully clear illustrations and it’s worth having them all on the shelf. The Mesozoic is described by the Wiki page as ‘an interval of geological time from about 252 to 66 million years ago. It is also called the Age of Reptiles. The era is subdivided into three major periods: the Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous, which are further subdivided into a number of epochs and stages’.

mesozoic book

Garden finds – a shard of Staffordshire combed slipware

The best garden finds take you on a journey. Sometimes on a journey back in time and at others on a journey into the wild places of today. Many are fascinating and almost all are in some way illuminating. So it was with this find.

staffs-slipwareCould that be the remains of a scalloped edge on the left?

It was a pottery shard lying on the surface of the soil. 4.5cm by 3.5cm along its longest edges; the background was honey-coloured and there was a pattern of dark brown lines which looked as if they’d been painted on thickly and then combed. I remembered finding a piece like this a couple of years previously, also on the surface of garden soil, but had thought it modern and left it. Later, seeing a similar piece on a Thames mudlarking blog I realised that it wasn’t modern but probably from the mid-1700s or earlier. This type of pottery is known as Staffordshire combed slipware and it first appears as fairly rough designs on dishes and plates from the mid-1600s before the patterns become neater and more complex on cups and pots, including dots and naturalistic patterns.

1751-1800Staffordshire slipware pot, 1751-1800. From the Museum of London

My piece was fairly flat and it was glazed only on one side, leading me to suspect that it might have been a plate or shallow dish. Maybe it once had scalloped edges like the one below. It has no scorch marks so was likely used for serving rather than cooking.

century-staffordshire-combed-slipware-1740How the original might have looked

The garden where it was found was once a farm and some of the original building still stands and dates to the early 18th century. Built of Cotswold stone and surrounded by fields, the scene probably doesn’t look that much different to when the original building was new. The bed it was found in is some 200m from the house and other fragments in the soil make me wonder if this spot was once a midden, a place to dump or bury broken or discarded household items.

How did this piece of old pottery come to be on the surface of the soil? This is something I had wondered about for a long time, actually. No matter how one tends the soil, leaving it dark and loamy, in a short time stones appear on the surface. How do they get there? The ever inquisitive Charles Darwin had the answer, though no doubt others knew before him – they get there by the soil-turning actions of earthworms. Darwin studied and experimented with worms and published a book about his findings in 1881, ‘The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms‘.

Archaeologists have also found that the activities of worms are capable of homogenising considerable volumes of soil, mixing the layers together as they pull in plant matter and push obstacles like pottery shards out of the way of their subterranean burrows and up to the surface. These shards are then picked up and puzzled over by people like me, who naturally wonder how they got there.

The worms haven’t finished there, though. Once they’ve pushed unwanted objects out of their way, they will then use them to protect their burrow entrances from being trampled. It sounds absurd, but there is evidence.

worm-stones-1The stones protecting a worm’s burrow

Go outside and find a piece of ground with little growing on it and the chances are that you’ll see, at regular intervals,  round piles of stones, up to 15cm in diameter. Carefully remove some of those in the middle and you should find a hole, the entrance to a worm’s burrow. Sometimes there will be a plug of plant matter that the worm is gradually pulling down to add to its pantry.

worm-stones-2The entrance is revealed

If you don’t have a piece of ground to look at here is a video of a worm in action.

Knowing that worms move objects in this way is pleasing, because it means that many more finds will simply be on the soil surface and I can just pick them up without having to dig for them. Try it, see what you find and if anything stands out, always turn it over. You might be surprised, it could be a piece of Staffordshire combed slipware.

leaf_1_500Guess who did that

Garden finds – an old slate pencil

I thought I’d amuse myself by doing a series on some of the discarded or lost objects I find in garden soil. It may be that searching for weed seedlings has simply made me used to spotting inconsistencies in the soil, but over the years there have been a surprising number of them. Many of them spark my curiosity and I feel driven to find out what they are, so much so that on some occasions I become quite vexed at not knowing.

The ‘find’ here isn’t a new one, I picked it up some time ago, long enough that I can’t remember where or when. I hadn’t come across its like before and it intrigued me for a long time. At first I thought it resembled a Belemnite, a fossilised and long-extinct order of Cephalopod from the Mesozoic Era some 252 to 66 million years ago, but it didn’t have the characteristic gut channel running through it, nor the tapered ends. Then I thought it could just be a randomly shaped piece of stone which had somehow not broken but been worn. I kept it anyway, in case an opportunity arose to find out what it was.


One day, browsing the London Mudlark community on Facebook, I saw a picture of something pretty much identical to my mystery object, with a request for identification. Most commenters reckoned it was a slate pencil – dating back to when there wasn’t as much paper available and pieces of smooth slate were used instead, with the writing instrument also being a piece of slate. They were widely used in schools, factories, on farms and in homes. It wasn’t something I had ever thought about, but I now had an intense urge to write on slate with it and see what the writing looked like and how it felt to use it.

mudlark-pencil-2These from London Mudlark are just like the one I found


So, scouting about for the nearest piece of slate…oh, there wasn’t any. I tried to think of anywhere I might have seen some lying about, but couldn’t. It was very annoying and I steeled myself to be patient until some turned up. Then I did an online search on ‘writing slate’ and found that you can still get them, sold as novelty items, and that they come with a new slate pencil. Great, I could compare them.


The slate and pencil arrived within days and my craving was satisfied. I wrote with both old and new pencils and was pleased to see that the marks they produced were the same. If you pressed hard, they made a nasty screeching sound like chalk scraping on a blackboard, but used softly there is just a quiet rasping of stone on stone. I rubbed across my scribble with a finger and the scrawls disappeared. I liked the impermanence of it.


A few days later, I wanted to write out a list of ingredients and was looking for a scrap of paper but my eyes fell on the slate and I used that instead. Propped up in the kitchen, it looked rather fine. Might this become a new thing, perhaps? Is it too Hipster? We’ll see, but I rather like it.

dad-doodleDad’s doodle