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.
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.
Staffordshire 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.
How 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.
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.
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.