Now that I am at least semi-retired, I am taking advantage of every chance to visit new places and to reacquaint myself with places I’ve been before. Recently, I had a chance to spend ten days in London with three friends: we rented a place on Horsemongers Mews Lane and set about visiting old haunts like the British Museum and British Library, the National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery, the Tate Modern and Tate Britain, and the Globe. We took in two plays, walked some 90 miles all told, and rode endless other miles on the Tube.
One highlight of this visit, however, was completely new to me. Under the tutelage of claymaker and artist Julia and archaeologist Mike, we took a walk along the Thames foreshore, at a very low tide. What a wonder awaited us! Mike and Julia sent us off in different directions, telling us simply to gather up anything that “looked interesting” to us. So we fanned out, with our plastic bags, and some 30 or 40 minutes later came together again with our treasures. Mike explained that the Thames is indeed a treasure trove of history, offering up fragments from 2000+ years ago on one shore and from Roman times forward on the other (well, that’s an oversimplification, but we were on the “Roman” side, where so much has been excavated over the centuries). Between the two of them, Mike and Julia identified everything we found, from a tiny Japanese kewpie doll that was “probably made last week” to pipe stems and bowls from the 18th century, lots of glazed pottery from the medieval period, and tiles used in Roman buildings. Here are a few of the pieces I collected:
I couldn’t help wishing that I had a group of my writing students with me to join in the fun, and I wondered what local sites might hold historical artifacts, ones I could engage students in gathering and studying and writing about. There was something magical and powerful about holding a tile that had once decorated a Roman home, or part of a teacup used in Chaucer’s time, something that pulled me back through history and connected me to it in a very visceral way. And it occurred to me that students might even be able to do archaeological “digs” in their own homes, writing about artifacts from their childhoods, or from their parents’ or grandparents’ time.
Such connections with the past seem especially important in our throw-away, dash-from-one-thing-to-the-next world. Our students can benefit from making these connections, writing about them, and speculating on what artifacts our civilization will leave behind for someone a thousand years from now to happen upon.