It often puzzles people the things that archaeologists get excited about. They see us talking in an agitated manner and bobbing up and down in excitement and they assume we have discovered at the very least a jewel encrusted casket. It comes as something as a disappointment when we show them something like a pottery sherd or a brick with a paw print in it.
The thing is we, the archaeologists, would like to get excited about tombs filled with “wonderful things” as found by Howard Carter back in the day. We long to have our moment in the sun, sending word that we have “gazed upon the face of Agamemnon”. Sadly, tombs of Tutankhamun and other legendary kings are a bit thin on the ground, and archaeologists have to make do with more homely treasures.
So what is it about a brick with a paw print in it?
Many years ago, a colleague and I were recording an ancient wall in Boston. It is an important historic town and bits of heritage turn up all over the place. This particular wall had been flagged up for recording because it contained some medieval carved stone, probably from a local monastic building “dissolved” (literally taken apart) during the reign of Henry VIII. My colleague noticed that one of the bricks had a paw print, a cat’s paw if I remember rightly, in the side. This told us that the brick had been left out in the open to dry before firing. This may not sound important, but it confirms an early brick manufacturing process, dating back to before the Victorian era, when it was believed the wall had been built. This produced some excitement, but not as much as measuring the size of the brick, which was narrow and broad in form. This wasn’t just a handmade brick, it was a “Tudor” or earlier brick.
At this point, anyone watching us would have seen us running up and down the wall measuring bricks. The whole lower section not only contained medieval stonework, it was made almost exclusively of “Tudor” brick. We had a mystery to solve. Not an exciting one like a murder or a lost treasure perhaps, but a question was being asked of us, and we had a professional duty to try and find an answer.
Calming down, we got down the meat and drink issue of photographing and drawing the wall for posterity. Then we asked ourselves where these bricks could have come from. As one, we turned to face towards the riverside where, nestled amongst the buildings was Hussy Tower. Our task completed, the day getting old and with rain blowing in from off the fens, we decided to go and investigate further.
Hussy Tower was built in about 1450 as part of a great hall complex, in keeping with Boston’s status as one of the most important medieval ports. In the 16th century it was owned by Lord Hussey, who gives it its name. It is one of a number of brick towers which are a characteristic of the Lincolnshire landscape. When we went to see it, we could see it was a fine example. The aesthetics are simple but effective, a square tower of pleasing proportions, the red of the baked Lincolnshire clay picked out with details of white stone around the windows and elsewhere. It was a show of wealth and taste when built, and it has stood the test of time. However, it was the tower only that stood the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”. Lord Hussy had been complicit in the Lincolnshire uprising against Henry VII, and had taken part in the rebellion known as the “Pilgrimage of Grace”. For this he was executed, his lands forfeited and his house in Boston fell into ruin and was pulled down.
Standing at the base of Hussy tower, we measured the bricks. Then we took photographs for comparison. But by that stage we already knew, the medieval bricks we had discovered in the wall had come from the house of which only Hussey Tower remained. Our cat’s paw print was from a medieval cat, not quite as old as Dick Wittington’s cat, but not much later. Our little mystery of where our wall had come from and when it was built was solved.
We left Hussey Tower in the rain. We left nothing behind and we took nothing away except a few photographs and a lasting memory.
But that’s archaeologists for you.