Thursday, 19 July 2012

56 - Like as the Hart

Norwich Castle Museum is alive with clip-boarded Year 6s, most of whom horseplay their way about the exhibits. One, whose purple blazer and green checked dress is notably unkempt even among her friends, is transfixed before a side-lit display in which sits a small bone.
“C’mon, Chrissie; let’s go find the dungeons!”
Chrissie, tongue trapped between her jaws, is writing ‘astrolagus’ and won’t notice her spelling mistake until her first Michaelmas term at Oxford some years later. She adds ‘RAIHAN’ , the runic inscription.
“It's just an eggy old bone, anyway” snorts Phoebe, who runs off.
Meanwhile, Chrissie transports herself to the Norfolk of the dark ages, wondering who the inscribed bone belonged to and what they did with it.
“In the small band, the Dane stands out among his swarthy companions. They’re playing ‘Jacks’ with sheep-knuckles and the ankle-bone of a deer. They’re getting irritated with their friend: he’s a foreigner, he uses strange words, and he’s beating them at this game he’s taught them. He wins, and claims his prize, his belonging according to the inscription on the astragalus: he wants one of the young girls of the tribe as a bride. Having misread the bounds of hospitality among these Angles, he is knifed, his body burned, and his remains interred with his gaming pieces in a shallow pit in the burial field.”
“But surely that’s all speculation, Professor?”
“Of course, James” says Chrissie. “I can no more tell you that these bones are gaming pieces, or that we should interpret ‘RAIHAN’ as ‘belonging to Raih’, than I can guess accurately what may have happened before the death of whomever was interred in the Caister pit. Indeed, the consensus is that the bones were shamanic, and that ‘RAIHAN’ simply means ‘roe’ or ‘deer’. But we need always to retain a speculative imagination with which to challenge consensus; to see ambiguous evidence in the frame of multiple possible truths. Besides, those of you working in the field will soon tire of the pressures of digging just metres in front of developers’ bulldozers: how else are you going to lighten the mood?”
With a brief laugh, the students disperse to tutorials and Chrissie gathers her notes together.
In the shallow trench, kneeling in mud and under pouring Cotswold rain, Chrissie is tired, mightily pissed off, and long overdue a pint of Hook Norton. Her dig is so poorly funded she cannot afford to cover her team with the knackered B&Q gazebo usually provided for such conditions. The director has told her to close the dig next day and hand it back to Costain to turn into a new housing estate, and even her chair at Oxford cannot win the argument. Guard down, she takes a full five minutes to realize that ochre mud is giving way to a circular smear of brown with shiny black lumps.
“Hey, I think I’ve got an inhumation.”
“No shit, Sherlock; in a Saxon graveyard, too!”
Chrissie stands the card-snap stand of someone whose spine is protesting ten years of abuse in wet digs across Europe, and her cynical companion moves in. She quickly tags, measures and photographs the context. Then she notices that one of the black objects is bigger than the others.
“What’s that?”
Roll-up half formed, Chrissie peers over her companion’s shoulder leaning on her as she scrapes away with her trowel. As the mud is washed away beneath the cleansing rainfall, they both see the inscription at the same time.
“Hey Phoebs,” says Chrissie. “Remember that ‘eggy old bone’ you ribbed me about on that school trip? I think we’ve just got ourselves another astragalus.”

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