|Hector the dog, an archaeologist's best friend|
‘There’s a bit of ragstone,’ says Simon Elliott for perhaps the fifth time that morning. It is Tuesday 19 June, 2018. He and his wife Sara are taking me on a tour of Roman features near their home in East Farleigh near Maidstone on the River Medway in Kent.
I first met Simon at the Guildhall Library in London when I attended one of his lectures on Roman London, (the setting of my own fictional work in progress.) A tall man with a big voice, vast knowledge and accessible nature, he would make a great tour guide.
|Blocks from a Roman villa?|
‘The incisions in the stone help the plaster stick,’ adds Sara, his wife and (today) our driver.
‘And these blocks of ragstone on top of the churchyard wall show water-wear. I think they might have been part of a Roman lock and weir system.’
|A beam-slot visible above tufa block|
As we leave the church he points to a big shrub. ‘There’s a bit of ragstone,’ he says happily. I never would have noticed.
|Simon promoting his book on Severus|
In 2011 he got an MA from University College London and now, in 2018, he is about to publish Ragstone to Riches, a popularised version of his PhD thesis on the Roman quarries of Kentish ragstone. An amateur in the best sense of the word – he loves what he does – he is opening up a whole new aspect on the world of Roman Kent.
|slide from one of Simon Elliott's lectures|
He has even come up with a new theory about the site of the Battle of Medway, Aulus Plautius’ important victory against the Britons in AD 43.
This ‘amateur’ is now beginning to make a living from Roman archaeology. In the past few years he has published four acclaimed non-fiction books, got himself a gig as a tour guide with posh Andante Tours and is now making TV documentaries.
|Simon and Caroline by the walled garden of Timbers|
Simon takes me through a beautifully landscaped back yard. It includes a Roman-style walled garden with geometric beds, a rectangular pond and even a giant amphora. We pass ancient cherry and black walnut trees.
|panoramic view of the Dean Street Quarry looking east|
‘I’m about to take you into the hole where most of the stone from Roman London comes from. This is a big reveal,’ Simon promises. ‘If you want to film anything, film this.’
|LIDAR shows quarry as a long channel|
Sara, working late the night before, waits in the car and Simon takes me down the steep hillside to where a groundsman is using a tractor mower to cut the grass. This part of the back garden is beautifully landscaped but the opposite side of the quarry, where it slopes up again, is thickly wooded. Sunshine barely makes it through here.
Clambering up part of the wooded incline, Simon shows me how the slopes would have been terraced.
‘There’s a bit of ragstone,’ he says. ‘You can see it is obviously quarried and ready to be moved. I always say this quarry was the ancient version of IKEA, with flat pack stones ready to be transported.’
This is the sort of exploration I could never do unless I had access to a kind expert with a car, someone who knows the area.
One of the reasons Simon knows the area so well is because he takes his dog Hector on long walks and is often discovering things.
‘You have a great back yard,’ I comment as we puff up the hill back to the gardens of ‘Timbers’.
‘It’s a big back yard,’ he replies. ‘The problem with being an archaeologist is that you’re always looking down.’
At one point, while looking down, he finds a piece of (possibly Roman) iron slag in a wheat field and is as excited as a child with a new toy. ‘Look what I found!’ he tells his wife Sara. ‘Iron slag!’
‘Yes, dear,’ she says indulgently, and shoots me a twinkly look.
|Horseshoe shaped bend in the River Medway|
We have an excellent meal of hamburgers and steak sandwiches at the Horseshoe Pub, possibly named after the horseshoe-shaped bend taken by the river Medway, visible on Simon’s Quarry Tour map. Simon’s theory is that the commander Plautius crossed at the southern end of the horseshoe, above the tidal flow and therefore on drier ground.
After lunch Simon takes me to see traces of a road that might have connected the quarry to an opulent Roman villa, one of four or five in the immediate area. We walk past apple and pear orchards, as well as ancient cherry trees. Apart from Simon’s fascinating commentary I hear only the sound of birdsong and the crunch of our feet.
|Possible wheel rut in foreground|
‘Is this Watling Street?’
‘No. This is my Roman Road.’
‘What, you discovered it?
‘Yes, I did. While walking my dog Hector. Look! You can even see the wheel rut in that stone.’
He’s right. I see a rut just like the wheel ruts in the big hexagonal paving stones of Pompeii. ‘Has anyone ever noticed this road before?’ I ask.
‘Very few of the locals knew this was here,’ says Simon. ‘Not even the farmer.’
‘What did he say when you told him?’
|Roman milestone? Or tombstone?|
‘And did you find the milestone as well?’
‘Yes. Hector chased rabbit into the windbreak. When I followed him in, I tripped on the neck of a Roman amphora, one of several that held cremated remains. My milestone might be a tombstone,’ he adds. ‘We won’t know until we excavate it.’
The best time to explore is late October, when the vegetation has died down, but I ask to see the milestone/tombstone now, so Simon gamely leads the way along a springy vegetal path of brambles and burrs between a field and the windbreak. Happily, he finds the stone.
|Roman ash heap with critter holes & cherry|
Sometimes I confess I can’t see what Simon points out. Is he only seeing what he wants to see? Or is it really there? His theories will soon be proven or disproven by excavation at close range and LIDAR (3-D laser scanning) from a great height. Plus he told me that he has a lengthy list of sites to investigate as he continues his career as an historian and archaeologist, including a possible Roman villa near a local church.
I suspect his theories will be proved correct. Sherlock Holmes famously tells Doctor Watson, ‘You see but you do not observe.’ I am like Doctor Watson; I see, but don’t notice. Simon Elliott notices everything.
Simon Elliott’s new book about Septimius Severus in Scotland is out now. Caroline is working on a novel for children set in 3rd century Roman London.