This post is the first in our collaborative series with Histoire Source | Source Story about the “stuff” of environmental history. Check out the rest of the posts in the series here, and be sure to watch the Histoire Source | Source Story videos on the environmental histories of “outside.”
As an uninvited Settler of Turtle Island, the land is like a closed book to me; I can’t read it. I thought this was how all land was until I went back to the land of my ancestors and did some archaeology there. There, buried under the rolling green hills of Somerset, England, is a village now designated Sigwells. That village stood across the valley to a hill known as Cadbury Castle. The castle is long gone, but the earthworks are still there and an archaeological dig in the 1970s proved the place had been a town long before the Romans landed. One day the people who lived at Sigwells would have seen a Roman legion, with drums and spears and blood-red gear, sweep over that Cadbury Castle hill like a cresting wave. The Romans eventually folded into the land, or perhaps they left when Rome collapsed. Other invaders came; the Angles most notably, but also the Normans, the Dutch, and the Germans, in a way.
The land remembers all the occupations. Pottery fragments rise from Somerset fields like mushrooms after a rainstorm. In the summer of 2004 I found one such piece. It is lightweight and black, and has shining inclusions from the low-quality local clay. It is also large enough to show the curvature of the original vessel, bulging on one end where the decorative rim survives. On the inside of the piece is the thumbprint of the potter. I found it floating on a freshly-ploughed field one morning, a piece of flotsam in a sea of small stones, sheep droppings, and smashed Victorian blue-and-white crockery. The senior archaeologist on the dig told me it had no context and was of no value. I could keep it. I did.
This fragment may have been made by a member of the local Durotriges tribe, but I think it’s more likely that it came from one of the Roman-controlled potteries. It is probably a mass-produced item, the sort of thing everyone would have needed at home in Roman Britain; the equivalent of modern Tupperware. Perhaps the maker was a Romanized native of the Isle, but perhaps they were an immigrant, someone from as far afield as modern Tunisia or Turkey. Maybe they were someone who was born in the territory, but whose family was from far away. I can’t help feeling a connection with this piece and the person who made it. They were settled on a land not their own, and, like me, probably couldn’t read the landscape. They’re gone, but the land remembers them.
Roman occupation of what became Britain was an uneven affair. Some of the tribes and families of the place formed alliances with the invaders and became what historians describe as “Romanized”. Others resisted. One of those, famously, was Boudicca, who led a revolt against the Roman occupiers. She wasn’t successful, but she remains an important cultural figure in England. She embodies a difficult space as a figure of national pride in a land ruled by immigrants.
I think of this when I hold this piece of pottery. I am a settler on unceded lands, a person of Irish and English descent. My people came in wave after wave and washed over all of Turtle Island. We brought our culture and our food and, yes, our pottery. Sometimes I sit at the pottery wheel and try to make Roman-inspired clay wares. Invariably I wonder how much I share with the person whose thumb print is still stamped on the fragment I have on my desk. Did they wonder what stories were in the land? How did they feel about their occupation of the lands on which they lived? Where did they consider themselves to have come from and what did the future hold for them? Whose land did they occupy, and did they know the stories of it? For a long time, Imperial Britain saw itself as a new Rome, even invoking pax Britannica in the way the Romans had used pax Romana. Maybe people like me who are descendants of the empire I more like the Romans than we know.
The fragment always gives me pause for thought, out of context, floating free in the world, twenty centuries after the potter pressed their thumb into the clay.