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Archaeology and the importance of knowing which way a cow stands to have a piss.

Updated: Feb 1

Many years ago a family of farming brothers in Cambridgeshire had the opportunity to cash in on their land by having it developed for housing. An understandable condition of that development was that there was an archaeological survey of their land, so they paid out £20,000 for a team of archaeological students to descend on their land for a few days to survey the land.

On the last day two of the brothers met the archaeologists in the field to discover what their findings were. In a plastic Hovis bag they were handed a horseshoe, a couple of horse nails and a broken bit of pot. Disappointed one of the brother’s asked, “Is this all you found?”

“Well, that was quite exciting, the nails and the horseshoe show this land was worked by horse.”

“I know that, I remember horses working the land when I was a boy. What about this bit of pot?”

“It’s Victorian,” replied the archaeologist.

“Is that all you found?” asked the older farmer.

“Not quite,” the archaeologist responded pointing to an area in the corner of the field, “over there we found evidence of a Victorian barn.”

“I know”, said the older brother, “I helped demolish it.”

“Oh”, said the crest fallen archaeologist, “ its actually more exciting than that.” Walking over to the corner he explained, “Just here we examined the soil and I can reliably tell you that a cow stood in the barn facing this way.”

“How can you tell which way it faced?” the older brother asked.

“Simple, we can tell from the soil and the urea that was left by the cow which way it stood in the old barn.”

At this point the younger brother thought his older sibling was on the verge of having an apoplexy as his face turned red with rage and he bellowed, “You mean I have paid £20,000 for you to tell me which way a cow stood when it had a piss.” He promptly escorted the older brother away swearing and cursing.

The older brother kept the Hovis bag and showed me it and the contents that had cost him £20,000. He begrudged every penny.

At this moment in time archaeology is under attack as a subject in universities. Yet, almost every development in the UK requires archaeological studies that are largely accomplished with the efforts and aid of university archaeological students. This is a win for the students and a win for the developer as it helps keep costs down. Furthermore, it is a win for us as they ensure that we do not unwittingly loose the history of the British Isles. The dropping of archaeology as a subject by universities risks the loss of this resource which will either increase the cost of such surveys or delay the progress of the development of houses, transport networks and industrial buildings. We need to be aware of the unintended commercial consequences of dropping such subjects, to such an extent it is possibly in the interest of developers to sponsor such courses in universities to ensure their viability for the benefit of us all.

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