Thursday, April 02, 2009

What we leave behind

click photo to enlarge
Every now and then, as my wife and I dig our garden, we turn up pieces of broken clay pipes - the sort with a very long, narrow stem that people filled with tobacco and smoked. So far we have gathered fourteen fragments, all but one being pieces of tubular stem. However, we do have a single bowl decorated with a star (or flower), and scallop shell (or honeysuckle petal) patterns. The design is very distinctive, and research leads me to be fairly sure that it dates from the period between 1790 and 1820.

Did the agricultural workers who threw away these inexpensive, disposable artefacts realise that a future inhabitant of that piece of land would see them as the most tangible connection with their time? Probably not, yet that is just what they are. I read about the history of this part of Lincolnshire, I look at the gravestones in the local church, I reflect on the old buildings, and ponder the landscape that man has moulded for millennia, yet none of these more substantial things touches me like these pieces of clay pipe. Some years ago I read that, should civilisation be swept away, archaeologists of the future will use the layer of cigarette filters thrown away in the second half of the twentieth century as markers for that period of time. On the basis of such insignificant things is our history written.

I reflected on this as I made a black and white conversion of my photograph of the remains of a boat on the beach at Sheringham, Norfolk. Perhaps it was the way it looked like the spine and ribs of a dead animal that drew my attention to it, but it led me to thinking about whose boat it was, why it had foundered there, and how long it had been subject to the twice daily attrition of the tides. Someone, somewhere will know, and will have written at great length about it. But, for as long as the remains lie there, something that we can gaze upon, recognisable for the small wooden boat that it was, it will be a daily, direct and palpable reminder of our past that words will struggle to equal.

photograph & text (c) T. Boughen

Camera: Olympus E510
Mode: Aperture Priority
Focal Length: 17mm (34mm/35mm equiv.)
F No: f5.6
Shutter Speed: 1/640 seconds
ISO: 100
Exposure Compensation: -0.3 EV
Image Stabilisation: On