Digging up the past

I recently rediscovered a picture of my teenage self. On the front cover of an old archaeology textbook. I’ve been asked to write a piece for a project on ‘voices from the past,’ hence my search for the battered copy I knew I still had somewhere on a bookshelf.

I spent several summers on a dig in north Shropshire, and I’d been selected to work on the skeleton of a woman unexpectedly discovered on site. And, as we spent the next few days slowly uncovering her, I reminded myself that this was not simply another archaeological find, but a person, someone who had once walked the pavements above the space we now both occupied; and that I was one of the first people to touch her in some 2000 years. It was like real-life time travel. And exactly the same as when I once spotted a knapped flint in a ploughed field. One day someone had dropped it as they skinned a rabbit, and the next (well, around 1,460,000 days, or 6000 years later), I picked it up. There you go, whoosh, instant time travel. It makes you tingle.

And the same could be said about an old photograph, I suppose. The time travel bit. There you are – 16 again. And it’s a bit of a shock to see yourself looking that young – everything still in front of you. And, of course, it’s tempting to wonder what words of wisdom you’d tell yourself if you had the chance. ‘Don’t do this. Watch out for that.’ And, if my teenage self had listened (and that’s a very big ‘if’), would I be a very different person from the one I am today? Would knowing what was coming be a help, or a hindrance? How, for instance, would we have felt had we’d known this pandemic was on its way? Terrified? Helpless? Yet, despite everything, most of us – the lucky ones, that is – are attempting to muddle through as best we can, just as previous generations have muddled through tough times before us. And maybe that means that my own voices from the past should remain exactly where they are. Acknowledged but back in their rightful place on a dusty bookshelf where I can’t keep tripping over them. And, in any case, I expect I still wouldn’t listen to a bloody word they had to say. Nicola Jones

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