Pottery pieces in a field take me back 600 years

Old Warden, Bedfordshire: A medieval artisan may once have used this muddy clay to put a roof over his head

Pieces of medieval roof tiles found in a Bedfordshire field. Photograph: Sarah Niemann

A promise made in November brought me back at the year’s end to a farm field with treasure in my pocket. I had last come here at a time of three harvests, before autumn rains had doused this land. Back then, high hedges dropped blackberries into welcoming hands; the farmer had lately taken off crops of wheat and barley. The hard, cracked ground among the unploughed aftermath of wheat leaves and stems had produced four ochre-coloured pieces of shortbread-thick pottery, demanding to be picked up.

It would be two months until I took them to an archaeologist friend, who turned them over in her knowing fingers. These were the handiwork of a highly skilled but low-valued medieval artisan, who had rolled out clay of the fields like pastry, then cut it into rectangular roof tiles and fired it in a kiln, probably fuelled by the plentiful woods nearby. Since these fields belonged to a monastery, our tiler could have been a monk.

‘Six centuries or more since they first arrived here, I put them back, these little treasures with their tales of litter and dereliction.’ Photograph: Sarah Niemann

On this winter’s day, the bare hedges, stripped of fruit, were garlanded with straggly old man’s beard, and a sullen sky refused to give of the sun. The clay soil formed a greasy raw cake mix that made my hips ache from preventing steps becoming skids. Puddles pooled and even dog imprints lost their definition in the gloop. What astonishing ingenuity on the part of our forebears to think of oven-baking this stuff to give them a roof over their heads.

I came to a parting in a hedge where the footpath ran into the field of my finds. I told my expert they had been scattered only a few metres from the entrance. She knitted the evidence into two possible stories. The first explanation was that there had been a building here. The second was that they had been brought in as hoggin – the broken bits used as hard standing, laid in the gateway to stop carts sinking in the mud. They may have been crushed before arrival or broken into their present size by generations of ploughs.

Six centuries or more since they first arrived here, I put them back, these little treasures with their tales of litter and dereliction, awaiting endless cycles of burial and exposure.

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