One of the joys of writing books set in Britain is the research trips. After reading thousands of pages of history and archeology I feel I’ve earned a look at the places where my books take place. However, because my current focus is on the early medieval period, this often means there’s not much left to look at beyond the landscape itself. I’ve learned to develop a good imaginary eye when exploring what may now appear to be nothing more than a field or river valley.
Yeavering, the site of a sixth and seventh century Anglo-Saxon administrative center in northern Northumberland, is one of these places. It’s a field now, a big, boring field with a spectacular past. I write about the kings who had halls there, who called their citizens to meet in the wooden amphitheater, and consulted with their priests, both pagan and later Christian, in the temple or churches. All those buildings fell into ruin thirteen hundred years ago.
Knowing there wasn’t much to see at Yeavering didn’t stop me from renting a house nearby on one of my research jaunts. I was traveling with my cousin and when we arrived, we engaged in a cheerful conversation with the owners of the house we were staying in.
“What brings you to this particular location?” they asked.
“Yeavering,” I said. “Bamburgh and Holy Island. I write about Roman and Anglo-Saxon Britain. I’m particularly interested now in the early Anglo-Saxon period. And my cousin’s an archeologist.”
The wife looked at the husband, eyes twinkling. “Roger here’s an archeologist,” she said. “He bought Yeavering a few years ago.”
I was, as the Brits say, gobsmacked. Roger Miket had indeed bought Yeavering when English Heritage passed on it, and he and his wife created The Gefrin Trust to protect the site. The Trust has a website at: http://www.gefrintrust.org It’s full of wonderful information and great publications.
“Would you like to see some little things I have from Brian Hope-Taylor’s excavations?” Roger asked.
Oh, yes, please! Hope-Taylor spent years working at Yeavering. I’d been reading about it forever.
Now I have to say, the bits and pieces of pottery and metal carefully stored away didn’t look like much at first glance. Any really impressive stuff is probably in museums, and the main value in the site isn’t in the treasures that came out of it but the information, things like how buildings were built, the ways they were organized, evidence of how they were used, and so on.
But to hold a pot in my hand that had been made when Æthelfrith (the hero in “Eve of All Hallows”) had been king . . . wow. Roger had a small piece of jewelry, somewhat crushed and far from bright, not like the shiny cleaned up bits from the Staffordshire Hoard or Sutton Hoo, but likely to have been worn by a high-born lady, someone King Edwin (who I’m writing about now) might have seen . . . WOW.
In that moment, that past was as real as the brooch in my hand, swimming with color, sound, and smells. The glowing afternoon sun breaking through rain clouds. The give of thick grass underfoot, and the scent of earth and animals on the wind. Cattle lowing as they are brought into the pen. Wagon wheels creaking under a heavy load of grain. The king’s wife walking beside her priest, a bright gem glinting on her cloak in the sudden sunlight.
Those are the moments I seek when I write, the glimpses into history, particular and alive again for each reader if I do my job well. Every once in a while, the research gods reach down with a special blessing, something more than books and museums alone can grant.