World's oldest butter; Colourful swear words; Regional accents thriving; the tough life of northern women

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Great Scott! World’s oldest butter

There are two ways to write an archaeological news story that are best avoided (but frequently deployed): claiming that something is the oldest example of its kind — or the earliest (which amounts to the same thing). So when the press reported that the ‘oldest butter in the world had been found in Robert Scott’s Antarctic hut’, it was disappointing to learn that the butter in question was not even 100 years old (Scott used the hut as the base for his ill-fated expedition to the South Pole from January to March 1912). Archaeologists, of course, are well aware of the hundreds of examples of bog butter from Scotland and Ireland that date back to 400 BC.

For Lizzie Meek of the Antarctic Heritage Trust this was still an exciting find: ‘it looked like an old wrinkly bag and I looked inside and saw the wonderful Silver Fern logo,’ she said. Ms Meek was not sure that she would want to put any of the butter on her breakfast toast: she described the butter’s smell as ‘very pungent’ (whereas the finders of two crates of Scotch whisky in the hut used by the explorer Ernest Shackleton, during his 1907-1909 expedition to Antarctica, must have been sorely tempted).

The finding of the butter poses a novel conservation problem — the Trust, which wants to raise £3.5m to conserve Scott’s base on Ross Island, says that restoring the butter involves ‘removing tiny pieces of grit that are embedded in it’.

Museums that break their own exhibits

Conservation experts are often called upon to repair national treasures that have been bashed or broken by members of the public, but curators can be just as careless.

We are used to seeing curators on TV presented as people who scarcely dare breath in the presence of some revered object, donning white coat, special gloves and a reverential tone of voice before they remove the protective covers on some ‘exquisite’ object of great age and beauty.

The reality can be very different: at the Science Museum, staff damaged James Watt’s ‘Old Bess’ pumping engine in an incident blamed on ‘improper use of [a] bookshop trolley’. The same museum lost an entire steam engine dating from 1820 that was lent to another museum and ‘accidentally destroyed’. The report does not elaborate on the nature of the accident, but perhaps it suffered a similar fate to the Meteor warplane fuel tank that was pressurised by Imperial War Museum conservation staff to remove some dents but exploded and ended up as a large number of small pieces.

Works of art, it seems, are most vulnerable when being installed or taken down by staff in the course of special exhibitions. Worse still are the parties that accompany exhibition openings: a chunk of Bernini’s marble sculpture of Neptune and Triton was knocked off at the Victoria and Albert Museum recently during ‘a hospitality event’ by a waiter carrying two crates of wine.

Campaign for more colourful swear words

It is not difficult to imagine the language used by that waiter as the Carrara marble shattered: English speakers the world over tend to use a very limited vocabulary of expletives; often you will hear just two words being deployed over and again with tedious monotony.

Compare this to the rich legacy of insult terms that have come down to us from Ben Johnson or Shakespeare or that are found in William Dunbar’s poem, The Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedie (1503), a verbal slanging match between two rival poets that includes some very meaty language.

A US-based author, Jeffrey Kacirk, is now fighting back against colourless swearing with a card game (Forgotten English Knowledge Cards) designed to encourage us to revive some of the choicer words of the past. So, next time you encounter a queue jumper in Tescos, try calling him or her a right gobslotch (someone unacquainted with the rules of good society). You could put down an office gossip by calling him or her a proper spatherdab. And we all probably know someone who is a snoker (a person whose instinctive reaction to being given anything is to sniff it like a dog).

Some of the words in Kacirk’s collection are far from obsolete: the word gongoozler, for an idler, is alive and well in Australian English (and amongst canal-boat enthusiasts, for whom gongoozling — staring into the distance for hours on end — is almost a definition of their pastime), while a flotch (a Tudor slut) is still in use in urban slang for someone with a flabby gut.

Regional accents still thriving

Britain’s regional accents are apparently not about to disappear in favour of TV-influenced estuary English, as was feared not so long ago, when even the late Diana, Princess of Wales, was beginning to sound like a posh version of Jane’ Stree’ Por’er. Linguistic experts now say that while the hundreds of subtly different accents that once distinguished small towns and rural districts are gradually dying out, regional ‘superaccents’ are becoming more marked. These are Geordie, Scouse, Mancunian, Brumagem, Estuary, the burr of the South West, and the accents of the West Midlands, Yorkshire and north and south Wales.

Anthropologists and linguists are not entirely sure why this is happening, but they believe it is a response to globalisation; ‘when the shops look the same, people dress the same and have similar pastimes and interests, what still makes places separate and distinct is dialect and accent,’ said Dominic Watt, a speech scientist at York University. Tribalism might also be involved: Liverpool and Manchester are only half an hour apart, and there is much commuting between the two cities, but there is no evidence for merging or levelling of speech, says Paul Kerswill, Professor of Sociolinguistics at Lancaster University.

The tough life of northern women

The rural north not only has the greatest variety of regional accents, it also has (or had) a reputation for breeding country lasses with big bones. Or, as Martin Wainwright put it in The Guardian, ‘analysis of bones from Britain’s biggest Medieval excavation has unearthed a race of real-life Nora Battys, ruling a Yorkshire roost nearly 1,000 years ago’.

The science behind this image of muscular womenfolk comes from an analysis of skeletons from the deserted Medieval village site at Wharram Percy, on the Yorkshire Wolds. Simon Mays, of English Heritage, has been measuring and comparing them to the bones of women from city cemeteries of similar date. ‘Women at Wharram were much more muscular,’ he says, suggesting that ‘whilst they were doing the domestic chores and looking after children, they clearly also mucked in with the hard labour in the fields’.

The result of muscles working harder is that bones gain in mass, but building arm strength seems not to have been a tactic for beating the men at arm wrestling: instead it was the result of the kind of grinding poverty that breaks down gender roles and forces everyone to multi-task. ‘The research underlines the way that the sexual division of labour was much less marked in rural areas than in the cities of the time,’ says Simon. ‘The evidence from the Wharram bones speaks volumes, and reinforces that notion that life in the village was far from a rural idyll.’

Garden designer’s homage to the Cerne Abbas Giant

From northern woman with a frying pan to club-wielding southern man: our feature on hill figures in CA234 prompted Rob Wilson-North (now Historic Environment Manager for the Exmoor National Park Authority) to write (CA237) with evidence of a garden feature clearly inspired by the Cerne Abbas Giant. The Times then picked the story up, and, for the benefit of CA readers who might have missed that report, here is what Rob told the newspaper.

The abandoned garden that he surveyed lies in the valley below the hill on which the giant stands. Its plan includes a pair of round parterres and a long canal, ending in a big cascade. When he drew the outline of his find, Rob became convinced that the garden designer was inspired by the giant’s best-known appendage. ‘When you look at the plan it’s incontrovertible. It makes you ask, how would you explain it to the ladies?’

The gardens were created some time after the Dissolution, when Cerne Abbey was transformed into a country house. Their precise date is not known. One resident who could have been responsible was Denzil Holles, who occupied the house in 1642—1646. Historian Ron Hutton has argued that Holles created the giant to satirise Oliver Cromwell, the ‘English Hercules’. Rob sensibly declines to adjudicate, though he is convinced that the water feature would, if it could be accurately dated, at least resolve whether the giant predates Holles and might even be, as some believe, Roman or Iron Age in date.

March 2010

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