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In the early 1970s a small kofun (tumulus) was excavated in central Japan; inside was a single stone chamber containing nothing more than a bronze mirror, lacquered fragments of a coffin and a few human bones – nothing more that is other than spectacular paintings on its four walls, and a gold and silver-studded star chart on its ceiling. The tumulus is known today as the Takamatsu Zuka Kofun and it is unusual in one way more than any other – most of the imperial tombs of Japan (the great Keyhole Kofun surrounded by water) still remain out-of-bounds and unexcavated after some two millennia. Compare this with China’s more open policy of excavating and uncovering its ancient past – perhaps most spectacularly represented in the 2nd century bce imperial complex in Shanxi Province with it’s Terracotta Army.
In 1937, a middle-aged lady sat at her window and looked out across a night-cloaked lawn to a tumulus in her grounds. She was Mrs Edith May Pretty, and from her window at Sutton Hoo it is said she could see warriors in ancient armour riding around the mound. Mrs Petty commissioned the local archaeologist Basil Brown to excavate the tumulus and from its depths there came one of the most extraordinary archaeological finds ever made on English soil: the Sutton Hoo longboat and treasure. The Sutton Hoo dig was to revolutionise our understanding of Anglo-Saxon England, its arts, crafts and its culture. It was a defining moment in the clarification of England’s beginnings. Beowulf sprang to life with each artefact uncovered, cleaned and conserved – that great saga from our Anglo-Saxon heritage suddenly had a visible and tangible link to both our past and our present in the Sutton Hoo finds of helmet, buckle, whetstone and dozens other artefacts.
On a hillside close to the hamlet of East Kennet in Wiltshire there is a long barrow. Other than some minor excavations in the past the barrow has never been thoroughly explored – unlike its more well-known sibling of West Kennet Long Barrow a couple of miles away. Some believe that the East Kennet Long Barrow should be excavated, both to advance our knowledge of the period when it was constructed and also to save it from the intrusive tree cover that must be ever contributing to its demise. Some are vehemently opposed to the idea fearing it will become yet another tourist trap like West Kennet Long Barrow. But what are we protecting here? The contents within (if there are any) or the ancient sanctity that you will find there if you visit the place. There are no easy answers, at least not for this writer, who is torn between a longing to know more about our past and the need to keep back from the hurry of it all a place here and there to dream what might or might not have been.
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