She trundled through the door, a shopping bag in either hand. I don’t know why she came or what interested her. I think she was just following the others.
It was an open day and visitors were drifting in and out, on their way to Tesco’s – or heading to the coffee shop: elderly couples, mothers with children, young lads from the council estate. And this woman with the plastic carrier bags who appeared at my shoulder, watching as I peered through a microscope.
“What are you looking at?” she asked.
“It’s a knife. Do you want to see?”
She dumped her bags in an untidy heap by my chair. Cat food, milk, sausages, a multi-pack of crisps, a box of eggs, sliced white bread. I wondered who she was and where she came from. Did she live alone with her cat or did she have a husband; one like mine who had lost heart when he lost his job and never left the house.
One of the bags collapsed. An apple rolled across the floor. But she didn’t seem to notice.
Leaning across me, she was squinting through the microscope.
“Doesn’t look like a knife?” she said.
“That’s because it’s hundreds of years old. Anglo-Saxon,” I explained. “Things rot in the ground, even metal.”
She looked at me sadly. I wondered what she was thinking.
I began to rattle off the facts: 229 Anglo-Saxon graves; over 2,500 finds; swords, shields, spears – 20% more than the average for such sites; brooches inlaid with garnets; beads of glass, amber and amethyst – over 300 in one grave; and two glass drinking vessels in a burial-site over which a pub would soon be built in a location called The Meads. What irony!
She didn’t get the joke but, leaning closer, asked: “Whose was it?”
“We don’t know. But we’ve got his fingerprint.”
A sharp intake of breath; eyes wide, she looked at me with sudden interest.
“We think he was holding the knife and, when it corroded, his fingerprint was recorded in the residue.”
“Like a snapshot?” she said.
“So much more to find,” she murmured.
“Not all history is found in books,” I quipped.
“I can’t read or write,” she confided.
“I don’t suppose many of them could either,” I said, pointing to photographs of buckles and brooches, intricately wrought in gold.
She considered for a second then smiled, before gathering up her bags and shuffling towards the door.
I never saw her again. But I still think of her. The woman who knew that history is written in soil.
Photograph: CSI Sittingbourne conservation project in The Forum shopping centre