Ralph Mills

A LIFE (with gaps due to scrapping)


Firstly, why "gaps due to scrapping"?

One of the oldest books on my shelves is The Observer Book of Railway Locomotives, 1963 edition. Although I was never a true "train spotter" I nevertheless pored over every page of this little volume, illustrated with black and while photographs of scores of soon-to-be withdrawn steam engines. Each entry began with a series of locomotive numbers, frequently interrupted by the phrase "with gaps due to scrapping". Sadly, a few years later, there were many more gaps than there were locomotives, as in 1967 steam traction was abandoned by British Railways. I was lucky enough to travel to a university interview behind one of the last steam-hauled services to Southampton, and that was that.

Similarly, my memories of my life so far, both mental and material, contain many gaps. I've also lost a large number of photographs over the years, accidentally and deliberately, as I've moved around (field archaeology was a peripatetic career), and relationships and their material evidence have soured. There have been times when I was too poor to afford photographic film, or too unhappy to accumulate memories worth cherishing.

So any attempt to record my life will be full of lacunae. Some represent times I don't wish to remember — I've deliberately "scrapped" those memories. Others represent lost material images — photographic negatives, prints and transparencies discarded or mislaid. Many of these I regret losing — they include photos some friends now dead or long-lost who I can now only just about visualise and with whom I shared happy times and affections. Fortunately the last three decades have been happy ones, and the advent of digital photography has ensured that I have plenty of visual records of the last twenty years.

This section has been inspired by the beginning of yet another adventure — our return to live permanently in Canada. I'm uploading it as we move into a new home in Saanich, Victoria, British Columbia.

A life in ruins

My first archaeological experience was on a medieval moated manor house in Kent, one long school summer holiday in the 1960s. There, with trembling fingers, I exacavated my first sherd of shell-gritted C13th coarse pottery. I also carefully exposed the skeleton of a moorhen, crushed by tumbling medieval masonry. I was hooked!

Bitten, incurably, by the archaeology bug, I went on, with a bunch of school friends, to help form a local archaeology group, and spent my spare time digging on rescue sites in Faversham (Roman villa, Gunpowder Mills), Reculver Roman Fort, Canterbury (Marlowe Car Park), beside Watling Street, at Stone Chapel and on the Upchurch marshes (Roman pottery kilns).

I eventually studied for a BSc (Hons) degree in zoology at Imperial College, University of London, but carried on digging, working on the London forum and Mucking excavations. On graduating I decided that although I had enjoyed and gained much from my university experience, life in a laboratory wasn't for me, and I was lucky enough to be offered a supervisiory post with the Kent Archaeological Rescue Group at Dover. Here I helped discover two Roman forts, and the so-called "Painted House", with its plaster-covered walls still standing to shoulder height. I subsequently dug on various sites in Kent, including Castle Rough, Kemsley and Horton Kirby Roman Granary but also Somerset (Norton Fitzwarren), York Minster and Northamptonshire (Bannaventa).

At the same time I had an urge to write. I'd had a couple of archaeological magazine articles published, and wanted more. I managed to talk my way into a printing trade magazine, the long defunct Print Buyer, where I began at the bottom and worked my way up to "Staff Writer", knowing a little about writing and a lot about printing machines. While I can still proof-read, the generation of printing presses with which I became familiar have long been supplanted by digital.

My next job title was "Hawkeye", assistant to "Big Chief I-SPY" of the I-SPY Tribe, the series of pocket-sized I-SPY Books and a daily column somewhere near the back of the Daily Mail. Big Chief was Arnold Cawthrow, irrascible, chain-smoking, cursing away in an office known as "The Wigwam by the Green" that was, sadly, merely a couple of rooms above a shop just off Edgware Road, London. Most of Arnold's expletives were inspired by the Daily Mail, whose sub-editors, he was convinced, were constantly sabotaging his column.

After another year or so of archaeology I became the district Editor of a local Kent newspaper, the Faversham News. I climbed a steep but enjoyable learning curve before moving to Limerick, where I copy-edited three scientific journals — Plant Science Letters, Cell Differentiation and Chemistry and Physics of Lipids —for Elsevier North-Holland Scientific Publishers.

Again I returned to archaeology, this time working at Piercebridge Roman Fort before becoming Assistant Director of the project to excavate and repair Hadrian's Wall in the National Trust estate west of Housesteads Fort. What was my longest archaeological job lasted some six years.

After a year in Stevenage I moved to London, and a new direction. I worked as a writer/editor for a top PR agency, producing material for a variety of big-name government and multi-national orgnisations and companies. That led my to Canada, where I worked in Vancouver, helping to spread an adult-centred educational software program amongst schools, colleges and the workplace across British Columbia.

Back in England, I did a little more archaeology before moving to London and then Nottingham.

For the past decade or so I've been privileged in being able to spend much of my time my time researching and writing for both my MA and PhD.

Ralph at Tonge

Ralph at Dover



Fires of Prometheus
My historical archaeology web site.
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Irregular ramblings

Last updated 10th January 2022