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Digging in to unearth treasures of the past

By South Wales Evening Post  |  Posted: July 26, 2012

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TO the untrained eye the grubby selection of items held up in a plastic tray by archaeologist Jon Dollery might not look too impressive; a honeycombed nugget of brick, a triangle of crazed, glazed tile, a nubbly blob of aged iron and some other hard-to-identify bits and bobs.

But to those in the know, namely a slightly muddy huddle of archaeologists at various stages of their studies, the head of development at the National Botanic Garden of Wales, and a pink-cheeked work experience youngster, this is the kind of treasure they have been seeking all day, on their knees, diligently scraping away with trowels.

You can't fault their dedication. It isn't a job for those short of patience, or for those with a dodgy lumbar region.

The team is hard at work at the site, digging up not just old artifacts, but some rip-roaring stories from the past.

Head of development at the garden, Rob Thomas, explains how those fragments from life in the past help to complete the garden's picture.

"These things give us evidence of the details of the house that would have been here.

"Brick is unusual to find because it is expensive and so it was rarely used, so it shows something of the wealth of the family here."

"And painted tile, says Jon, "is very exciting.

''This is an interior tile, so it helps give a clue to what the house looked like inside.

"This one suggests one of the popular colours of the time, if you think of the pale Wedgewood blue and the style of interiors that would have been popular with people coming back from the Grand Tour."

The home they are investigating is Middleton Hall, a grand pile which graced the site in the 1600s, and it no doubt presented itself in some style, says Rob.

"It is clear from the earliest records of the hearth taxes of 1676 that Middleton Hall was a very substantial dwelling with 17 hearth, and no doubt with the servants necessary to light those hearths every morning!"

"But as to most of the details of its appearance we can only guess at them," says Jon.

"That is what this project, which was started last year, is here to help with."

One of the biggest mysteries in the tale comes from the fact that the home was owned by the Middleton family at all. And before you ask, the team has inquired into any possible link to the Berkshire Middletons, but they have found no link to date.

In the late 1500s the surname crops up in church records in the form of one Christopher Middleton. "He was listed in local church records as being the vicar of Llanarthne, renting a very significant plot of land, which is coincidentally precisely the size of the gardens here now.

"Yet he is a humble vicar," says Rob.

Not only that but his son ends up wed to the daughter of one of the most powerful families of the region, the Vaughans.

And his new wife is the sister of an Earl.

It seems certain Christopher's wealth and his resulting leap up the social ladder came from his brothers, captains in the East India Company, David and Henry.

Rob elaborates on their story: "It is likely that the Middletons' wealth came from David Middleton," says Rob.

"He was one of the early privateers and adventurers and the East India Company's main concern was the spice trade and the Spice Islands.

"So David was one of those involved in the privateering and the enterprise that came with the earliest days of empire, and what is exciting to us is that it was wealth that came from plants for health, which is so appropriate for the garden as it is now.

"Nutmeg, mace, cloves and pepper, all plants which are found in this garden, were the goods that brought Middletons their wealth.

"We are talking about a time, in the late 16th century, when nutmeg was a coveted luxury, used to treat all kinds of ailments and it was, back then, considered to be more valuable than gold."

Elizabethan quacks liked to make outlandish claims about its powers to ward off the plague, so the price of this sweet spice went through the roof.

Similarly in around 1610 David Middleton, captaining the Consent, landed a cargo of cloves traded in the East for £3,000, which sold on the London market for £36,000.

"So discovering where the Middletons' wealth came from is an underpinning of the garden's story,'' says Rob.

"And the fact that we can trace them back to nutmeg, mace and pepper plants that are here today is very exciting.

"It is interesting that the family here didn't advance themselves through farming or cloth — the things which made Carmarthen- shire a wealthy part of Wales in the early 1600s."

The life of the privateer was a life of hardship and of wild adventures, a long way from the quiet living which a Carmarthen- shire vicar would have known.

David's account of his escape from the cannibals of Ceram and of its crocodile-infested rivers still exists today, as does the tale of Sir Henry's capture and his imprisonment in Arabia.

"He became the first Briton to visit the interior of the country," says Rob, "albeit with 'a great paire of fetters clapt upon my legges' and having witnessed the slaughter of several of his crew."

David Middleton died an adventurer's death, drowning off Madagascar when returning from a successful voyage, with his ship heavy and creaking, from a visit to the Spice Islands.

The archaeologists will continue to dig into the Middletons' past at the site until July 29 , with guided tours on offer to the public.

Rob says there are still tales to be discovered and links to be made.

"The more we find the more complete the picture will be and the more we can tell our visitors.

''So we hope these are stories that will bring people to the garden and which will keep them coming back, to learn about the next chapter."

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