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The bank of the River Alyn with the find in situ

Today I made an archaeological discovery of crucial important in shedding light on artefact deposition in riverine contexts in the early 21st-century. First some context.

The Rev. W. Awdry is well-known as author of the popular children’s stories featuring the Island of Sodor’s steam and diesel locomotives. Thomas the Tank Engine (No. 1) is perhaps the best known of these, although I must admit that my personal favourite is Toby the Tram Engine with his cow-catchers (No. 7). My children’s favourite is Percy (No. 6) but they really should know better and I endeavor to teach them the error of their ways on this matter. Still, Thomas and his friends are known from the original books, various updates and spin-offs, and a long-running TV series, at one time narrated by the ex-Beatles drummer Ringo Starr.

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Close-up in situ photograph prior to excavation

Thomas toys proliferate and their images appear on clothing and all manner of children’s material culture. Many heritage railways have capitalised on the Thomas popularity, and one can ‘meet Thomas and his friends’ at many steam lines up and down the country, such as the Llangollen Railway.

The original railway characters of the books were mainly male with notable (and usually troublesome) exceptions such as Mavis and Daisy (who had to learn the error of their arrogant know-it-all ways). Still, despite the addition of many more female characters and while my daughters love Thomas and his friends and travelling by trains, in the imbecilic world of gender imposition that is our commercialised toy industry, steam trains are still apparently for boys.

Anyway, back to the archaeological discovery. Conditions were perfect for this exciting find, the river-bed of the Alyn near Wrexham was revealed due to a rare few days without rain. In exploring the river-bed I found the usual detritus of visitors: haribo wrappers, drink cans and dog poo. Not a lot, but enough to demonstrate that visitors would occasionally fail to retrieve children’s and canine discard while visiting the river bank.

I had almost given up hope of finding something spectacular, when my eyes were attracted by a glint of blue by the water’s edge. What could it be? Only slowly did it sink in! It was Thomas! Above are pictures of the find in situ in the river-bed. Below is a picture taken after excvation and preliminary washing and conservation.

Detailed examination by Thomas expert, my son Toby, revealed that it was a ‘choo choo’, while my daughters refined the interpretation by realising that the form, decoration and anthropomorphic characteristics render this unquestionable Thomas the Tank Engine.

Now, with expert knowledge of Thomas material culture and ready access to Amazon.co.uk, I have been able to pinpoint the precise version of Thomas that this is. Retailing currently on Amazon at £9.99, this wooden train-set Thomas was in good condition despite the effects of water flaking the paint since deposition sometime since c. 2011. It is functional and its patina probably give it an enhanced value to both archaeologists of the era and to collectors.

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Preliminary examination post-excavation

But why was it there? The explanation my children devised is that it was lost by a small child, probably a boy. Following their line of thinking, I would add that it might have just as easily been a loss caused by inattentive parents as much as a careless child.

However, these interpretations can be discounted as functionalist and prosaic, derived from children already indoctrinated into our society’s gender stereotypes and inevitably far from the truth. Given the high value of the item, and its loss at the very edge of the water, which in many societies is a liminal environment where dialogues with the dead, ancestors and other worlds are mediated, this is undoubtedly a deposition of significance and intent. One can imagine that, whether accidentally lost or intentionally deposited, the separation of child and Thomas would have been the beginning of a multi-staged process of mourning that would involve many family members attempting to placate the child and the spirit of Thomas who might attempt to draw the child off into the watery afterlife. Undoubtedly the wrappers of sweets found nearby and perhaps also the animal excrement were also deposits aimed at protecting the living from dangerous spirits inhabiting this threshold between worlds.

The full results will be submitted to a peer-review journal article within a matter of minutes.

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