Rest in Peace: Mick Aston

Nearly a year ago to date, I was packing my suitcase to leave for England. I had every intention of doing an “It’s Been a Year”  follow-up entry regardless, but I have learned some very sad news over the course of the last week that warrants attention first: the beloved Mick Aston has passed away at the age of 66.

To be completely honest, I only spent a total of three days around Mick, but he made an irreversibly important impression on me as a human being. My first encounter with Mick was actually at his home in Somerset. Neil and I arrived at his house in the morning, with a three-church itinerary planned for the rest of the day. He welcomed us in and offered us coffee. He and Neil had been friends for a while, both being archaeologists. Mick treated me like he’d been friends with me for a while too. His home was a beautiful mess – piles of books and papers, maps and site diagrams. It was all as colorful as the stripy jumpers (sweaters for you Americans) he was known for wearing. The kitchen table was covered in old newspapers on top of which newly washed potsherds were drying. We moved a few aside, set down our coffee cups and chatted for the better part of an hour. He really took the time to get to know me, who I was and how on Earth I’d ended up working for the Churches Conservation Trust in England. He never once scoffed at my lack of Medieval archaeological knowledge, but instead was happy that someone new was interested in the same thing he was interested in. And that’s what was so special about Mick. He was so passionate about British archaeology – and he just wanted everyone else to be passionate about it too. You didn’t have to know the difference between a clay pipe and potsherd, you just had to be willing to learn. And I was. So he showed me some of the potsherds he’d recently dug up somewhere in Somerset, and he let me look at a 13th-century clay pipe. He took me upstairs to his office, where there were more bags of archaeological finds that I wouldn’t know how to catalog. But if I had a question about any one of the thousands of objects, he would answer – no matter how seemingly dull the question or obvious the answer.

When we left his house, he followed us in his van, which was always readied with tools for the unexpected need to dig something up. We started our day at the CCT church in Puxton, known for its leaning tower. There we met up with another Mick, Michael Worthington, the dendrochronologist. Mick and Michael also had known each other for some time, and we all had quite the adventure speeding through the English countryside from Puxton to Holcombe and from Holcombe to Clapton-in-Gordano, assessing old wooden church pews for potential dendrochronological testing. In Holcombe we stopped at a pub for lunch, and Mick again, took the time to chat with me about my work, my interests and my goals. At the end of that marathon church-visiting day I was exhausted, and not nearly as aware of how lucky I was as I should have been.

I saw Mick again a week or so later, during the Festival of British Archaeology for which the CCT had various events planned at St Andrew’s Church in Holcombe. When he saw me again, he greeted me like any other friend and made me feel really welcomed. That’s one thing that I really miss about England and the people I met there – they welcomed me without question and they never once questioned my credentials or reasons for being there. They were just happy to have me there and to teach me things. And they believed I had something to offer as well – even if it wasn’t the same that they had to offer. So many times I had encountered professors at UF who only had the goal of imparting information to students, rather than having an actual conversation. They weren’t interested in getting to know me, or what I wanted to do. In fact, very few professors made a great impression on me. Dr. Willumson, Dr. Moseley, Dr. Villalon and Dr. Kane are the only ones I can think of that were ever really interested in helping me – not just passing me.  I believe that any student who studied under professor Mick Aston learned a great deal and not just about archaeology, but about being a great teacher.

There were many days during my internship when I would be busy doing something on the computer for Neil and I would have the TV in the background with Time Team on, and Mick Aston on the screen. I remembering feeling really lucky that I met him – because on TV he was a pretty badass archaeologist. 🙂

And perhaps I am guilty of Romanticizing a man I only knew for a few days – I certainly didn’t get to know every side of him, but I am a strong believer in the energies and auras people give off and his was nothing but positive and welcoming. I wish I had been given another chance to talk to him and really thank him for his kindness. My last interaction with him was at the end of a day at Holcombe and he insisted I join him and Neil at a meeting for the Somerset Archaeological and Natural History Society, of which they were both members. I unfortunately couldn’t go because of prior commitments for my internship, so I said goodbye and thanked him for all his time. But I could have done better. And I should have written a letter or something. But isn’t that the way we always feel after people pass away?

Mick should have had twenty more years to impact students like me – but his time was cut short. Life is short. And we have to take advantage of every day we have. Lately I haven’t been living that way. I lived that way when I was in England. I seized every opportunity that came my way and wished only that I’d had more time in England to do more. But lately I’ve been moping around being depressed about not having a job yet. It’s been over six months since I graduated and I’m feeling like a bit of a failure. But I shouldn’t. I may not be where I thought I should be, but I have been many places and accomplished many things of which I am extremely proud – and the time I spent in England, with Neil and the few days with Mick, are high on my list of things I’m proud of.

So I want to say thank you to Mick for the time and conversation he gave me. And I want to thank anyone else I worked with during my internship, because not a day goes by that I don’t think about something I did in England -and it helps me get through the rougher days of post-graduation unemployment.

RIP Mick Aston. You will be missed.

Neil and Mick at Holcombe

Nicole, Neil and Mick, looking at renderings from the RTI images we’d taken of the Anglo-Saxon stone.