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Touching the Medieval

I am very fortunate indeed that, some years ago, in my garden at home, my father and I discovered a medieval deposit dating from 1350-1450 AD. This inspired us greatly and that summer we both attended a two-week full-time course on archaeological excavation and recording techniques so that we could try and do a proper job when working on it – we felt the responsibility of disturbing the past. 


The medieval deposit was discovered by happy accident whilst gardening and consists, to date, of an area of some fourteen and half square metres. Finds include a large number of shells –  871 oyster, 2,366 cockle, 296 mussel, 6 winkle, 5 whelk, and 10 snail – nearly 400 pieces of Grimston Ware green glaze pottery (from which the dating has been largely obtained), but also some wonderful pieces of medieval glass dated from the 12th–15th centuries, pieces of roof-peg tiles, pieces of floor tile, clumps of lead, many bones (some showing butchery marks), and so on. We have made good use of the Portable Antiquities Scheme.


Excavating below the medieval layer, we have found, going back in time, late Saxo-Norman Thetford ware pottery (850–1100 A.D.), with some delightful and atmospheric rouletting design work; small sherds of Roman pottery, including a piece of Samian Ware dated to the early to mid 2nd century A.D. (coming from Lezoux, in central Gaul); and, even a few sherds of mid Iron Age pottery potentially dating back as far as circa 800 B.C. 


However, concentrating on the medieval deposit, there is nothing quite like gently stripping away the soil with a trowel on a sunny day and coming upon that layer and the anticipation of discovery it holds – not of gold or silver, but riches of another kind. Being the first person to cast one’s eyes and touch something in six hundred years is still a great buzz – this is particularly true if it is something like a jug handle, or where one can see a potter’s finger prints preserved in the fired clay. When one places one’s own finger(s) in the same indent(s), there is a real tactile connection with the past. I consider these little discoveries, these ‘Ah!’ moments, to have increased my sensitivity, influenced my way of thinking, and contributed significantly to my love of the medieval period.


Over the Easter period 2018, at my persuasion (I felt I needed a few buzz moments for my art practice and this article), my father agreed to help me excavate a 2 x 1 metre extension trench. This may not seem like a very large area, but one must remember that one strips away, by trowel, entire layer by entire layer a few centimetres each time, to a depth of about 60 cm, so one covers that 2 x 1 metre area many times. Each item’s location is recorded using a 3D grid system, then washed, identified and bagged and carefully stored away, so it is incredibly time consuming. The trench is also drawn in profile, recording features. 


It will probably be best if I describe the week’s dig in photographs and provide brief explanatory captions; this will be followed by some items found from the dig over this and previous seasons that I feel have informed my practice in very subtle ways.

Fig. 1

The extension to the trench is to be seen furthest away, having come down upon the top of the medieval layer. The stones to the right are part of a previously excavated wall. This wall is undated precisely as yet, but it is thought to be medieval.


                        Fig. 2                                                   Fig. 3                                   Part of the medieval wall foundations                       Looking down upon the first signs of the                                                                                     appearance of the medieval layer







                       Fig. 4                                                     Fig. 5

    After further excavating shells reveal themselves                The medieval layer appears in profile along the                                                                                          trench wall                                                   

                        Fig. 6                                                    Fig. 7

              And bones begin to appear too                        A collection of 14th/15th Century Grimston Ware                                                                               green glaze pottery sherds found in situ


                      Fig. 8                                                      Fig. 9


Figures 8 and 9 show the trench extension with medieval layer and once the medieval deposit has been excavated, respectively. Note the interesting feature at the far end of the trench (see below).

                       Fig. 10                                                  Fig. 11

  A medieval post hole appears at one end of the trench                     A metre rule gives the scale

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