Medieval roadside industry in Finchingfield, Essex

The Suffolk team have recently wrapped up an excavation that revealed a medieval tile kiln, just outside Finchingfield, Essex. The excavation was in advance of residential development and followed trenching, at the end of last year, that revealed a concentration of intercutting pits, north of a buried road with cart ruts and deep flanking ditches. This would have been the principal medieval road between Finchingfield and Bardfield.

The sunken road clearly marks a division between higher, drier, gravel land to the north, and lower, wetter, clay land to the south. The activities bordering the road reflect this change – the higher land to the north held a group of enclosure ditches surrounding the large tile kiln, and an area of industrial activity; to the south were probable retting pits and clay quarries.

The tile kiln with twin stoking tunnels
The tile kiln with twin stoking tunnels
A well under excavation
A well under excavation

The tile kiln had twin stoking tunnels (see photograph above) and a large rake-out pit dug into the ground, with a ramp for access. There were four smaller ovens in its vicinity, as well as a group of post-holes to one side that may indicate a roofed structure of some kind, potentially situated over a working area. A number of large pits were also revealed, including a well, a cesspit, and possible storage pits. This activity reduced heading north, beyond the enclosure ditches, although there was a large charcoal production pit, potentially associated with the use of the tile kiln.

Excavation of the sunken road revealed further cart ruts, a good number of iron horseshoes, and a partially metalled stone surface. This may have been constructed to consolidate the lower part of the trackway, which runs through a waterlogged area. Running the full length of the north edge of the road was a raised metalled pathway, installed as a separate pedestrian route.

The metalled surface of the sunken road
The metalled surface of the sunken road

In the waterlogged area, to the south of the trackway, two large retting pits were revealed. These would have been for processing flax and hemp, which were turned into linen cloth and rope.

All the pottery from the site dates between the 12th–14th century, after which the road was diverted and activity on the site appears to have ceased. Initial thoughts are that most of the archaeology to the north of the road relates to a relatively short-term encampment of itinerant roof tilers who travelled to build kilns and produce tiles wherever they were needed, and may well have installed them as well. One possibility is that the kiln relates to a large, moated complex at Great Winsey – now demolished and partly overgrown by woodland – which is located just under a kilometre to the west and was accessible by the road we excavated. The moated site was recorded as Wenelishey in the 14th century, and it seems likely that the land the kiln occupied was part of the Great Winsey estate, being still in the ownership of the nearby farm at Little Winsey until last year.

An oven under excavation
An oven under excavation

It would have taken several months to produce the tiles to fully roof a building such as Great Winsey — as well as its auxilliary outbuildings, cottages and barns— after which the tilers would have packed up and moved onto their next job. The kiln itself was constructed of older recycled roof tiles, possibly brought from a previous job. The other smaller kilns/ovens found may have been used to cook food, rather than to produce pottery or to dry grain, as there was no waste from any other industrial activities.

Further research needs to be done to support these theories, which may change in the future. The site was fascinating to work on and allowed us to connect with the local community through a successful open day, where we were able to show off this new addition to the history of Finchingfield.

Stephen Foster

More exciting medieval archaeology news
Share this!