Medieval book fastenings from Jesus College, Cambridge

The continuing excavations on the site of Jesus College, Cambridge are producing an abundance of artefacts which provide an insight into the daily lives of those who inhabited the medieval nunnery and the later post-medieval College. Post-excavation work is in its early stages, but a quick glance at the metalwork and small stone items has revealed a fine collection of objects associated with literacy and learning. They include numerous slate pencils and book clasps.

book clasp collection

From the medieval period onwards, books were an integral part of religious life. From the 13th century, they became more popular and accessible to wealthier secular households when there was an increased interest in reading romances and poetry. By the 15th century commercial book production was on the rise, aimed at schools, universities and wealthy men and women who could be the owners of volumes such as the Books of Hours and vernacular literature. Reading courtly romances and Arthurian legends aloud was a form of entertainment in noble households.

book clasp
Book clasp Ra 1002

Seven copper alloy book fittings have been retrieved from the site. They include four clasps with a distinctive ‘fishtail’ form, given this name due to their splayed attachment ends which would have been riveted onto a leather strap. On the back, the clasps have a sprung plate and a hook on the opposite end. The hooks would have slotted into a corresponding ‘eye’ plate that was attached directly onto the cover of the book. This would have kept the book closed and the pages within it flat. Ra 1002 is the finest example; it has minute amounts of silver gilt remaining within the incised grooves close to the hook, and between its front and back plates there are remains of organic material – possibly the leather strap.

book clasp
Book clasp Ra 1108

Ra 1108 is the most grand and elaborate of the group; its rectangular plate is decorated with the ‘sacred trigram’ IHC, symbolising the first three letters of the Greek form of the name of Jesus (IHCOYC or IHΣOYΣ). Examples of this type are known in this country from religious establishments including Fountains Abbey and Rievaulx Abbey in North Yorkshire. These religious emblems and the style of the fitting point to a 14th-15th century date, when the Cult of the Holy Name of Jesus gained widespread popularity in England.

Ruth Beveridge and Philippa Walton

Acknowledgement goes to the work of C.L Howsam who made an extensive study of book fittings for her PhD, which has provided a useful source of information for this article.

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Podiatry, Disability and Fast Fashion in Medieval Redcliff

Settlement in Bristol began in the late Anglo-Saxon period and by the 11th century it was a prestigious place. Coins were minted, a weekly market was held, and the harbour had become a major trading port. From the 12th century onwards, Redcliffe developed as one of Bristol’s thriving suburbs and a range of industries sprung up in the area — cloth dying, metal working, and the distilling of vinegar. Although it was extensively damaged during World War II, archaeologists have been able to uncover evidence of Redcliffe’s former residents and the stories they have to tell, through the structures and artefacts they’ve left behind.

One such find that has piqued the curiosity of Andy, a Post-Excavation Manager at our Cirencester office, is this unusual pair of leather shoe soles. The soles were retrieved by our field team from a large pit of 14th to 15th-century date (the late medieval period), that was filled with a quantity of seeds and other preserved material – detritus from the preparation of medieval hides for tanning and leatherwork.

leather shoe sole from Redcliffe

The soles are a typical example of a ‘swayed’ design, which was very fashionable in the medieval period, and the shoes could be bought ‘off the rack’ rather than made to measure – medieval fast fashion! What stands out about this pair is the heavy wear on the outside of the soles (you can see this as holes, in the image above), that’s not matched with similar wear on the rest of the shoe. We thought this may indicate the wearer had a distinctive foot or leg problem, or an existing disability, but weren’t sure. Enter here Geoff Boldero, Podiatrist and Director at Stroud Foot Clinic, who’s shared his professional opinion: “The holes represent an area of excess pressure, possibly due to some extreme rheumatological complaint that has altered the foot over time, or the owner of these shoes was born with a condition called Talipes or ‘club foot’.”.

Talipes © WikiCommons
Talipes © WikiCommons

Talipes is a congenital misshaping or positioning of the foot, causing the soles to face inwards rather than downwards; if left untreated it can become painful and make walking difficult as a person ages.

We’ll never know whether this individual suffered from a progressive rheumatological complaint or lived their whole life with a more burdensome condition that could today be gradually but permanently reversed – no other evidence of them remains. However, the unique mark they’ve left on these discarded shoes does conjure up a very vivid image of them, with their distinctive and personal gait, navigating the bustling markets and noisy industries of late medieval Redcliffe.

Rosanna Price

You can read more about the buildings, artefacts, and stories uncovered during our Redcliff Quarter excavations here.

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Newly discovered well gives further insight into the history of one of Cambridge University’s Colleges

During recent excavations at Jesus College, Cambridge, a newly discovered well, of later medieval or early post-medieval date has been found.  The well is located within the remains of the hall building designed by Alfred Waterhouse in 1875, although it is much older. Prior to 1875, it would have stood in a courtyard just outside the kitchen and Great Hall of the college, which was originally the refectory hall of the medieval nunnery before 1496, and it would have served as a source of water for these.

The well sits in the centre of a large ‘construction cut’, which tells us about the building method employed to create it. The construction cut is a wide, deep pit that was sunk into the ground, after which the stone structure of the well shaft was built upwards in the centre of it. The gap between the edge of the construction cut and the outer face of the stone structure was then filled in with soil, leaving just the narrow, stone-lined well shaft. This was originally built out of chalk ‘clunch’ blocks, cemented together with a lime mortar. The upper part of the well was made from reused limestone blocks, which would originally have been part of an earlier building in the medieval nunnery. The shape of the stone-lined well structure is roughly ‘bell shaped’, with the upper part curving inwards slightly. The well had been repaired on numerous occasions over the centuries, meaning that the original clunch and limestone fabric is full of brickwork patches. This tells us that the well was in use for a long period of time and valued as an important and reliable source of water, with a lot of effort put into maintaining it. Evidence for its longevity is also seen in the thick limescale crust which has developed on the eastern side of the well, where it has been splashed by the ‘hard’ calcium carbonate bearing water drawn up from it.

The centuries of repair work make dating the well a complex challenge. The construction cut of the well had been dug through earlier pits, dating to the 12th–14th centuries, which gives a possible late medieval or early post-medieval date for its origins. The use of old medieval stonework in its construction also suggests a late medieval nunnery or early college date at the earliest, when enough demolition and rebuilding work had taken place at the nunnery and college to create a source of discarded stone available for reuse in other structures. The use of clunch and limestone, rather than brickwork, in the original fabric of the well shaft might also be an indication that the well has a late medieval or early post-medieval origin, before brick became more common. The bricks used to repair and patch up the original stonework appear to be of several types, and probably date to the 16th–19th centuries. We’ve found evidence that at some point in the early college period, a brick-lined culvert was built to take water from the well into the storerooms and buttery beneath the Great Hall of Jesus College. The well acquired a pump during its history, and the court in which it was located is still called the Pump Court today. When Waterhouses’ hall was constructed in 1875, the old well was incorporated into it. The 1888 Ordnance Survey map of Cambridge depicts a pump just outside Waterhouses’ hall (at which time was a servants’ hall), that would have been fed by the well. Waterhouses’ hall was demolished in the early 1960’s, when the well was also filled in with rubble, ending its long history of use. Excavations through the 20th century demolition backfill inside the well are still ongoing, but we hope to come across much earlier deposits at its base.

Did you know?

In the past, the construction of a well was often the most costly and time-consuming element in the building process, which sometimes spanned decades. Well constructions, usually carved out of rock or soil by hand, were particularly challenging for the diggers, especially in castles on hill tops, due to the lack of oxygen. To supply fresh air for the workers, a dividing wall, usually made of wood, was built into the well shaft, with any gaps being stuffed with straw and pitch to make it as airtight as possible. A fireplace was built that sucked air through the well shaft below, ensuring that fresh air was circulated through the artificially built U-shaped pipe created, its two halves being separated by the dividing wall. This supplied fresh air at the “bend” which provided the diggers with sufficient oxygen.

The deepest recorded well in England is at Beeston Castle, Cheshire, with a depth of 113 metres.

Preston Boyles & Caroline Adams

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3D scanning of archaeological artefacts

Hearing about new technology in archaeology is always an exciting topic of conversation for the Geomatics Team here at Cotswold Archaeology – especially when that technology includes the term ‘laser’!

Scanning artefacts is a relatively new concept for the team, but after a virtual demonstration of a number of scanners by Central Scanning Ltd, we were keen to learn more. Embracing this technology would provide us with the ability to quickly and accurately  scan artefacts to an incredible level of detail. Scans of objects would allow us to create amazing 3D models, allowing us to share exciting artefacts visually with our clients and the wider public (and who doesn’t love a nice 3D model!).

In order to explore the technology further, we took a couple of interesting artefacts up to the offices of Central Scanning Ltd in Bromsgrove, Worcestershire, where they very kindly let us trial their scanning equipment.

I slowly and carefully drove the heavily packaged artefacts up to Bromsgrove, to watch and learn from Alex at Central Scanning Ltd as he demonstrated the techniques used to scan objects with (the fabulously named) ‘Artec Space Spider’. The scanner is a structured light scanner and has an accuracy of 0.05mm and a resolution of 0.1mm! Being told to think of scanning as “like using a can of spray paint”, made the process much easier to understand as we scanned a Roman brooch, a wooden bowl and two fragments of another wooden object.

Roman Brooch recovered from Gloscat excavations in Gloucester

The objects were scanned on two sides and were made into complete 3D models using Artec Studio. These models were then exported as.obj files so that they could be shared online via Sketchfab.

We very much hope that this exciting new technology will increasingly become part of the work we do, so watch this space for more 3D models of exciting artefacts in the near future!

With thanks to Alex and Nick at Central Scanning Ltd.

Keighley Wasenczuk

Wooden bowl recovered from Redcliffe, Bristol
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Cotswold Archaeology’s modern-day link with the World War Two generator plate

A few weeks ago, we highlighted a manufacturer’s generator plate, dating to 1939, which had been unearthed during excavations along the A417 Missing Link in Gloucestershire. The plate, perhaps for a searchlight, was made by R. A. Lister & Co Ltd, a local Gloucestershire company, based in Dursley and founded by Robert Ashton Lister in 1867. Soon after we shared this find and its fascinating story, an unexpected modern-day link between Cotswold Archaeology and the company came to light.

Robert Asthon Lister – founder of R. A. Lister & Co Ltd

Fast-forwarding 82 years from the date of the plate’s manufacture, Cotswold Archaeology’s IT team were contacted by Rob Lister, Charles Lister’s great grandson, who, with his brother Tom, runs Lister Unified Communications, a Stonehouse based Telecoms and IT business who have in fact been providing telecoms services to Cotswold Archaeology for over 15 years!

“As a follow-up to your excellent social media article about the Cotswold Archaeology discovery of the R. A. Lister & Co 1939 generator plate on the A417 dating back to World War Two, I thought it would be good to fast-forward the connection between the two companies to today,” said Rob Lister, “we’ve really enjoyed worked closely with Peter Moore and his team to provide the Telephone Systems and phone lines over many years now as CA has grown into the much larger Kemble office and expanded services to Milton Keynes, Andover, and now Needham Market.”

Rob added that it was tremendous to see Cotswold Archaeology literally unearth some local history so directly related to his company and for our research to pick up on the largely unknown story of Rob’s great grandfather Charles Lister’s efforts to rescue Jewish families during WWII.

A417 Missing Link generator plate

“My understanding is that whilst Charles was on a trade mission to Germany in the run up to the war, in the ‘hyper-inflation’ stage, realising the payments for engines in deutschmark would be worthless on bringing back to UK, he used the money to buy a hotel in Germany and this became the gateway to smuggle Jewish families to safety” included Rob.

Pete Moore, from Cotswold Archaeology’s IT department also added that he was “really pleased to help make the connection between the R. A. Lister generator plaque found on the A417 and Rob Lister, who’s company has been such a key provider of telecoms for Cotswold Archaeology over many years. It’s always exciting when we can make direct links between one of our archaeological projects and a current local story like this, especially with direct decedents who are so interested and able to help paint a bigger picture.”

Caroline Adams

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Unusual brooch from a Roman site off Denmark Road, Gloucester

Roman brooch

A few weeks ago we profiled the astounding assemblage of Roman artefacts found at a site off Denmark Road in Gloucester, ahead of its redevelopment by Redrow Homes South West. Amongst the array of finds, which included 1st century Roman military equipment and harness fittings, was this rather unusual brooch. Made from copper-alloy and decorated with cylindrical settings, our finds specialists struggled to find any secure parallels for the piece. Although its decoration has similarities with that found on some Middle Iron Age brooch types (c. 300 BC – 150 BC) its hinged pin would seem to suggest a Roman date. Sadly, it was an unstratified find so its context did not provide any clues as to its date. However, given the complete absence of Iron Age material on the site and the early Roman emphasis of the rest of the metalwork assemblage, it is possible that the brooch represents a rare 1st century type, which arrived with the Roman army at the time of the Conquest.

Philippa Walton

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