Medieval pots from Bristol

In 2017 and 2018, Cotswold Archaeology with our Joint Venture partners Oxford Archaeology undertook excavations ahead of redevelopment at Redcliff Quarter in Bristol. Almost 21,000 sherds of pottery (405kg) were recovered. The pottery was first recorded by Finds specialists Ed McSloy and Jacky Sommerville, and has been finely drawn by Illustrator Li Sou. Analysis for publication is being completed by another of our Finds specialists, Alejandra Gutiérrez, and here are some of her favourite pots from the Redcliff Quarter site.

Fig 1. Face jug fragment
Figure 1 – Face jug fragment
Figure 2 - Zoomorphic jug fragment
Figure 2 – Zoomorphic jug fragment

Among the pottery are fragments from many jugs, one of the basic wares used in medieval households across England. These were utilitarian objects, used to serve ale or wine at the table. Those decorated with human faces were popular across the country and beyond. They generally represent bearded (male) faces and were placed around the rim of the jug. The beards are intriguing because, although shaving was common right across medieval Europe, facial hair represented manhood and might also have served as a social marker to express belonging to particular social or religious groups. The Christian Church insisted on clerical shaving, so monks and clerics were one social group that was easily recognisable through their hairless faces; as beards represented virility, a close-shaved faced could be seen as a sign of celibacy. At least eight different face jugs were found during the excavation and half of them are decorated with the same hairless face (Figure 1); he could well have been modelled on a real person!

Together with face jugs, zoomorphic jugs decorated with animal heads were also recovered during the excavations. In this case the mouth of the animal serves as a pouring spout. Some of these were of local manufacture but some came from as far as London (Figure 2). Conviviality must have been important; drink shared with a good sense of humour must have tasted better!

Figure 3 - Oil lamp
Figure 3 – Oil lamp

Besides basic tablewares and cooking pots, the inhabitants of Redcliff were also preoccupied with lighting inside their homes. Candleholders and lamps in a range of materials, including metal and stone, would have been in daily use. Local potters also made them in clay, although they are not frequently found in archaeological deposits. Redcliff Quarter produced a complete oil lamp of surprising size: at only 4.5cm in diameter and about 2cm deep, the upper dish would have held the oil and the floating wick (Figure 3). A tiny handle on the side allowed the light to be carried more easily from room to room without burning the fingers.

Further information on the discoveries made at the Redcliff Quarter excavations can be found on our website, and videos from the excavation feature on our YouTube channel.

Alejandra Gutiérrez

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