More amazing discoveries from Jesus College

Aerial view of Jesus College site
Aerial view of the site. The large wall down the centre of the photo appears to be medieval, and has a floor alongside it (visible to the left of it as a broad, pale corridor), perhaps forming a covered walkway like a pentice or cloister. The other walls date to the college period.

Over the past few weeks Cotswold Archaeology, with assistance from the Cambridge Archaeological Unit, has continued to excavate at Jesus College, University of Cambridge, uncovering a series of interesting, and previously unknown, walls and floors relating to the medieval nunnery. These medieval remains were buried beneath a complex series of garden soils, kitchen waste deposits and structures belonging to the early years of the college, which replaced the nunnery in 1496.

Bellarmine jug
A happy ‘Bellarmine’ jug, 16th – 17th century.

The post-medieval soil layers contain large quantities of animal bone and oyster shells and are very dark in colour (a sign of high carbon content), suggesting that they are largely formed of composted organic kitchen and domestic waste from the college. Among the pottery recovered from these layers are several examples of ‘Bellarmine’ jugs from the 16th and 17th centuries, instantly recognisable because they feature a bearded face on the neck of the bottle, often grimacing (although one example we’ve found is a lot more jolly!). We have also found jettons, which are tokens used as counting aids from the late medieval period until the 1700’s, often in conjunction with a counting board or chequered cloth (hence the origin of the ‘Exchequer’ of the treasury). During the post-medieval period, Arabic numbers came to replace the more cumbersome Roman numerals, making accounting easier to do without resorting to jettons, which then fell out of use. Some were apparently reused as gaming counters and gambling chips in card games.

Excavating the post-medieval layers has revealed a number of earlier floor surfaces.
Excavating the post-medieval layers has revealed a number of earlier floor surfaces.

As well as kitchen and domestic waste, there are also layers of building rubble, such as bricks, glazed floor tiles, and ceramic and stone roof tiles. This debris is the result of centuries of renovation, demolition and re-roofing work at the nunnery and college. The stone roof tiles are made from Northamptonshire Collyweston limestone, which was exposed after being quarried, allowing frost to fracture it into natural roof slates. We have also recovered window glass and lead window cames (strips of lead for holding small pieces of glass together in a window). Lead is often recycled, and some of the cames had been twisted into bundles by the person who had collected them together after stripping them from a window. Medieval stonework was also recycled, including pieces of windows, doorways, and columns made from oolitic limestone and chalk clunch, which were used as rubble in the foundations of some of the early college buildings and to cap several of the numerous 16th – 19th century culverts criss-crossing the site.

The remains of a medieval wall and floor. The floor might be the base of a covered walkway on the edge of a yard or cloister, with an open or arcaded front on the side facing across to the nunnery hall.

As we excavated through these post-medieval layers, we began to uncover earlier features, such as walls and floors, which appear to be medieval in date. The most extraordinary of these is the stub of large wall, built of chalk ‘clunch’ blocks, running parallel to the Great Hall of the college, which replaced the refectory hall of the nunnery. This wall has a floor made of mortar and clay forming a corridor along one side of it. The floor is made of mortar and clay, which might have supported a surface of glazed floor tiles or timber planks. It might be the remains of a covered walkway on the edge of a yard space, such as a pentice or even a cloister, perhaps of timber construction, with the stone wall on one side and a more open, arcaded front on the side facing the nunnery hall. Our task is now to excavate and understand this amazing discovery.

Preston Boyles

Share this!