Friday, 16 June 2017

The End of an Excavation

The Wests’ Garage excavation has come to an end and it’s time to say farewell for now! It really has been an exciting site to be involved in. We began our excavation with a major focus on discovering the relationship of this site to the medieval priory and how the settlement of Barnwell developed into the wider city of Cambridge.

 While we found obvious evidence of post-medieval occupation, including brick and chalk walled buildings and wells which demonstrate the occupation of the area, there was less evidence of medieval occupation. Previously excavated sites across Newmarket Road had demonstrated many more signs of medieval occupation associated with the village of Barnwell, including boundary ditches and evidence of small scale farming etc. The minimal evidence we have found for the period may suggest our excavation area is located on south-eastern edge of the priory lands, possibly bounded by medieval versions of Newmarket Road and River Lane. The priory lands would have been for exclusive use of the priory occupants during medieval period which could account for the lack of medieval evidence on our site. It is likely the type of use for the this part of the priory land would have had limited archaeological impact on the ground, possibly used for agriculture or grazing of livestock, leaving little evidence for us to find.    

What we do know, is that this area was occupied in the early 19th century and possibly earlier, which we will learn through in depth analysis of our finds. With people drawn here by the popular Stourbridge Fair and the expansion of the city into new areas from light industry and housing, the site has altered greatly from the medieval period to the modern day. And I’m sure it will continue to be altered in the future, as Cambridge continues to evolve.

Throughout the almost three months of excavation on Wests’ Garage we have learnt a lot about the way of life in this area of post-medieval Cambridge. As we study the records we have made, clean and assess the finds recovered we will continue to learn about the site and development greater understanding of the site and its immediate setting.

Many thanks to Robby, Gary, Antonio, Stuart, Davis, Julie, Ana, Josh, Jon, Dave, Judyte, Tom, Laura, Hannah, Hanna, Ryszard, Richard, Sote, Benjamin, Ergia, Carina, Jaime, Laura, Tom, Britny and everyone in the office for everything you have put into and have gotten out of this excavation. See you all on the next one!

That’s me signing off - thanks for reading!

- Britny at PCA

As the site director, I would like to extend my thanks to the excavation team listed above, with a special thank you to Britny for writing this informative and interesting blog. I would also like to thank the many partners involved in the project making the excavation a success, CgMs, Watkins and Jones and Andy Thomas of the Cambridge County Council.

- Jonathan House

Friday, 9 June 2017

Living with Water

Water has always been a focal point of our lives. Watering holes can be places of peaceful gatherings for both animals and humans and have even become a place of gossip in the modern office. Wells throughout history have been incorporated into folklore as powerful ‘wishing wells’ or renowned for the special healing properties in the water, and even, in some cases, places of holy pilgrimage and prayer. While I cannot tell you for certain if any of the folklore tales are without doubt, I still throw a penny in every ‘wishing well’ I pass as I’m sure many of you have done once or twice in your life and it can be said that water is key for our survival. Saying that, it isn’t surprising that our excavation uncovered multiple water wells used over different periods of occupation.

According to the 1888 Ordnance Survey of the area, there were three water pumps in the vicinity of our excavation. These water pumps would have been contemporary with the buildings we have been excavating and most likely the final placement of water wells before piping water directly into the buildings became common practice.

Well capped with bricks
We have uncovered over ten wells (so far). Some of these have been brick-lined, with and without mortar, clunch (chalk)-lined, and even unlined (one with a wooden edging near to the base). Some of the wells had been capped with bricks then covered in clay, while others were simply backfilled with modern rubble to build on top of them. Each well varied in depth between about 4 and 6 metres deep (although some we could not excavate to the bottom) and a few had water remaining. The variation in structure of the wells could demonstrate an alteration over time, differing skills of the well digger, or simply availability of materials to line the wells.

Bricks have been a very popular well lining material throughout history. The well digger would have begun by excavating a shaft for the well until a supporting wall was needed, then a wooden rim would be placed at the base and bricks laid on the rim lengthwise, end-to-end until the circle was complete with no mortar between the brick joints. The second course of bricks would then be laid above with joints offset, and so on until the brick courses reached near the surface. The well would then continue to be dug until water began to seep through the porous brick sides of the well. The brick well without mortar was used to allow water to seep through the sides of the well and collect in the base, while more impervious well linings (such as the mortared brick wells) would have been used when water seeped through a cavity or pipe in the base of the well.

Brick-lined well retaining water
A well even turned up underneath the brick floor of a post-medieval basement! The well had been filled with rubble and a small brick drain built into the top where multiple marbles were found, possibly a child’s long-lost game? The brick floor would have been built over the well promptly after it was filled, as over time the floor began to slump downwards over the well as the fill was compressed.

With with wood surviving in backfill

Just like this well, all had been forgotten about and made to be obsolete as they continued to be built and re-built on top of over the years. What these wells demonstrate is the continued growth and alteration of this area of Cambridge as it continued to become more populated as central Cambridge expanded. While the 1888 Ordnance Survey shows three water pumps we have found many more that would have been obsolete by the time this survey was completed.

Keep checking back as we continue to #DigDeeper


Friday, 5 May 2017

Tobacco and Cure-Alls: A Post-Medieval Way of Life?

Smoking tobacco has been a popular past-time for people around the world for centuries. Multiple materials and forms have been used, but in Britain, since the 16th century, clay has been the tobacco pipe material of choice and continues to be produced to this day. The earlier pipes were very small with almost horizontal bowls, but as production increased and clay became more readily available, pipe stems became longer and consequently, bowls became bigger.

These clay pipes have been abundant at the West's Garage site, most of them adhering to the typical 'Georgian' shape, with a larger sloping bowl with foot spur, probably dating back to the mid-18th century, although expert opinion is currently awaited. Most commonly found were pieces of the pipe stem around five centimetres long, which is to be expected not only because a long, thing stem is less likely to have survived in tact but also because of the prevalence of clay pipes in England's history.

Clay pipes circa the 17th-19th centuries have been found in abundance in Southern English tidal rivers, sometimes bearing the name of an inn. The longest stemmed pipes, nicknamed 'churchwardens', were re-used by inn-goers who broke the tips off and discarded them into the river for the sake of hygiene. Jonathan House, Site Director at West's Garage, has also said that these long-stemmed pipes would sometimes get blocked and smokers would simply break off the tips to allow further use.

While West's Garage is not a river site, presumably the post-medieval townsfolk were doing just that; having some evening pipe tobacco in their own homes and discarding the broken clay pipe tips out their windows. One of the stem pieces also had an impressed mark reading 'Balls Camb', which could be a possible makers' mark.

Along with the abundance of clay pipes, many other post-medieval material evidence has been uncovered, such as post-medieval pottery sherds and bottles. One particularly interesting example is a small, complete green glass bottle that reads 'True Daffy Elixir' on one side and 'Dicey & Co. ... London' on the other.

Daffy's Elixir was one of the most popular and widely advertised medicines in 18th century Britain. One recipe for this elixir stated ingredients such as aniseed, brandy, cochineal, elecampane, fennel seed, jalap, manna, parsley seed, raisin, rhubarb, saffron, senna, and Spanish liquorice. While it was reputed to be a cure-all, modern analysis has shown it to be a laxative, made mostly from alcohol!

While the elixir was reputed to have been created by the clergyman, Thomas Daffy of Leicestershire in 1647, William and Cluer Dive & Co. claimed manufacturer's rights in the 18th century, which is most likely when our bottle came about, after which the elixir even travelled over to America it was so popular.

We have also recently uncovered a piece of green-glazed ceramic roof tile. During medieval times, a mixture of lead and copper was used to create this lovely green glaze which almost certainly places this tile from the nearby medieval priory. Possibly this tile was re-used just as the priory's limestone blocks were reused for post-medieval wall footings. Given that it was not discovered as part of a whole, it clearly demonstrates how pieces of our past can continue to live on through history.

Even when multiple stages of development have taken place and wiped out much of the past, as archaeologists, we can uncover pieces of our history that tell a story and shed greater light on a past that we may know little about. This roof tile tells us once more that pieces of the medieval priory lived on in post-medieval times, even after the priory itself had been destroyed. As for the tobacco pipes and elixir bottle, well they can tell even more stories about daily life in an expanding, industry-heavy area of Cambridge.

Check back next week as PCA continues to #DigDeeper.
A Brief History of Tobacco Pipes & Pipe Collecting. World Collector’s Net.

Friday, 28 April 2017

Building Upon the Stones of Our Past

How Post-Medieval Cantabrigians Used Priory Stones to Build Their Homes

The Barnwell Priory existed as a monastery just north-west of our excavation site until 1538 when it was destroyed during the Dissolution of the monasteries. After that time the priory buildings were left in ruins as the city of Cambridge expanded around it.

Our excavation of the post-medieval buildings on site uncovered the use of limestone, chalk, and sandstone blocks as footings for the brick walls of these buildings. While chalk probably dominates our finds, the next numerous is Barnack limestone.  

These limestone blocks were carved very specifically to be used for building something other than post-medieval footings. Some were shaped to have large smooth, curved edges, while multiple others have notches or holes carved into their sides which would have allowed them to fit together in very specific ways. The stones were not re-shaped to fit within the post-medieval walls, but more used for their size (they are extremely heavy!), and manoeuvred into place as strong footings to build on top of. These blocks are most likely the remnants of medieval Priory buildings that were destroyed during the Dissolution, and then re-purposed into post-medieval buildings. Barnack limestone was quarried in central England, near Barnack. This type of limestone was used extensively for English buildings throughout the ages; many of the oldest colleges in Cambridge were built with Barnack limestone. However, the quarry was exhausted by the 16th Century. This can tell us that any buildings that were using Barnack limestone were built before the exhaustion of the quarry.
While we know the post-medieval buildings on site were standing as of 1888, they would have been built some time before that, taking full advantage of the local stone left from the Priory.
It looks like recycling was a common occurrence in post-medieval Cambridge!
We’ll keep you updated on new discoveries each week, so make sure to check back as we #DigDeeper
2016. Barnack Limestone. Museum of Fine Arts. Boston.

Thursday, 20 April 2017

An Expanding City: Post-Medieval Living on the Outskirts of Cambridge

Stourbridge Common, just a ten minute walk from the West’s Garage site, was home to one of the largest fairs in England. The Stourbridge Fair began in 1211 as a small fundraising event for the Leper Chapel of the Abbey, and thus becoming one of the most renowned medieval hubs of entertainment and trade. Throughout the month of September, the annual fair would bring travellers, tradesmen, and even nobility to buy and sell wares and foods of all types. By the 18th Century, the fair was in decline as urban housing was overtaking the area, and set storefronts became the more modern way of buying and selling goods, with the final fair taking place in 1933 – a single ice cream stand.

The Stourbridge Fair helped to bring prosperity to the city of Cambridge for 800 years, in part aiding in the overcrowding of Central Cambridge.  As the city became more overpopulated, areas were enclosed, railways were built and development expanded outward. The area of Newmarket Road and River Lane was dominated by the Town Gaslight Company, and the Cambridge Corporation sewage pumping station, the chimney of which you can still see soaring high above the River Cam. The surrounding area was generally focused upon industry, both small local smithies and large brickworks companies, with domestic workers’ housing intermingled between the industrial complexes.

Our excavation site rests on the corner of Newmarket Road and River Lane. One of the earliest Ordnance Surveys we have of the area is the 1888 Town Plan. This plan seems to illustrate a row of small houses along River Lane with an entrance to a central courtyard and another collection of houses along Newmarket Road with an entrance off Newmarket Road into an internal courtyard with a waterpump. The Abbey School and its play grounds resided along the north-western edge of the site. The area farther north-west of the site is the remaining Priory Land. This site remained widely unchanged until 1964 when the last of the buildings were demolished to make way for a car park and expansion of West’s Garage.
We have uncovered portions of multiple post-medieval brick walls, and remains of outbuildings that match up well with the 1888 Ordnance survey map. One fairly well-preserved example is the complete basement of a residence along Newmarket Road. This basement was 3.8meters by 3.8meters with brick walls, parts of which were still covered in plaster where multiple paint colours could be seen, and a fully in-tact brick floor. There were two sets of brick stairs, clearly showing a re-model of the cellar; the first set of stairs seemed to lead into the cellar from the outside of the building, but these had been bricked off for the new set of stairs to be built inside the cellar against the north-western wall, curving up to the now non-existent ground floor. Both sets of stairs had wooden beams set across every other row of bricks that were keyed into the adjoining walls. Along the north-eastern wall there was also a set of inner brick forms that could have been a possible oven; a more modern boiler was uncovered during excavation that could possibly have been an updated heating system for the house.

While 14.5 square meters may not seem like a lot of living space in our modern age, this house was the common size in post-medieval England; most likely being two stories tall. We can see on the 1888 Town Plan that the majority of the housing in the immediate vicinity was of similar size, and each building may have even housed more than one family at a time, which was a common occurrence during the post-medieval period.
We’ll keep you updated on new discoveries each week, so make sure to check back as we #DigDeeper.

2014. Wests Garage Site-Student Housing; Heritage Statement. Beacon Planning.
2017. The 800-year-old story of Stourbridge Fair. University of Cambridge.

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Who lived in Medieval Cambridge?

The first look at a new PCA excavation in Cambridge

Central Cambridge has been a site of human occupation for centuries, if not longer, with evidence of people living in Cambridge from the Palaeolithic through to the modern day.
Pre-Construct Archaeology is beginning excavations in Cambridge, at the former West’s Garage on Newmarket Road, to continue filling in the blanks of our past.

We will be excavating near to Barnwell Priory, which was founded in AD 1092 by Picot, High Sheriff of Cambridgeshire, and originally based in a church dedicated to St Giles located near Castle Hill.  It moved to Chesterton in AD 1112 and remained in use as a monastery until 1538, when it was destroyed during the Dissolution of the monasteries.  Surviving structural remains can be seen at a few locations near the site, including the Cellarer’s Chequer and the Church of St Andrew the Less.
During the trial trench evaluation, we found fantastic evidence of medieval occupation on the site including multiple wells, formed from clunch and brick.  Clunch is a type of hard chalk that was quarried locally and used as a building material in this part of Cambridgeshire in medieval times; very successful as interior building decoration, but not the greatest for outdoor building! Clunch tends to weather quickly, not standing up to the elements very well. One of the wells contained 19th-century pottery and roof slate/tiles within it, demonstrating the continued use of this area of Cambridge for housing throughout the centuries.

Further updates on the excavations will be posted over the coming weeks, so keep checking to see what other amazing finds we unearth as PCA continues to #DigDeeper.

Thursday, 9 February 2017

Volunteers Make the World Go Round

Anyone who has studied or worked in archaeology will be well aware of the importance of volunteering. Whether you've trained and/or supervised a team or been a volunteer yourself, you'll be very familiar with what an invaluable asset good volunteers can be to an archaeological firm. The prevalence of residential and commercial development sites across the UK combined with the wealth of archaeological material recovered during trial trenching, excavation, and other works can easily lead to a seemingly insurmountable backlog of finds just waiting to be processed. Enter, the volunteer!

Last week, we met up with a few PCA volunteers who have been working in our Finds Department, sorting, cleaning, and storing finds from a number of our sites in London. Jane Smith, who has a background in geography and has always been very interested in history, heard about the volunteer opportunities in PCA South's offices via the Brockley Society newsletter and decided to get involved in December 2016. After a few times working in finds, she brought along her friend, Nick Dudman, who has since come and volunteered for us twice.

Jane & Nick delicately cleaning finds

We asked what their favourite part about volunteering and working with these archaeological finds was. The answer? Well, to every archaeologist's delight, what interests Jane and Nick the most is context. Knowing when and where a particular find came from, they agree, is as important as the artefact itself. This enthusiasm for the past was evident as Nick rifled through a tray of finds to highlight a piece of Roman plaster from our Brandon House site in Southwark, as it still had a bit of black paint on it. They have primarily been focusing their efforts on delicately cleaning artefacts such as this, which can be painstaking work!

Proving that volunteering often runs in the family, John and his son form another one of PCA's dynamic duos. Like his father, Tom is interested in history and told us that he really enjoys washing pottery fragments. His favourite type of finds are clay pipes, which like cigarettes today, were disposable and often thrown into the Thames, which explains their abundance on many of our sites.

John and son holding clay pipes

Venturing further north, we also got in touch with some more enthusiastic volunteers at PCA's office in Durham. SWAAG, which stands for the Swaledale and Arkengarthdale Archaeology Group, have a good relationship with PCA and often come in to help out and learn from our specialist staff. PCA's Roman Pottery Specialist, Eniko Hudak, recently ran a pot washing session to thank the volunteers for all of their hard work. David Brooks, a retired member of SWAAG, has been volunteering with PCA for three years and said, "I enjoy finds handling as the atmosphere is always enjoyable and friendly. People are always ready to explain the finds.".

If you are interested in volunteering, please contact our volunteer coordinator, Christina Reade, by emailing

Friday, 27 January 2017

Elephants, Tigers, and Teeth! Oh My!

London has a longstanding reputation as being a city of global trade. From the Romans to the present-day, shipments of exotic goods have been making their way to this historic city from the Mediterranean, Asia, or even further afield. One site that illustrates this global outlook is Tobacco Dock, a Grade I listed warehouse located adjacent to London Docks in East London. Whilst there were a number of interesting finds on site, today we're going to be focusing on faunal remains and rather unusually a find from an undated deposit.

Fig. 1: Elephant tooth

Fig. 2: Elephant tooth

Generally speaking, bones from undated deposits are usually ignored or at best, briefly mentioned in animal bone assessment reports. This site, however, provided a rather unusual element from the topmost machined levels - an elephant tooth. PCA's animal bone specialist, Kevin Rielly, stated that 'this is clearly from an Indian rather than an African elephant, as noted by the compressed rather than diamond shape of the lamella'. Now, given the site and surrounding community's close connection with foreign travel and trade, it isn't exactly surprising to find the remains of such an exotic animal. The question is, how did it get here in the first place?

Well, there are a number of possible explanations. Perhaps it was a keepsake brought back as a souvenir from travels further afield or even a traded item. The latter stipulation could be expanded with the possibility that this item may in fact represent the remains of an imported elephant, as part of the well-known 19th century trade in exotic animals supplying various zoological collections. This would have included the zoological gardens in Regents Park, which was founded in 1829 and opened its doors to the public in 1847, charging the princely sum of 1 shilling admission. 

Fig. 3: Shipping Wild Animals in the London Docks
The Illustrated London News, 1864

Fig. 4: Bronze statue of boy and tiger

Chief amongst the companies profiting from this trade was Jamrach's Animal Emporium set up by German businessman, Charles Jamrach, operating in the East End of London in the latter part of the 19th century and followed by his son up to the outbreak of the First World War. Their premises, close to the docks and also within a short distance of the Tobacco Dock excavations, included offices and menageries in St Georges Street East (formerly known as Ratcliffe Highway) and Betts Street, as well as a warehouse in Old Gravel Lane. The arrival at the London docks of such exotic animals is shown in Figure 3, depicting a disembarking elephant as shown in the pages of an 1864 edition of the Illustrated London News. Today, a 7 ft tall bronze statue of a boy standing in front of a tiger commemorates the incident where a Bengal tiger, having escaped from its cage upon delivery, 'trotted out.... down the main street' when a curious eight year old boy, having never seen such a large cat before, reached out to stroke it.

Fig. 5: Jamrach tackling the tiger
The Strand Magazine, 1891
'A playful tap of the great soft paw at once knocked the child upon his face, stunned ; and, picking him up by the loose part of the jacket, the animal was proceeding up the next turning, when Mr. Jamrach, who had just discovered the escape, came running up. Empty-handed as he was, he sprang at the tiger’s neck from behind, and, grasping the throat with both hands, drove his thumbs into the soft place behind the jaw... at his scientific grasp the tiger, half choked, let his captive fall, when a couple of heavy blows across the eyes from a crowbar thrust into the naturalist’s hands by an attendant thoroughly cowed the great beast, who turned tail and meekly trotted back straight into the lair prepared for him, the door of which stood open for his reception. The little boy was without a scratch...'

Whilst neither the tooth nor its story are quite as dramatic as the above, they offer a unique snapshot into 19th century London and its connection to the wider world.

Join us next time as PCA continues to #DigDeeper.

Hahn, D, 2004 The Tower Menagerie, Penguin: New York
Larsson, E, 2015 Charles Jamrach’s Exotic Menagerie and the Victorian Wild Animal
The Strand Magazine, 1891
London Illustrated News

Friday, 13 January 2017

Here, Kitty Kitty: Ritual Mummification in Britain

The last thing one expects to find - or in this instance, have fall on their face - whilst soft-stripping a ceiling is a dusty, old, mummified cat. But that's exactly what happened to one of the demolition crew members at PCA's site on Staines High Street, a row of early-19th century shops. So, what was a possibly 200 year-old cat doing in the ceiling of a shop or floorboards of the house above? Well, we did a bit of digging (pun intended!) and the reasons are more shocking than you might think.

Dried cat, in-situ
Feline mummification is a well-known practice in ancient Egyptian culture. The reverence and respect with which cats were treated is evident by their significant presence in artwork and writing, to say nothing of how they were treated in death whether buried alongside their owners as a beloved pet or sacrificed as part of a religious offering. Nowadays, cats are mostly known as the former, being the second most popular pet in the country after their canine counterparts. However, in the past, they were also subjected to veneration of one kind or another and used in superstitious practices.

Up until the late-18th century, in Britain and northern Europe, it was customary to hide dried or mummified cats within the walls of one's home to ward off evil spirits and bring good luck to the inhabitants. Concealing objects to serve as magical charms is not a new practice in these Isles, with dried chickens and shoes being another commonly found item in chimneys, under floors, and even in roof spaces.

Whilst there are many examples of dried cats in the UK, most of them date up to the 18th century, however this doesn't mean the practice did not continue beyond this. As the building it was found in dates to the 1860s at the earliest, this would make it one of the most recent cases of ritualistic concealment on record.

Back at PCA's London office for closer inspection

Given the level of preservation, we know for sure it was a male. Based on our research and a thorough examination of the remains by PCA's Animal Bone Specialist, Kevin Rielly, it is unlikely that he simply got trapped underneath the floorboards. Aside from the fact that the owners would have had to put up with at least a week of howling and scratching before the poor animal died, it is likely that he would be in the foetal position had he starved to death. The visibility of the bones and ligaments as well as the lack of fur is the result of decades (if not centuries) of desiccation and decay, which has unfortunately taken away any evidence concerning his state of health at the time. A great amount of detail, however, such as the rolls of its skin and paw pads, are still well preserved and clearly visible.

Close up of the face, with whiskers still intact
Its positioning then, not consistent with death by starvation, is of particular interest, which brings us to another theory of why it might have been placed there. Cats are known for catching vermin and this particularly useful role in life was, in some cases, also expected of them in death. Dead cats, especially those displaying the running or attacking positions as though on the hunt, were also concealed in buildings in the hope that they would ward off vermin. The shop in which it was found was originally a fishmongers and poulterers, so it would make sense if the owners subscribed to this belief and deposited the deceased cat in order to protect their goods.

Perhaps it is a combination of the two and these felines were intended as deterrents not just for earthly rodents, but also spiritual vermin, at the hands of witchcraft. Charms may appear less macabre now, with horseshoes replacing desiccated animals, but the desire to attract good luck and repel evil is ever-present.

Ultimately, this fascinating find has brought on more questions than answers. Why was it put there? Where did it come from? Was it already dead or deliberately killed and if so, who killed it?

Join us next time as PCA continues to #DigDeeper

The Archaeology of Ritual and Magic
Physical Evidence for Ritual Acts, Sorcery and Witchcraft in Christian Britain