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.