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