Fresh from the lab: Pottery


Extract from Four Elements: Fire, 1570, by Joachim Beuckelaer

To accidentally smash a piece of crockery in your kitchen is frustrating, but finding a piece that once held a medieval stew? That, as anyone who’s ever dug up a bit of old pot will tell you, is actually pretty exciting.

This summer, DigVentures found hundreds of pottery sherds in all shapes and sizes at the medieval site of Leiston Abbey in coastal Suffolk. But what can we learn from them, and how? We sent them all off to Time Team’s pottery expert Paul Blinkhorn to find out. In our first report fresh from the lab, Paul tells us why these broken fragments are so much more than a load of old crock…

Pottery is always extremely useful; even the most mundane piece broken and discarded without a thought by the person who used it can help archaeologists date and identify the features in which they are found. The pottery from Leiston abbey ranges in date from the Middle Saxon period (Ipswich Ware from around AD 720-850), through medieval to miscellaneous sherds of 19th and 20th century wares.

Medieval pottery

First off, the Middle Saxon pottery clearly predates the life of the abbey – these sherds were very worn and rounded, suggesting they were residual and had been deposited and redeposited many times. By comparison, the medieval pottery was in pretty good nick. What’s more, it looks like a lot of it was imported from Europe, particularly from the Low Countries (such as Belgium and the Netherlands) and Germany.

These wares can tell us about the trade routes out of Europe, the wealth of religious sites such as Leiston Abbey and  can also help us think about the kinds of foods that would have been eaten by those living at the abbey.

Interestingly, more than half of the pottery came from one single trench (trench 9) located round the back of the abbey and were typical of the kinds used as kitchen vessels and food containers, helping to support the theory we had on site that this area was the abbey’s kitchen midden.

Trade and wealth

beuckelaer-four-elements-fire-NG6588-fm-grapenThe Essex port of Colchester is not far from Leiston Abbey and the origins of the different pottery recovered at Leiston Abbey – countries such as Germany and Belgium – tie in very closely to the documentary evidence of the pots going through the port of Colchester in the late 14th Century.

Flemish ships were regularly calling at the Suffolk port of Colchester by the 1340s and, because there was so much pottery arriving from the Low Countries, it apparently became liable for taxation. Low Countries Redwares, such as we have found at Leiston Abbey, are often found in ports and large towns such as Kings Lynn, Norwich and London.

The fact that these wares were used at Leiston Abbey seems to show the wealth and high status of the Abbey – there was direct trading with foreign merchants in a way that wouldn’t have happened for the small towns and villages surrounding it.

Using art to assist interpretation

The Four Elements: Fire, was painted in 1570 by Flemish artist Joachim Beuckelaer. It depicts meat and poultry beingScreen Shot 2014-11-06 at 08.44.35 prepared in the kitchen of a wealthy Flemish household.

Many of the Low Countries wares from Leiston Abbery are strikingly similar to the various pots seen in this painting, such as a number of grapen and the slipware milk pan, visible in the painting, which help us to build up a stronger picture of what the kitchens at Leiston Abbey may have been like.

So, from our first look at Leiston’s pottery, we’ve managed not only to identify the location of the kitchen midden, but to find out that the abbey was engaged in the continental trade coming in through the port of Colchester, that it was fairly wealthy and even to gain some indication of the kinds of meals that were being prepared.

Beukelaer’s painting is on display in The National Gallery in London. Click here to see the full picture and to find out what kinds of food would have been cooked in those vessels. If you want to have a look at the excavation records from the two seasons now, head over to the Leiston Abbey Digital Dig Team website to see what we found.

The finds from the last two seasons at Leiston Abbey have been sent off for specialist examination. This is the first in a series of blogs that will summarise their findings and is an extract based on the pottery report we received from Paul Blinkhorn. The full report will be published soon!

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Written by Kezia Evans

Kezia’s parents knew that she would be an archaeologist when they found her digging for ‘old things’ in the garden with a teaspoon at the age of six. She is now a fully-grown, tea-drinking museum-worker who in her spare time enjoys visiting... more museums!

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