A murky medieval mystery
or – Are you sure you want to be an Archaeologist?
read on . . .
In the Spring of 1997 archaeologists were digging in Beer Cart Lane in central Canterbury. They were hoping to find remains of the town’s main Roman temple because they knew it was somewhere in this area… As they dug down they came across the floor of a Medieval building. It was made of chalk. Underneath this layer they found a big rectangular pit packed full with dark, solid soil. They kept digging down . . .
The site was quite near the River Stour and this far down the earth was waterlogged. This meant that any ancient organic things which had become buried in the earth had a good chance of survival. At first glance, apart from a few sherds of pottery, they couldn’t see any obvious finds amongst the soil. Then they found a piece of textile, a kind of linen used by people in the 11th or 12th centuries. They kept digging down . . .
At the bottom they found more of the same kind of pottery, this time half of a cooking pot They identified it as a type that was made at Tyler Hill (just outside the town) and used by Canterbury people in Norman times. But what was the pit used for? Were there any other hidden clues? Then Enid entered the story . . .
The pit was not far from the remains of an old building and Enid had her suspicions. Enid is an Environmental Archaeologist. She takes samples of soil from an excavation and carefully looks through them for small pieces of evidence which may otherwise be missed.
She searches for evidence of ancient plant and animal life. From fragments of bone, shell, fruit stones and seeds, grains, pollen and bugs found on an archaeological site Enid can build up a picture of the natural world or ‘environment’ as it was hundreds or thousands of years ago. She can discover what crops were cultivated and what animals were farmed, the kinds of fruit and veg people ate and the plants they used for medicines. Some plants and animals need to live in certain temperatures so the types that are found will give her an idea what the climate would have been like in past times. She may also find parasites which live in the human body and this can tell us about people’s health, living conditions and personal hygiene.
So . . . what does Enid think this deep, damp pit was used for?
Here are some clues. See if you can work it out.
“This is what I found in the pit. The biggest were the plum stones!”
Small fish bones, mainly herring and eel (lots of chewed fragments) • Elderberry seeds • Plum stones (lots and different types) • Grape pips • Damson stones (lots) • Wild strawberry seeds • Sloe stones • Pollen • Bullace stones (type of damson) • Apple or pear pips (difficult to tell apart) • Crab apple pips • Weed seeds (various) • Beans and peas (very few) • Woodlice • Blackberry seeds • Eggs of intestinal worms • Dill, opium poppy, black mustard (small amounts) • Hazelnut shell • Wheat, barley and oat grains (very few) • Hawthorn seeds • Cherry stones • Cereal bran (MASSES! Looks like fine wholemeal flour) • Eggshell membrane • Lice • Fleas • Celery, cabbage, leek, onion (minute pieces, small amounts) • Beetles (including ones which infest peas and beans) • Wood fragments (a few).
“I was really lucky to find so much organic material. Most of it consisted of wild and cultivated fruits (79% of the sample) and 53% of these were plums. Kent has long been known as the ‘Garden of England’. Its climate is generally warm and is good for growing fruit. I also found quite a lot of vole and mouse bones and a few frog bones. These small creatures probably died by accidentally falling into the pit . . . ”
“I think I can safely say what the pit wasn’t used for. There is no skeleton, so it’s not a grave. If it was someone’s rubbish pit, we would have found lots of different broken pottery, probably big animal bones from people’s meals, bits of broken tools and things like that. But we didn’t, so it isn’t . . . ”
“We can learn a lot about ‘Medieval Meals’ that people ate both from archaeological remains and documentary evidence (published recipes). We know that bread was a staple food for both rich and poor. One of the cheaper varieties was ‘bran’ bread.”
This 12th century pit was found in York. It was waterlogged and a wooden plank had been preserved. It originally spanned the pit and had a central hole. Maybe people dropped or passed something through the hole… At Winchester a similar pit was found inside the ruins of a Medieval house. Medieval documents say that the house belonged to someone named John de Tyetyng.
“Various meats were available to everyone but fish was a very important part of the diet. For most of the Medieval period the Roman Catholic religion (to which everyone belonged) forbade the eating of meat on Fridays, Saturdays and Wednesdays. On other religious days you coudn’t eat dairy foods. So for about half the days of the year people ate fish. Ordinary people ate mostly salted or pickled herring.
Medieval people preferred to cook their fruit and make pies, flans and puddings because they thought raw fruit brought on fevers and diarrhoea. Nevertheless, they did eat some uncooked, like wild cherries, plums and damsons.”
Have you decided what the pit was used for?
All types of Evidence
This kind of evidence gives us a certain picture of the lives of our ancestors and the environment in which they lived. When we put this together with other pieces of the historical “jigsaw” like remains of buildings and artefacts, we can build a more complete picture of what happened in the past.
Thinking like an archaeologist
At which historical period was the pit being used? What evidence is there to help me find out?
The pit was very wet. I know this can help preserve organic material. Perhaps I can find out how.
What do all these food remains tell me about people’s diet in the past?
Do archaeologists find anything else that tells us what people ate?
Do the contents of the pit tell us anything about people’ s general health and personal hygiene?
I know a lot of fruit is grown in Kent these days so the weather must be suitable. What was it like eight or nine hundred years ago?
I’ve seen Enid sorting through a pile of soil with a pair of tweezers. But how does she find tiny fleas and lice?!