St James, Dover
Client: Bond City Limited
Russell Street Dig: News bulletin 1: 12th November, 2015
Well, here we are on our new site, not 100 yards from the Woolcomber Street dig where we spent the summer. The new dig is just off Russell Street on the site of the former P&O Ferries office. Over the past two weeks we have completed the heavy machine work, clearing away many tons of modern overburden to reveal the archaeology. Already exposed is a line of cellars, filled in during the 1950s. These belonged to terraced houses, probably dating from about 1800, that were destroyed by enemy action during the Second World War. Elsewhere, some interesting medieval remains are just showing.
Yesterday was a bit hectic as we moved all our site huts over from the Woolcomber Street site to the new one. Space is rather more limited here so we spent quite a time trying to work out how to get everything in and still be able to get access all round (scaled-down, this could make a very interesting new board-game). Through the good offices of John Ryeland of George Hammond PLC, we have been able to get power and water laid on to the site which should be of tremendous benefit over the coming winter weeks when we need to be thawed out with hot tea and coffee. Thanks John.
In a week or so, we should be able to open up a small viewing area where the public can pop in and see how we are getting on. Having outlined my plans for the new access door to Terry, one of our local volunteers and a highly skilled craftsman, it was suggested that perhaps he might be able to produce something a little elaborate, with high-tech features such as moving hinges and a sliding bolt, but I am still going to be allowed to dig the post-holes required. So if you are passing by, do be on the lookout for the new green door.
Russell Street Dig: News bulletin 2: 7th December, 2015
We are now settled into our new site off Russell Street and have spent the last few weeks getting to grips with exactly what we have got on the site. Typically for this part of Dover, it is not straightforward: in one area, the top of stratified deposits begins at a depth of no more than a foot below present ground surface; elsewhere modern foundations have removed everything down to at least 8 feet.
Running along the north-western side of the excavation, we have relocated a lost section of St James’s Street, closed and built across in the post-War years. Along its south-eastern side is a line of early nineteenth-century cellars relating to houses that stood here until they were damaged by enemy action during the 1940s. Further south, a large stone-lined cellar looks to be much earlier – medieval, perhaps fourteenth or fifteenth century. This seems to have continued in use until at least the late nineteenth century and probably into the twentieth. It shows evidence of various alterations and additions, and preliminary excavation suggests that a sequence of early floors is preserved below the final one, presently exposed.
Terry has now finished the door to the new public viewing area – and what a splendid thing it is, gliding open and closed on the finest Homebase hinges. Unfortunately, we are not quite ready for visitors yet, as we still need to hire in some fencing to create the viewing area. We are working on it!
The most important event this week will be the grand diggers’ Christmas dinner, to be held after work at the White Horse public house, regularly used by the excavation team, and only 150 yards across the road. I am not expecting to have to make any speeches but I am expecting everyone back on site at 8.00 am sharp the following morning – we shall see…
Russell Street Dig: News bulletin 3: 21st January, 2016
It has been a long while since last I gave an update on progress – what with Christmas, New Year, too many days of wet weather and the fact the we must be finished on site by the end of February, I have been otherwise engaged. We had Meridian TV on site earlier in the week and they did us a good piece about the war-damaged cellars that we have uncovered, interleaving film of the dig with original wartime footage of the devastated town.
I have actually managed to get out digging during the last few weeks – in my own little trench. I rarely get the chance to do much in the ground these days, so naturally I picked myself an interesting job. What I have been doing is examining the early line of St James’s Street. The course of this historic street runs along one edge of our site and we have been able to identify a length of its tarmac metalling and kerb line, just below the modern surface. But a full two metres below this final road lie successive layers of earlier road surfacings, and pottery recovered from these levels suggests that the street was first laid out sometime during the Norman period, perhaps around AD 1100.
While I have been busy working on St James’s Street other members of the team have been looking at the line of Clarence Street, another lost road running roughly parallel to St James’s. Here the story seems to be much the same – a thick accumulation of successive road surfaces, the earliest of which again seem to be of medieval date. We still have to reach the primary road here so it will be interesting to see if this also turns out to be Norman in date.
In the area between the roads the rest of the team have been working on the buildings that once fronted onto these two early streets. It is clear that there had been intense occupation here throughout the centuries, with building after building being crammed into the available space, frequently following earlier established property boundaries and butting up to pre-existing structures.
As we move into the later stages of the excavation, we are expecting to refine our understanding of just how this part of old Dover developed. In some ways, it seems similar to the nearby Woolcomber Street sites but in other ways, it is quite different.
Russell Street Dig: News bulletin 4: 14th February, 2016
On even the best-managed sites there always seems to be one area that lags behind the rest of the dig eventually becoming a scruffy little corner ignored by everyone. Such was the case with the north corner of Cellar 10 – our big medieval building. Things started off well enough a few days before New Year when we began clearing away modern soil and rubble to reveal the walls of the structure. These had been damaged by post-War building work but enough seemed to remain to allow us to make a complete plan of the medieval structure. We got rained off one day, leaving the job half done, but with perhaps no more than a couple of hours needed to finish things. Other jobs intervened and we only managed to get back into this area last week.
One of our new diggers was given the straightforward task of cleaning the area and getting it ready for planning and recording – it should have been done in a morning, but things started to take an unexpected turn almost immediately. First, a few large, mortared stones, set at about 45 degrees, appeared in a position where no cellar wall was expected. These were quickly followed by more stones, clearly undisturbed medieval work, but again positioned where nothing had been anticipated. More digging eventually showed what we were looking at – a vertical, stone-lined shaft built into the corner of the cellar. Moreover, this had originally been provided with a vaulted stone roof. The whole thing was clearly an integral part of the cellar’s construction and it was soon apparent that we had discovered a garderobe shaft – that’s a medieval toilet. Stone-lined shafts such as this, built into the main structure, tend to be found in important houses.
The ‘heavy gang’ moved in over the next two weekends and cleared a much bigger area around the shaft so that more of the detail could be seen. It now seems that the shaft has several separate elements, including an arched access doorway in its north-west wall. Much of the filling of the shaft was disturbed during the post-War building work but we are hopeful that some original, undisturbed medieval deposits survive at the base. There are several more days work needed before we find out.
Russell Street Dig: News bulletin 5: 26th February, 2016
We have now been digging in Dover for well over 200 days, surviving the worst of the winter weather. The end is in sight, with only one week left. Everyone is working frantically to make sure everything is fully recorded before we pull out – there is nothing worse than sitting down to write a report only to find that someone forgot to record some important detail or other. With thousands of individual context records to check, keeping track of it all is no small job. Indeed, we have an on-site ‘Records Officer’ – Julie – who checks the field records as they come in. She is always helpful and very nice, until such time as you are called into the office to explain why information is missing from your recording sheet! Fortunately, I have had good marks for most of my records, certain other diggers have not fared so well.
We are still working on the garderobe shaft (medieval toilet) discovered in the north corner of Cellar 10. It seems to be quite deep and there is more rubbish to come out, but already we have recovered some very interesting seventeenth-century pottery. This must be connected with the final infilling of the shaft and we are hoping for some earlier material lower down.
At several points on the site we have now reached the natural geology. This consists of marine deposited sandy beach shingle. It contains occasional pieces of water-rolled Roman brick and tile indicating that it can’t have been deposited earlier than the Roman period. Pottery recovered from the layers immediately over this beach dates to Norman times. A general picture thus begins to emerge: the original estuary (known to have been used by the Roman Imperial navy during the second-century) must have become steadily choked with sand and shingle and was probably unusable by the time the Romans abandoned Britain in the early fifth century. Over the following centuries silting must have continued, creating ever more stable ground. By c AD 1100, just after the Norman Conquest, certain areas seem to have become firm enough to allow permanent habitation. So began the development of Dover’s St James’s district, soon now to be occupied by new restaurants, shops, a cinema and hotel – far removed from those simple chalk-floored timber buildings first erected here some 900 years ago.
Russell Street Dig: News bulletin 6: 6th March 2016
After 215 days in the field, it’s finally all over. We pulled the last digger out of their hole at 5.30 on Sunday night. In true archaeological style, the last few days on site were pretty hectic and, typically, all sorts of new observations and discoveries started coming in thick and fast, tying up many loose ends and sorting out some long-standing queries.
We finally reached the bottom of our medieval garderobe shaft (toilet) in Cellar 10 and found it to be full of waterlogged ‘organic material’ (shall we say). As a nice reward for the person digging it out, he recovered a complete German stoneware beer-mug, dating to about AD 1600, near the bottom. Elsewhere on the site, as we started to bottom-up several more deep pits and shafts, other impressive groups of pottery were found. Looking at the material recovered overall, there still seems to be no Anglo-Saxon finds present and our earliest discoveries look to be of around AD 1075 – so just after the Norman conquest.
Immediately following the digging on Sunday, the last remaining field-staff retired to the nearby White Horse (said to be Dover’s oldest documented pub) where we enjoyed a splendid end-of-dig roast dinner, all washed down with a few well-kept pints.
I am now back in the office surrounded by piles of site-folders, plans and computers awaiting reconnection. Once we get ourselves sorted, we can start the long process of analysing the details of what we have excavated – I fear I will not be let out into the field again for some time to come. But do continue to visit the web site – I am sure there will be lots of new discoveries elsewhere in Kent coming along shortly.