British Archaeology, no 13, April 1996: News


Medieval bricks meant business for Essex Man

Brickmaking seems to have been introduced to Britain in the medieval period by a group of Essex builders who spotted a business opportunity when the supply of recycled Roman bricks dried up, according to new archaeological evidence.

Brickmaking technology was previously thought to have had more lofty origins - arriving with Cistercian monks, who came to Coggeshall Abbey in Essex in 1148. The abbey's well-known brickwork dating from c 1190 - c 1220 has long been considered the oldest post-Roman brickwork in Britain.

However, a recent English Heritage survey of the nearby parish church at Bradwell-juxta-Coggeshall has revealed even earlier medieval bricks dating from the first half of the 12th century - before the Coggeshall Cistercians arrived in the country. Warwick Rodwell, a leading church archaeologist who found the bricks under plaster at Bradwell, has also identified early 12th-13th century bricks at about a dozen other churches in the immediate area, as well as at Polstead in Suffolk.

At Bradwell and elsewhere, bricks were used to form the angles of buildings, both inside and out - such as quoins, window jambs, door jambs, and arches - features unsuitable for local materials such as flint. Until the reinvention of brickmaking, Roman bricks had been recycled in East Anglia for these purposes (as at Colchester Castle), but in the early 12th century the supply of Roman bricks ran out.

At that very moment, according to Dr Rodwell, a rural brickmaking business seems to have sprung up around Coggeshall to continue the brick supply; and this business appears to have been used by the Cistercian monks for the angles and brick floors of Coggeshall Abbey. A second, similar business seems to have operated in Suffolk.

Although used in the same way as `flat' Roman bricks, the medieval bricks were slightly bigger and contained modifications such as knocked-off corners for chamfers, rounded corners for doorposts, and even elaborate mouldings to create the Gothic arches of Coggeshall Abbey. Geological analysis shows the Essex bricks were made of local brick-earth and sand, and were well-made with few impurities.

The brickmakers seem to have been highly-experienced, and although there is no earlier evidence of brickmaking, wall tiles had been made in England for a generation or so by the time Bradwell Church was built. The technology for firing ceramics was therefore well-known, according to Ian Betts, building materials specialist at the Museum of London Archaeology Service. Wall tiles from the 1070s can be found in situ at Westminster Abbey, and roofing tiles first appear in London in the 1130s.

Brickmaking in Essex stopped after about a cen-tury in c 1230, and the technology was not re- introduced to Britain until imports of modern-style `tall' bricks began to arrive from Flanders in the 14th century.


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Commission suffers deep funding cuts

The cause of archaeology and conservation in England suffered a severe blow last month with the announcement of large budget cuts at the English Royal Commission, the nerve-centre for aerial archaeology in England and home of the country's National Monuments Record (NMR).

The Commission is cutting by half its funding for independent, regional aerial photography, and by more than half the output of its National Mapping Programme, the long-term programme of mapping and interpreting air photographic information. Conservation work on priceless maps, plans and photographs held in the NMR will be reduced by two-thirds, and grants to already hard-pressed local authority Sites and Monuments Records (SMRs) will be cut by half. The Commission has completely suspended its computer-mapping initiative, in which NMR records were to be converted into analytical tools known as Geographical Information Systems (GIS); and it has also suspended its electronic imaging initiative, by which plans and drawings could be seen in 3-D. Up to ten senior professional staff also face compulsory redundancy.

The Commission has been forced to reduce its spending for 1996/97 by 10 per cent, following a cut in its central government grant and the transfer of funds to a joint DNH/English Heritage/Royal Commission listed buildings computerisation programme. The reduction in grant is in line with the Government's overall programme of spending cuts announced in last November's budget, and other heritage agencies - such as the Royal Commissions in Scotland and Wales, English Heritage, and centrally-funded museums - have also suffered grant cuts. The English Royal Commission, however, seems to have been hit especially hard. Equally devastating cuts at the Museum of London were reported in British Archaeology last month.

Tom Hassall, Secretary of the Royal Commission, said it was `desperately sad' that the development of the Commission had been `brought to a standstill, if not put in reverse' by the cuts. He also acknowledged that regional air photographers and SMRs would feel aggrieved by the heavy reductions in their funding. `But we are making members of our own staff redundant in order to keep some grants going,' he said.

The Commission's cuts were announced immediately after the publication of its five-year strategic plan. The plan included targets to make the NMR's core inventory of 800,000 buildings and sites available online to visitors, and to make a million additional photographs and drawings available to the public by the year 2000. According to Mr Hassall, the cuts would not put those plans in jeopardy.


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Henry VIII's sauna found at Whitehall

The remains of King Henry VIII's personal `Turkish' steam bath have been identified in a new study of finds from his royal palace at Whitehall. The Turkish bath is thought to have been the first in Britain, complete with decorated tiled stove and steps leading down into a sunken stone pool.

Whitehall Palace in London was excavated in 1939, but the finds - including the sunken bath and hundreds of associated stove-tile fragments - were inadequately studied at the time, and were recognised as a Turkish bath only when re-examined by David Gaimster, a curator at the British Museum, and Simon Thurley, Curator of the Historic Royal Palaces. Speaking at a recent British Museum conference, Dr Gaimster said the discovery showed Henry VIII was adopting not only `the latest in Continental domestic design and technology' but also a full Continental Renaissance lifestyle. `The old-fashioned bathtub used at the beginning of his reign could not offer a greater contrast to the luxury sauna-bath arrangement introduced at Whitehall during the final decade of his life,' he said.

Steam baths, consisting of tiled stoves, baths, and occasionally beds and other furniture, were introduced to Europe in Germany in the later 15th century. In Britain they are known from records from the mid to later 16th century; and the Whitehall bathroom is recorded in an inventory of the palace dated 1543. The finds, however, provide the first archaeological evidence for the technology in Britain.

The tiles and the sunken bath were found associated with a small room in the king's privy quarters. The wood-fired stove was classically designed with pediment and entablature, and was constructed of English-made green-glazed tiles which were moulded with Henry VIII's royal arms and those of Edward Prince of Wales.

According to Dr Gaimster, the heraldic imagery suggests that Henry VIII's modish bathroom may have been designed with a `public propagandist' purpose in mind, despite being located within the inner sanctum of the royal quarters. The tiles and a reconstruction drawing of the stove are now on display in the new gallery of 15th to 18th Century Europe at the British Museum.


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In brief

Neanderthal music

Neanderthals, far from being the brutes of mythology, seem to have manufactured the world's oldest musical instrument, which was found recently in a Slovenian cave. The 45,000-year-old instrument, a four-holed pipe or flute, was made out of the leg bone of a young bear, and was found with a Neanderthal flint scraper lying by a temporary hearth in a cave near the Italian frontier.

Before the discovery, the oldest known musical instrument was a two-holed pipe made by Homo sapiens 35,000 years ago and found in Hungary. Two single-holed whistles about 100,000 years old are also known from Libya, but these would have been incapable of melody.

Treasure Bill, which aims to reform the law of Treasure Trove, cleared its first hurdle in Parliament last month, when it was passed in its second reading in the Commons with cross-bench support.

`Bounty' diaries

Diaries belonging to mutineers from HMS Bounty may lie preserved in sand and mud in a shipwreck off Australia's Great Barrier Reef, according to an Australian archaeologist leading an excavation of the wreck. The diaries, thought to recount the mutineers' side of the 1789 mutiny against Captain William Bligh, were lost when HMS Pandora sank in 1791 during its voyage home with 14 mutineers recaptured in Tahiti. Artefacts recovered from the wreck so far include silver and brass coins, guns, tableware, a collection of Polynesian war clubs, a chamber pot and a gold fob watch.

Jacquetta Hawkes, writer and archaeologist, died last month aged 85, as we went to press. An obituary will appear in the next issue.

Saxon defences

Northampton's Saxon defensive wall has been found by archaeologists from Northamptonshire Archaeology after a 20- year search. Several phases of defence have been found, starting with a clay bank and ditch, which was later fitted with a timber revetment. The timber was later replaced by stone.

NEWS is compiled by Simon Denison


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© Council for British Archaeology, 1996