British Archaeology, no 18, October 1996: Letters

On the `synagogue'

From Mr David Bird

Sir: After all the media hype about Guildford's so-called medieval synagogue it was a relief to see Joe Hillaby's measured and scholarly statement (Letters, July), emphasising that the identification is by no means certain. Even Hillaby, however, is more convinced than the evidence warrants.

He refers to high quality stonework, yet the attached half columns are of different lengths because the masons could not be bothered to make their supporting ledges level. He suggests that a large stone house in medieval Guildford would be remarkable, but we do not know that it was a stone house (rather than a stone sub-basement for a timber-framed upper structure). Furthermore the material used seems to be hard chalk, readily available in the immediate vicinity. In any case, however small, Guildford was Surrey's chief town, with a royal castle, and people of importance will have had interests there.

There may be documentary evidence that local Jewish magnates established synagogues beyond their dwellings, but there is none for Guildford. Isaac of Southwark can be shown to have had a house in Guildford in 1272, but not nearly 100 years earlier. There is some other evidence for Jews in Guildford, but no more than would be needed for the household of a man like Isaac. We have no particular reason to expect that there was a community large enough to warrant a synagogue.

Hillaby's references to the Jew's Court in Lincoln and the Rouen building are instructive. Jew's Court illustrates the tendency to find synagogues wherever possible. Experts on medieval Judaism in France are still arguing about the purpose of the Rouen building. This at least was in an area of the town occupied by a substantial Jewish community, and can be proved to have Jewish associations.

There is no direct evidence at all that the Guildford chamber was Jewish, let alone a synagogue, and Hillaby's circumstantial evidence can only be the basis for interesting speculation. Other avenues must also be explored and there will probably never be a definite outcome. The chamber remains, however, a very interesting discovery, which owes much to the enlightened attitude of the developer and his architect. Hopefully further detailed study will enable us to reach a more measured understanding of its place in Guildford's history.

Yours faithfully,
Principal Archaeologist
Surrey County Council
15 July

From Dr John Schofield

Sir: I would like to comment on the suggestion by Joe Hillaby that the 12th century chamber recently discovered in Guildford is a private synagogue. I have seen the site and would suggest that there is another, at present equally likely interpretation.

Much of the circumstantial evidence presented by Mr Hillaby can also be used if we think of the chamber as a stone porch to the lost stone building it would have appended, whatever its function. The larger house or building lay next to the street, but is now represented only by the modern boundaries.

Several 12th century (and possibly late 11th century) stone houses in the City of London have rear porches to their lower levels; and we should remember that even in Guildford a chamber now below the ground was probably more visible above ground in the 12th century. In at least one case, a house in Corbet Court, Gracechurch Street, the porch has blind arcading on two sides (see the elevation published most recently in my Medieval London Houses, page 30).

I am no expert on synagogues, but I think one telling detail at Guildford may be that the doorway into the main building from the chamber has remained, and this opens into the main building. This would argue that the chamber was an appendage of, or an entrance to, the lost house. Perhaps somebody could tell us if private synagogues were entered from outside; because if they were entered from the main building, this doorway seems wrong, opening outwards into the main cellar.

Yours faithfully,
Museum of London Archaeology Service
11 July

Tree-ring defence

From Dr Chris Salisbury

Sir: As someone who has been actively involved in dendrochronology since 1974, but whose background is in medicine, I feel I must come to the defence of Mike Baillie and his book A Slice Through Time which was recently reviewed (`No introduction here to tree-ring data', June).

While agreeing with many of the specific points of criticism raised by Bob Laxton, I found the book, as a whole, one of the most readable archaeology books I know. Apart from the charm of Baillie's style, the book is an excellent introduction to dendrochronology for anyone with an intelligent interest in archaeology.

Yours sincerely,
1 July

Roman inefficiency

From Mr Jim Gould

Sir: We are used to nonsensical decisions occasionally coming from modern planning officers. The Romans were not immune from these either, and your readers may like to hear of a good example I have come across from Wall in Staffordshire (Letocetum in the Roman period).

Here, an official guest-house (a mansio) was built in the Antonine period, replacing an earlier mansio which was carefully dismantled. The foundations of the new building were of stone, and what had previously been an open courtyard was enclosed, perhaps as a garden. However, the errors in this building are obvious. The corridor round the inner court had to be severely narrowed to accommodate a large room - an original feature rather than a later addition. The wall of one room was built directly over the filled-in well, necessitating eventually the building of a relieving arch. Worst of all, the south-western range of rooms was built off the hillside terrace on which the rest of the building sat, with ground floors at least 1.5m lower than those of the rest of the complex.

It is difficult to believe that this building was planned on site. The simplest explanation is that some planning officer, perhaps at Wroxeter some 37 modern miles distant, having taken over the mansio and with no knowledge of the terracing, had decreed how the new building should be built. It was to be of approximately the same size as the earlier one but with stone foundations and a new large dining room. Also he probably ordered that some of the earlier accommodation should remain in use while the new mansio was being built. This was achieved by leaving intact the north-eastern range, ultimately determining the size of the building, the narrowing of the corridor, and the position of the wall over the well.

Yours faithfully,
28 July

Return to the British Archaeology homepage

Return to the CBA homepage

© Council for British Archaeology, 1996