ISSN 1357-4442Editor: Simon Denison

Issue no 37, September 1998


Remains of early modern industry found in Reading

A large part of Reading's medieval and post-medieval industrial area has been uncovered in a major excavation in the centre of the town. Of particular interest is the discovery of the 17th century workhouse, the Oracle, and a 16th century tannery.

Workhouses conjure up an image today of prison-like gloom and misery, taking their reputation from the Victorian era. Earlier workhouses, however, were often more attractive places, where people came to work during the day but returned each evening to their own homes. A contemporary drawing of the Oracle shows a brick building of high architectural quality, and the excavation supports this more benign view with the discovery of herringbone brick floors, elaborate fireplaces and a courtyard with a channel containing a side-stream of the River Kennet.

Cloth-making took place in the work-house, allowing a capitalist enterprise to operate under the mask of philanthropy. The Oracle was used as a barracks during the Civil War, and was demolished in about 1850.

The remains of the 16th century tannery consist of neat rows of clay-lined pits, which contained timber vats in which the various tanning processes took place. Some of the pits still show the marks of the withies that bound the vats together.

The stinking ingredients of tanning solutions - including urine and dog faeces - usually ensured tanneries were placed in remote areas, but this one lay close to a church.

According to the excavation director, David Wilkinson of the Oxford Archaeological Unit, tanneries with a similar lay-out can still be found in North Africa today, where children stand in the vats waist-deep in tanning solutions. `The children must all have anthrax, which is carried on the hairs of animal skins,' he said.

Medieval remains have also been found, including two medieval watermills - two are listed in Domesday Book for the area - both of which survived into the 19th century. In addition, a large medieval stone building has been uncovered with walls more than a metre thick. The discovery of such a `high-status' building in the town's industrial area was a surprise, according to Mr Wilkinson, and its location remains unexplained.

Further discoveries include the 17th century Yield Hall, a substantial house named after the nearby Guildhall, with a 12th century carved stone grotesque reused in its foundations. A number of medieval timber revetments suggest the area contained a mass of shifting river channels.

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New Stonehenge proposals this month

A revised set of proposals for improve-ments at Stonehenge, including changes to nearby roads and the construction of a visitor centre, will be presented later this month by Chris Smith, the Culture Secretary, with the support of English Heritage and the National Trust.

This follows the Government's announcement in the summer that it was prepared to re-route the A303, upgraded to a dual carriageway, through a 2km tunnel near the monument at a cost of some £125 million, and close the A344 which passes within yards of the stones.

Earlier this year, the Government announced its preferred site for the visitor centre, at Fargo North at the western end of the Stonehenge Cursus (see BA, May). This proposal is expected to be modified in the revised plans, following objections from some archaeologists to a major development in the World Heritage Site and its likely effect on the setting of the Cursus. It is expected that the visitor centre and associated works will now be kept largely outside the World Heritage Area.

English Heritage, the National Trust and other bodies have long called for the A303 to be routed through a tunnel at Stonehenge, but previously ministers have balked at the idea on grounds of cost. According to Geoff Wainwright, Chief Archaeologist at English Heritage, the decision to allow a tunnel and close the A344 is a `great achievement' which should allow English Heritage's plan for an archaeological park at Stonehenge, free of traffic and 20th century clutter, to become a reality.

Some may object, however, to the `cut-and-cover' tunnel when the proposal reaches public inquiry, on the grounds that it will destroy all archaeological remains in its route, insisting that the site deserves a long bored tunnel, estimated to cost £500 million. Others will see the cut-and-cover tunnel as a necessary compromise, as well as an unprecedented opportunity for re-search into buried remains in the Stonehenge landscape.

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Medieval water system in East London

The remains of a dam and reservoir, which may have formed part of a water supply system to one of London's medieval monasteries, have been discovered in Spitalfields, East London, by the Museum of London Archaeology Service. Medieval stable buildings and later 16th and 17th century houses, gardens and latrines were also found.

The site is one of a series of excavations in Spitalfields on the site of the medieval Hospital and Priory of St Mary Spital. According to the excavators, the reservoir probably originated as a large pit dug in the 13th century to provide brick earth for building, which was later dammed with chalk to form a reservoir for the monastery buildings to the west. Records show that in 1278 the monastery received a grant from the Bishop of London for a water supply, sourced from a spring on the bishop's land.

Finds from the reservoir include several medieval shoes and an unusual floor tile decorated with the image of a dog. The tile was made in Aldgate around 1600, used in a 17th century house in Spitalfields and then thrown away in the garden pond in about 1700. Other finds from the site include complete cooking pots and chamber pots, fine quality floor tiles and early tobacco pipes.

The post-medieval brick tenement houses were built with some re-used stone from the monastery. One wall contained 13 pieces of a rose window. The gardens consisted of a number of long narrow bedding trenches for plants, and remains from the gardens, latrines, and elsewhere are being examined for clues to the area's medieval and post-medieval environment and diet.

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In brief

Arthnou stone

The discovery of an inscribed stone at Tintagel containing the Latinised name `Artognou' in an early 6th century context received wide publicity last month, and has led inevitably to speculation about the historical reality of King Arthur, long associated in legend with the Cornish site.

Academics traditionally contemptuous of historical claims for King Arthur have proved uncharacteristically impressed with the new find. Although variants of the name `Arthur' were common in post-Roman Britain, the secular Latin inscription - translated, `Arthnou, father of a descendant of Coll, had this made' - was in a form used only by individuals of the highest status. Excavations at Tintagel over recent years have suggested it was a royal site with trading links to the Mediterranean in the 5th and 6th centuries (see BA, May 1995).

According to the excavator, Prof Chris Morris of Glasgow University, the stone originally formed part of a building, but was later re-used as the cover of a drain.

Hedge verdict

A farmer who ploughed the remains of a deserted medieval village and ridge-and-furrow field system in Herefordshire near Hay-on-Wye has been convicted of removing over 800m of medieval hedgerows without permission (see BA, June). Ian Prior was fined £2,000 by magistrates in Leominster, and ordered to pay £4,000 costs. He is believed to be the first landowner convicted under the Hedgerow Regulations, which were introduced last year to protect important hedges.

Early church

Traces of what may be one of the oldest churches in Britain have been discovered at Vindolanda Fort on Hadrian's Wall. The church is thought to have been built of timber on stone foundations in the early 5th century, in the courtyard of what had been the commandant's house, or praetorium. The church was excavated by Robin Birley of the Vindolanda Trust, and is a narrow rectangular building with an apse at its western end. Other possible churches of this date include examples at Housesteads, Silchester and Caerleon.

DCMS plans

English Heritage and the English Royal Commission (RCHME) are to be amalgamated, the new body retaining English Heritage's name. The announcement was contained in Chris Smith's review of the Culture Department's activities in July.

The National Monuments Record and `related functions' are to remain at the RCHME's offices in Swindon. Other aspects of the merger are to be settled by the two organisations. No target date has been set, although the RCHME plans to set up a self-contained `shadow' NMR by April next year. It is expected that the RCHME's buildings survey, field survey and aerial survey work will continue unaffected in the new body. No announcement has been made on the future of the Scottish and Welsh Royal Commissions.

Other announcements in the review included the increased delegation of funding decisions, including distribution of Lottery money, to regional bodies. It also proposed a new culture `efficiency' watchdog.

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