Grosvenor Park (Chester) Training Dig 2020: Round-up

This year’s excavation consisted of an extended Trench VIII which was first opened in 2017. Two extensions were added partly to investigate the extent of the medieval buildings, their later use and whether there was any evidence of Roman or earlier activity and partly to ensure that enough space was available to allow ‘safe distancing’. During the 2019 season the deposits in the trench had suffered from the very hot weather which meant the clay rich soils were baked hard leading to difficulty in identifying different features. This year however the rain and cooler weather made it easier to identify features and help understand their significance. A very wet afternoon gave us the opportunity to wash some of the finds, more need to cleaned and sorted so below is just the first overview of the discoveries.

In the extension to the south and west we came across the layer of Civil War destruction debris that has been spread over Trench IV and the main area of Trench VIII. The layer was made up of irregularly-shaped roof slates, fragments of ceramic roof tile, bricks dating from the 16th and early 17th century, plaster, mortar and a variety of objects and animal bones. Lead shot and gun powder holder caps were scattered across the layer and a possible iron musket rest was found by metal detectorist Colin Sharratt from spoil from the western extension. This is the first type of firearms equipment other that shot and gun powder holders to be found on the site. Within the destruction layer and the charcoal layer beneath in the southern extension a greater concentration of 16th century finds were found than in previous years, most notably pieces of Low Countries tin-glazed ware and Raeren and Cologne stoneware mugs/jugs. These and fragments of Venetian style glass fragments that would have been from very attractive vessels suggests fine dining in a wealthy household.

A pit was found cutting into and through the Civil War deposit on the northern edge of the southern extension this produced 18th century pottery including a piece of sugar mould and some very fine pieces of white salt glazed stoneware tea-bowls and saucers, including some with scratch-blue decoration. These dainty vessels represent the 18th century fashion for tea parties using the relatively new but increasingly popular tea and sugar and are another sign of the relatively wealthy households located in this area of Chester in the earlier post-medieval period.

Residual Roman and medieval objects were found in this area of the trench the most intriguing of which are an intaglio and a late medieval pilgrim badge. The tiny amethyst intaglio is only 8mm long and shows the figure of Mercury, Prof Martin Henig identified the gemstone for us and he comments that it is late first century in date and would have been worn on a small signet ring similar to some found during the 2004-2006 Chester amphitheatre excavations where a group of similarly dated intaglios were also found. A lead alloy badge in the form of a comb represents the symbol of St Blaise (thought to be a 4th century bishop in Asia Minor) whose shrine was at Canterbury, he was the patron saint of wool combers but due to a miracle he performed people sought his help for throat ailments. The badge would have been worn by someone who had made the pilgrimage to Canterbury or perhaps by someone given it to help them during an illness. It is the first pilgrim souvenir to have been identified from an excavation in the city although such items have been found elsewhere in Cheshire and at Meols.

Meanwhile as the Civil War layer was being removed in the western extension more and more late medieval floor tiles were found. Beneath the deposit was a sandy layer and on the very last day a small area of mortar was found and is probably a bedding layer for a tiled floor suggesting, along with the robbed out remains of a wall found in 2018/19, that we have the remains of a building at that end of the trench.

In the eastern section of the trench a band of sandstone rubble was exposed running north to south and lining up with a sandstone block on the very southern edge of the trench indicating the presence of the medieval boundary wall of the precinct of the Church of St John the Baptist. This discovery resolves questions from 2019 as to whether the wall existed in this area. To the east of this a rectangular cut pit was found in the layer of red clay on the edge of the medieval ditch found in previous years. The pit runs into the northern section and might be linked to pits found in 2007 outside the precinct area, very few things were found in the pit but late medieval pottery suggests the earliest possible date for its backfilling.

As usual the dig had a good number of visitors some of whom are local and visit every year to see what we are finding and others are on day trips to the city. Shortness of time and the Covid-19 pandemic stopped us from running an open afternoon but we had a visit from the local primary school who were full of enthusiastic questions and very excited to see the dig. One little girl went home telling her mum how she had met some ‘real live archaeologists’, her mum did not believe so her daughter brought her along to see for herself!

Whilst it was only for two weeks we had a good season of work that helped us all – students, staff, visitors to Chester and residents young and old – to learn more about archaeology and Chester’s past despite the limitations imposed by Covid-19.

The training dig is a partnership project between the archaeologists from Cheshire West and Chester Council’s Cultural Service (Grosvenor Museum) and the University of Chester and is an essential part of the students’ archaeology degree course.