The 15th season of excavations in Grosvenor Park, Chester took place this year from 19 April – 14 May. The excavation, run by West Cheshire Museums, is a partnership project with the University of Chester and provides training for the Department of History and Archaeology second-year students. The 2020 season was postponed and shortened to two weeks due to the pandemic but this year, with Covid-safety measures in place, the full four-week excavation was able to take place with 24 students.
Previous seasons have revealed much new, and often remarkable, information about this area of Chester and its inhabitants and 2021 consolidated that information.
Excavation this year was focused on Trench VIII which was extended to both the west and south to test for evidence of an accompanying bank associated with the large 9th/10th century ditch investigated in 2019. The new extensions to the trench exposed a large expanse of building debris associated with the demolition of Cholmondeley’s house as part of the Parliamentarian siege of Chester during the Civil War.
Towards the eastern end of Trench VIII a north-south aligned medieval ditch and accompanying stone revetment wall had been tentatively identified during the 2020 season. Investigation of the upper fills of this ditch in 2021 confirmed that the final phase of infilling had taken place during the 16th century. The uppermost part of this infilling produced a well-preserved piece of Romanesque sculpture which had probably originally decorated part of the adjacent Church of St John the Baptist
Part of the exposed stone revetment wall within the medieval ditch was seen to have an opening built in to it to accommodate the outflow from a connecting stone culvert. A similar feature had been previously noted to the north when another section of this wall was uncovered in Trench IV during the 2015 season. These details confirm that the ditch had originally functioned as the outflow for a complex drainage system associated with the precinct around St John’s church during the Medieval period.
The 2021 finds assemblage was retrieved from two principle features: the medieval ditch and the Civil War destruction layer.
The deposits filling the re-cut of the medieval ditch produced pottery that indicates the ditch was still open in the 16th century. The lowest fill produced an almost complete Cistercian-type ware cup (Photo. no. 2) similar in form to examples from the 25 Bridge Street excavations and from the Rainford pottery production site near to St Helen’s, Merseyside. Whilst Cistercian-type wares may occur elsewhere in England as early as the late 15th century, the evidence to date suggests that locally they were in use in the 16th century. Another 16th century vessel is represented by two joining pieces from a Cologne stoneware jug dated to between 1525 and 1550. Fragments of a range of 16th century imported pottery and glass have been found scattered throughout deposits across the site.
Abundant quantities of bone were the principal find from the ditch deposits, and the apparently wide range of mammal, fish and bird bone suggests high status food consumption at a time where not just the quantity but the variety of meats made available to guests signified the hosts’ wealth and status. The find of a cetacean vertebra, a porpoise or dolphin, emphasises the potential status of the occupants of the site
Cetacean bones tend to be found on high status sites where roast porpoise would have featured on the menu; a favourite dish of Queen Elizabeth I it fell out of favour after the 16th century. For reference see this link to an academic paper from UCL.
The Civil War destruction layer produced a wide variety of finds but is significant for the large assemblage of late medieval and early post-medieval building materials and artefacts associated with military activity – one of the largest assemblages found in the city. In addition to a variety of sizes of lead shot, both used and flattened by impact a large number of gunpowder holder caps were found as well as a potential musket rest and top of a pike.
Notable amongst the building material is a quantity of floor tiles retrieved in the area above the mortar surface first identified in 2020; the limited range of designs suggest a single floor. These pose the question whether a floor of the late medieval building survived the late 16th century modifications by the Cholmondeleys. Pieces of late 16th/early 17th century moulded plaster and a piece of carved stone are potentially from a decorative fireplace, these and the imported tablewares suggest a household of some luxury. An unusual find of a beautifully made medieval bone stylus (60 mm long) found in the area of the floor tiles is perhaps an artefact from the former chapel of the confraternity of St Anne
Julie Edwards and Dan Garner
Acknowledgements: we are grateful to Ian Smith, Oxford Archaeology North for identifying the cetacean bone, the staff of Grosvenor Park for facilitating the excavation and John Crisp of Land Recovery for the opening and backfilling of the trench.