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Winchelsea Archaeological Society

The Blackfriars Barn pottery project

Volunteers from the Winchelsea Archaeological Society (WAS) are currently engaged in an ambitious, long-term project to sort, record and interpret a huge quantity of broken pottery discovered in a chamber of a cellar under the ruins of a medieval building called Blackfriars Barn. This assemblage -- something in the order of 130,000 sherds -- is probably the largest in the South East of England and one of the largest nationally.

The project team

The pottery dates mainly from the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and appears to have been deposited in the cellar during the first half of the 19th century, when the cellar of Blackfriars Barn was used as an unofficial town dump.

Winchelsea has been a small village since the mid-16th century, but started life in 1288 as one of Edward I’s planned towns. It was also a key Channel port and a leading member of the Cinque Port Confederation. The decline of the town was the result of the silting of its port, as well as competition from London and a migration in English maritime activity to the west coast ports as the focus of fishing moved out into the Atlantic and trade realigned towards Spain and the Mediterranean.

The primary aim of the Blackfriars Barn project is to draw insights into the social and economic status of early 19th century Winchelsea from an analysis of the different types of pottery that local households threw away. This may be the first time that a study of this sort has been attempted on a village of this period. The project will also provide a benchmark for other archaeological investigations.

The broken pottery, together with a smaller quantity of broken glass bottles, plus some clay pipes, bone and shell fragments, was poured into the cellar through the two windows which once allowed light into the front chamber down shafts descending from street level. Over time, the pottery sherds and glass shards formed a massive scree slope that stretched across the chamber to the base of the opposite wall and flowed into the middle chamber of the cellar. The deposit was dug out by archaeologists in 1976/77 and boxed up, but left in the cellar. Most of the glass subsequently disappeared.

Sorting finds on site

WAS has taken on the task of sorting the pottery on behalf of the National Trust, which owns Blackfriars Barn. Volunteers have been trained on site by Luke Barber of the Sussex Archaeological Society.

The first stage of the project has been completed. Between May 2008 and March 2010, a small team of volunteers sorted the pottery into different wares. The 100 crates contain the following wares:

ware quantity
Low-fired earthenware
unglazed red earthenware 4 crates
glazed red, course earthenware 20 crates
glazed red, fine earthenware 1 crate
high-fired (Normandy/Midland butterpot) 2 crates
slipware, late (Midlands) 4+ crates
slipware, Staffordshire combed 1 bag
black-glazed redware, Rockingham 1/2 crate
brown-glazed redware, Rockingham 1/2 crate
yellow ware 3+ crates
tin-glazed (delftware) several bags
German, Raeren 1 bag
German, Cologne/Frechen 1 bag
German, Westerwald one item
German, seltzer 1 bag
English, salt-glazed 3 crates
English, London 1 bag
English, Bristol-glazed 2 crates
English, Nottingham 1 crate
English, scratch blue 1 bag
English, blue 1 bag
English, Basaltes matt 1 bag
English, Basaltes, gloss 1 bag
English, white salt-glazed 1 bag
undecorated 3 crates
transfer-printed, Blue Willow 5 crates
transfer-printed, other blue 3 crates
transfer-printed, other colours 1 bag
transfer-printed, polychrome 1 bag
transfer-printed, lustre decoration 1 bag
hand-painted 1 bag
marbled, stamped, stencilled 1 bag
industrial slip 1 bag
Creamware undecorated 7 crates
industrial slipware 1 bag
hand-painted several bags
Whiteware (bone china)
undecorated 9 crates
transfer-printed, Blue Willow 2 crates
transfer-printed, other blue 5 crates
transfer-printed, black or brown 3 crates
transfer-printed, red, green or purple 1 crate
transfer-printed, polychrome 1/4 crate
transfer-printed, lustre decoration 1/4 crate
hand-painted 1/4 crate
marbled, stamped, stencilled 1/2 crate
industrial slipware 1/2 crate
coloured or moulded 1 crate
English 2 crates
Chinese 1/2 crate

The next stage started in May 2010. It involves the sub-division of wares into vessel types, their quantification and recording, as well as the compilation of an archive of representative sherds. WAS volunteers are recording the number of sherds, their weight and the Estimated Vessel Equivalent (EVE) of each vessel type. An EVE is the percentage of an original vessel represented by a sherd. It is calculated using a set of circles of different diameter set out in a diameter grid (see the diagram -WAS found these grids difficult to get hold of, so they had their own made and have some available for sale). The edge of a rim fragment is aligned with the edge of whichever circle has the closest curvature. As the circles are segmented, it is possible to estimate the percentage of the original vessel represented by the fragment. The sum of the percentages of the fragments of the same type of vessel gives an estimate of the number of whole vessels in the deposit.
Selected sherds will be photographed to show the range of patterns and maker's marks. All local earthenwares are being sorted into vessel types and an example of each will be drawn and retained for long-term curation. Additional sample collections will be assembled for museums and a handling collection of pottery sherds will be put together for local schools to use in the "Victorians" section of their curriculum.

The final stage of the project, which will depend on funding, will involve writing up and publishing the results of the project, as well as disseminating them through lectures.

An important legacy of the project will be a local body of expertise in 18th and 19th ceramics. It is hoped to exploit this knowledge by encouraging residents to collect small finds made in their gardens and allotments and bring them along to WAS for identification and dating, so that the picture of local pottery use can be extended.
inspecting the sherds
The interest in pottery that has been created by the Blackfriars Barn project has also whetted appetites. Volunteers want to be able to identify medieval and 16-17th century pottery. Workshops are therefore being arranged by WAS for anyone interested in identifying and dating local pottery over a wide range of periods.

Blackfriars Barn
Blackfriars Barn cellar
Blackfriars Barn is the name for some standing medieval ruins in Winchelsea. The name is a bit of a misnomer. Although the building was used as a barn during the 19th century, it was never owned by the Black Friars (Dominicans), although they had a site nearby. While the ruins of Blackfriars Barn consist of just three ruined stone walls, there is sufficient remaining to allow archaeologists to reconstruct the original building. It appears to have been a three-bay hall, set at right angles to the road, probably lit by a Gothic window in the front wall and with a door onto the street. The rear of the hall was partitioned off and divided into two floors. Two doors on the ground floor at the rear opened out into a rear courtyard, one giving access to a covered way, which probably led to a separate kitchen building. Unusually, the hall had a canopied fireplace against one wall, rather than a central hearth on the floor. This seems to have been intended to maximise floorspace. The first floor room at the back of the hall led to a garderobe projecting into the next-door plot and over a cesspit far larger than would be required by a domestic property. The desire to maximise the floorspace and the size of the cesspit suggests that this was a public, rather than a domestic, building. It may have been a guildhall. Underneath the ruins is the finest of Winchelsea’s 56 known medieval cellars. There are three chambers. The front and rear chambers have quadrilateral ribbing: the middle chamber is barrel-vaulted. The front and rear chambers each have two windows. Unusually for the period, the windows were glazed. They opened into light wells ascending to street level. The sub-division of the cellars into separate chambers (illegal for merchants’ wine cellars), the presence of windows and the fact that the front chamber has a fireplace recessed into a side wall indicate that this was not a wine cellar. The building was derelict by 1364 and is assumed to have been destroyed in a French attack of 1360, reinforcing the argument that it was a public building (as such buildings would have been targeted). It does not appear to have been rebuilt or re-occupied until its use as a barn.


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