4th September 2014:
A team at OA East has just completed a large excavation (0.244ha) over nearly 5 months at Harvest Way, Cambridge. Successive uses within the site have largely built on top of and not through earlier deposits leaving well stratified and complex remains. Three excavations (this site, one by the CAU and our own at Coldhams Lane) have now examined a significant proportion of the lay settlement of Barnwell Priory (residence of visiting kings and bishops). This priory and related settlement was originally built in Cambridge Eastern fields in 1112, but was later consumed by the town's expansion to become a suburb of it by the early 19th century.
Probably the most unexpected find on this busy urban site was a crouched adult male burial of unknown probable prehistoric date (awaiting C14 date), which may be contemporary with the small fragments of possible prehistoric fields found on site. Its survival was between large dense concentrations of medieval pits and under Victorian and Georgian floors, less than 4 metres from the major Newmarket Road!
The excavation area covered at least nine medieval plots, including parts of their frontages with post-built structures and clay floors. Their back plots contained masses of intercutting pits, clay-lined tanks, some ovens and ten wells. Environmental evidence is pointing to various processing activities across the settlement, with evidence of fish bones, cereals and insect & crop parasite infestations.
Fortunately we were able to excavate most of the medieval wells fully by hand, stepping them down with the machine and the hard work paid off with a wealth of significant finds. Many of the wells had eroded and drained due to the rise in the recent water table. Luckily in the eastern plots, the lowest parts of three remained waterlogged, preserving wooden objects including a paddle, bowl and planks – and hopefully a wealth of environmental information. Most of the wells produced large quantities of pottery, including one complete jug and another complete except for a small hole through the centre - caused by having augered the feature earlier!
The site produced some interesting artefacts including over 500 fragments of moulded stone with local clunch and Barnack (Nr. Peterborough) limestone in a few medieval contexts but the vast majority robbed after dissolution. Around 200 of these came from a single cess pit over 4m deep, approximately 1m x 1m square and lined entirely in stone. Many pieces originally formed a single archway internal to the priory, likely part of high status quarters – perhaps from the visiting dignitaries' accommodation? The construction of the cess pit itself and the finds from within it (several near-complete Cistercian-type vessels) suggest a post-dissolution building of some status - perhaps the manor house mentioned in a Victorian account.
A number of 17th-19th century building foundations survived across the site, including a brick-lined cellar robbed and backfilled with debris from an intense fire – a large conflagration in Barnwell is recorded destroying 50 dwellings in 1731. Finds included several Bellarmine pots and candlestick holders. The cellar may be part of a predecessor to the George and Dragon Tavern (later Coffee House) which stood on the same spot in the 19th century.
We also uncovered many walls of Georgian and Victorian terraced houses and gardens, whose tiled and bricked floor and shallow foundations (some consisting of priory stone), cobbled passages with the later structures matching well with surviving historic maps which only date from 1808. There were a number of small brick cellars with good assemblages of pottery and plates (some coming from the Cambridge colleges) and glass ornament production. Several more brick and wooden lined wells from this period dotted the site, two capped but still full of water having perhaps been in use into the 20th century. Documentary research continues but the archaeology is shining a light on this poor quarter of industrial Cambridge.
The long post-excavation process has now commenced with a mass of artefacts and ecofacts including nearly half a tonne of pottery as well as 200 environmental samples presently being processed.