Dig Diary 2, Rustic Cottage at Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal

Mark Newman, Archaeological Consultant Mark Newman Archaeological Consultant
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Published : 11 Sep 2016 Last update : 17 Apr 2020

Today was a day of steadily cleaning back and exploring more of yesterday’s discoveries – and then making a few new ones.

Day Two, Rustic Cottage Dig Diary

Cecily and Jonathan were on duty from Field Archaeology Specialists today (Nicky’s going for gold in the Great North Run). Jonathan’s expertise in buildings archaeology was particularly useful, while Cecily’s luck, of which more below, would be welcome on any project. Only too often trenches just miss the interesting features –but not (yet) on this dig. Everywhere Cecily worked new and interesting things came to light.

I worked in the eastern part of the cottage today, removing the demolition layers from the transverse trench. This proved that the clayey layer we started to see yesterday is indeed a formation layer for a flagstone floor that was stripped out when the building was demolished. Some of the same clay overlay the lowest courses of the wall separating the passage from the cottage’s central room, showing that it had been carted onto site for the purpose. The rubble really had been thoroughly sifted through, removing all the reusable building materials. I did find a small cache of fragments of flagstones, though, proving what the floor had been made of. These ones obviously broke as they were being lifted, and it wasn’t worth taking the pieces away.

The most interesting rubble consists of numerous fragments of wall plaster – painted in some truly striking colours. A deep, deep blue seems to be earliest and mainly comes from the eastern room of the cottage. I don’t think anyone could really have lived with this (especially in a small house under tree cover with tiny windows) – so I’m wondering if it was part of the aesthetic of the Cottage as a garden building, making a very striking and memorable interior (like the house of a wizard?). This was later replaced by a Pompeian red (which is the earliest colours paint on the plaster in the entrance hall) and then a grey over that. There are also lots of fragments in variations of ochre – these mainly coming more from the west end. Only a minority of fragments come with lath marks on their reverse – so we’re wondering if those are from a ceiling, the plaster having been applied directly to the walls, in thicker layers. In charting the changing colour scheme there is a lot of evidence to be gathered from around the fireplace found yesterday, where numerous layers of paint can be seen on the different coats of plaster still in place.

The fireplace and its setting have cleaned up beautifully. I had a wonderful time-travelling moment first thing this morning, while cutting the roots from the trench face opposite it. Even 80 years after demolition, you can still smell the last fire (they’d burning coal, leaving a specific sulphurous twang).  It was one of the most emotionally powerful connections with the past I think I’ve ever had in my career.

The beautiful cleaning up was down to Cecily. The archaeology of the fireplace is very complex (now we can see it so clearly) and will tell us a lot about the evolutionary history of the cottage if we can disentangle it.

The first new finding was the base of another partition wall, extending west from the main masonry structure, adjoining its break from the south wall. The break could well be the location of a doorway, the partition forming a sort of lobby beside it. Jonathan found this, and then continued cleaning southwards, including extending the trench outside the building to see if there was anything outside the wall like a garden path. Sadly, if there ever was, it hasn’t survived.

Cecily was having better luck heading north. Excavating north of the fireplace she was able to expose the full thickness of the north wall – and reveal that its north face was coated in plaster with a fine surface finish, with was then painted a pale off-white. There’s no way that’s an external finish, thus proving that there must be a further room to the north of our trenches (though clearly very deeply buried in rubble and overburden – excavating down to it will be quite a challenge). Jonathan had suggested a sweepstake on whether it was an external wall or not – I wish I’d taken him up on it, as I had a hunch it wasn’t. On the other hand, the suspected sunken feature in the western part of the cottage turned out not to be – so I’d have lost that one. Honours even.

But its Cecily who should buy the lottery tickets on the way home. At the end of the afternoon, she started work on the central section of the trench – and almost immediately found another fireplace. This was set into the opposite side of the wall containing the first one (though not quite back to back). So it’s a pretty substantial dividing wall, and very obviously original to the building’s design. This probably puts paid to my ideas about a fireplace in the south wall and suggests that the flue was angled across the building to guide smoke through the chimney over the south façade.

We’d only just started to expose the second fireplace by the close of play – so there’s guaranteed to be something new and interesting to explore further next weekend. And it feels like this site as a whole has many more surprizes in store for us besides.