Dig Diary 3, Rustic Cottage at Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal

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

The last blog ended celebrating the discovery of a second fireplace, almost back to back with the first – probably with a bit too much certainty. No sooner did we start digging today than the story became more complicated...

Where we expected to find the masonry joining the new features to the partition wall there was nothing but disturbed stones leaving the newly found brick-built structure somewhat detached from the wall. A bit of a "boy loses girl" moment in the plot line, but there are still two reels to play....
It's still a pretty interesting feature of course, and clearly something to do with fires, heating etc. Just exactly what isn’t entirely clear yet. It looks like it might be an ash box (a lined hole set in the floor for collecting ash from a fire, so that it doesn’t have to be cleared out every day). Jonathan has also talked about it perhaps being from a boiler – a permanent structure for heating water in a fixed copper vessel, of the sort fairly common before the advent of modern piped heated water supplies.
We’ve – I’ve - also been digging at the east end of the axial trench. Here pantiles from the roof had been sorted prior to removal and a dump of broken ones discarded. Under that and other rubble layers there's more of the clay formation layer for flagstone flooring. The floor here wasn't level, though, but raised in shallow steps. Again striking lucky with precisely where we've dug, there's the foundation of a riser, built of brick and fragments of flagstone just inside the trench. With the eye of faith this just about lines up with a vertical break in the plaster remaining clinging to the east wall, where we suspect there was once a door frame.
It's always bitter sweet to reach the critical closing stages of a dig. Its now time to start cleaning up what we've discovered for recording in drawings, written notes and photography. It’s always tempting to dig that little bit further especially on an exploratory project like this – and that’s certainly what many of our hundreds of enthusiastic visitors say they’d like too. But we have to realistic about what can be done – and done to the right standard – with limited amounts of time and budget.
Last week I said I’d say something about the finds from the site, and never got around to it. It’s now clear that the building had well laid flagstone floors in every room that we’ve looked into. That was great news if you were trying to keep your home clean and tidy; its dreadful news for an archaeologist looking for a big accumulation of objects revealing the life of the building. Almost all of the potential finds have ended up on a midden somewhere else (which we might go looking for at some point in the future, perhaps).
So, as I described last week, most of what we’re finding comes from the building itself. There have just been a handful of shards of pottery (pretty commonplace stuff, and one fragment of late medieval green glazed pot). But two little finds stand out, especially as they are such powerful evocations of the people who lived here once. 
One is a simple dress pin, very much like ones you could buy today. I’m excited about that – yes, I know, I should get out more… but actually it is pretty exciting when we know that Emily Tinsley, one Victorian resident, was a dressmaker - and this might very well have been one of her pins.  The other is a dull brown fired clay child’s marble, a typical Victorian toy (not, as some visitors guessed, a fossilised Malteser, though you can see why they suggested it!): the only children mentioned in the census returns were Mary and Alice Harrison in 1861. Did one or other of them have a tearful evening when they realised that they’d lost one of their all too sparse toys?  
From boy loses girl, to girl loses marble, all in one blog. All of human life is here!