Dig Diary 4, Rustic Cottage at Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal

Mark Newman, Archaeological Consultant Mark Newman Archaeological Consultant
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Published : 18 Sep 2016 Last update : 17 Apr 2020

Carrying on yesterday’s movie metaphor, we move on to the last day of the dig and the cliffhanger of whether we’re going to understand our second fireplace or not.

Ok, so possibly over-egging the pudding just a bit, but we really were very keen to try and sort out what was going on with the suspected ash pit, before completing this year’s excavations.
Fortunately, further digging did start to reveal some interesting answers. It definitely is an ash pit, which we ended up emptying of its last charge of ashes (including a shard of a blue and white transfer decorated saucer). It now looks like the disturbed stonework between the pit and wall is probably in situ. We realised that the courses of stonework that would have included the hearthstone of any fire (if it was at the same height as that on the other side of the wall) were missing here. So it seems safe to conclude that both fireplaces were probably indeed contemporary and features of the original design of the building. It was such a thin wall that one really can’t imagine anyone daring to cut into it from both sides to insert flues if they were later adaptations.
Other questions remain, though. I’d normally expect an ash box to lie at least partially under the hearth and the flue, in the “thickness” of the wall, if you see what I mean. This one, though, seems to have been located wholly in front of the wall face. It’s possible that it was fully in front of the fire, and that you could sweep the ashes into it rather than just letting them fall straight in – but that’s not entirely convincing. The only other alternative is that the fire stepped forward from the wall, under a projecting smoke hood. Now that’s a very interesting possibility, especially given the C19 report of a stone mask of a bearded man with an open mouth (through which smoke issued) over the fireplace. You can easily envisage that on a smoke hood. All this might chime with our other discovery, that the clay base for the flagstones adjoining the ash box was six or seven inches higher than elsewhere, showing that the floor was raised around it too, making the whole fireplace a feature of the room. 
Unfortunately, as far as definitive answers are concerned, our luck with this year’s trench locations finally ran out. We really need to see out beyond the sides of our trench to explore the possibilities any further. That will have to wait for another year. So, if we take the “boy meets/loses/finds girl” plotline to its conclusion, think more “Star Wars Episode 4” than “Brief Encounter”…
It’s now Sunday evening, and it feels a little bit like the day after the school play. Months of preparation and anticipation, fantastic excitement and enjoyment during the show itself, and now deflation that it’s all over. The project seems to have been a tremendous success: we found some as really interesting and significant archaeology, with clear potential for further investigation, and filled in a lot of detail about an important garden building, long missing from the landscape. I expect we’ll realise that we’ve discovered even more than we currently think we have, once we sit down, analyse the findings and write the project report over the coming months. It’s shown us the way forward for exploring the site further, which we can also now plan in detail.
Just as important as all that, was that so many people had a great opportunity to visit Studley and watch history being rediscovered right on the spot. The viewing platform worked brilliantly, offering a great chance to look into the trenches, while also being close enough to them that everyone felt they were on the dig too. It was ideal too for me, to be able to talk to so many people and try to enthuse them about archaeology – especially our younger visitors. People really seemed to enjoy what we were able to offer them: I hope that was indeed the case, and can’t wait to meet them again when we’re next back on site.