Pits and Pots - Recent Excavations in Lichfield

Many speakers, though technically in command of their subject, often fail to transfer their enthusiasm to their audience. This was definitely not the case with Richard Stone, a director of Marches Archaeology, based in Clun, Shropshire. Despite technical problems with the slide projector which extended the meeting until nearly 10pm, Richard's presentation on his company's work in Lichfield, gripped the audience. If there was ever a case of the past coming to life, this truly was the case in this talk.

We all thought that we knew the conventional history of Lichfield, of the construction of the Cathedral as we know it by Bishop Chad in the 1240s and the emergence of the town outside the cathedral precincts. But Richard explained to us that there was still much conjecture and scholarly debate about the actual framework of the medieval town and the changes which took place in the medieval period. Some suggest that there was a grid square pattern to the medieval streets, some suggest not, for instance.

Richard used a number of sites upon which his company had worked to develop his ideas about the structure of Lichfield in the thirteenth and fourteenth century. We started at the Arts Centre where pits had been dug as part of the projected redevelopment of the site. These showed that the Minster Pool had at some time prior to the twelfth century been smaller and had been enlarged or possibly moved away from the Cathedral to provide more land for the dwellings on the Pool side of the Close. How the Pool was crossed (since some suggest there was a road heading north here) is still a matter of debate. Surely not ferry some say, since the route north would be busy. But where's the evidence for a bridge?

On, then to the Swan Hotel site. Excavations at the rear revealed possible 'burgage plots'. These would have had dwellings on the street frontage, followed by a rear yard for the occupier's chosen trade. Evidence of a clay lined pit (in which to store water or other fluids) all too often led to the conclusion that perhaps a tanner had worked on this site.

The Sanford Street dig revealed further evidence of domestic occupation. A large excavation revealed complex boundary changes in medieval times. The team had discovered a number of pits, often containing medieval pottery fragments. They also discovered a range of cess pits, some well constructed, indicating the potential quality of accommodation in the area. Richard explained how archaeologists love cess pits. Micro examination of the material reveals plant seeds from which we can deduce much about the medieval diet. The Sanford Street site also provided evidence of a town ditch, but much more work is required to confirm its existence.

We had a brief look at the skeletons found on the Friary site. Some are female, confirming that the Friary might have been a single sex institution but both sexes were united in death. Then onto Greenhill where Richard showed us that archaeologists are experts above the ground as well as below it. The detective work at Greenhill was truly amazing. We have seen something of this type of work on the television but to see it applied to a well known Lichfield building was fascinating. Little by little his archaeologists had pieced together the physical history of the building as well as developing some ideas about its social history. One of the owners had clearly economised on materials internally in the roofspace to ensure a more ostentatious external display. So what's changed in building! Finally we went outside to look at the cesspits and wells and saw slides of an amazing find; a perfect medieval jug, recovered from one of the cesspits, no doubt abandoned as lost over six hundred years before.

The audience were united in their view that Richard had for them truly made archaeology come alive.

Roger Hockney
November 2004