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Blackfriars Barn Project

Volunteers from the Winchelsea Archaeological Society are currently engaged in identifying, sorting, recording and interpreting a huge quantity of broken pottery discovered in the cellar under the ruins of Blackfriars Barn in Winchelsea. The pottery dates mainly from the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and appears to have been deposited in the cellar during the first half of the 19th century, when the cellar of Blackfriars Barn was used as an unofficial town dump. The aim of the project is to gain insights, from the different types of pottery that local households threw away, into the social and economic status of early 19th century Winchelsea. This pioneering archaeology has been made possible by the sheer size of the deposit --- possibly the largest pottery assemblage in the South East of England --- which will also provide a unique benchmark against which the pottery finds of other archaeological investigations can be compared.

The broken pottery, together with a smaller quantity of broken glass bottles, plus some clay pipe, bits of bone and shell fragments, was poured into the cellar through the two windows which once allowed light into the front chamber, down shafts rising to street level. Over time, the pottery sherds and glass shards built up into a massive scree slope that stretched across the chamber to the base of the opposite wall and flowed into the middle chamber of the cellar. The deposit was dug out by archaeologists in 1976/77 and boxed up. Most of the glass subsequently disappeared.

WAS has taken on the task of sorting the pottery on behalf of the National Trust, which owns Blackfriars Barn. WAS volunteers are being trained and supervised by Luke Barber of the Sussex Archaeological Society.

The project

There are four stages to the project.

Stage One involved clearing the cellar of loose stonework and rubbish, and re-boxing the pottery. Stage One was completed in August 2005 by a team of WAS volunteers and other residents. The result was 34 plastic wastebins and 8 crates containing an estimated 130,000 sherds.

Stage Two started in May 2008. The pottery sherds were moved out of the cellar to a nearby building, where a team of four regular and several occasional WAS volunteers sorted them into different wares (eg Creamware, Pearlware, etc) after training by Luke Barber. This stage took about 300 man-hours and was completed in March 2010. The photograph below shows the team, together with David Lewis of the National Trust, in front of the sorted pottery.

Members of the WAS team and National Trust Warden David Lewis with the crates of sorted pottery from Blackfriars Barn, March 2010

The pottery was sorted into 100 plastic crates containing the following wares:

ware

quantity

Low-fired earthenware  
unglazed 4 crates
glazed red 20 crates
glazed red, fine 1 crate
high fired (Normandy/Midland Butterpot) 2 crates
slipware, late (Midlands) 4+ crates
slipware, Staffordshire combed bag
black-glazed redware, Rockingham 1/2 crate
brown-glazed redware, Rockingham 1/2 crate
Yellow Ware 3+ crates
tin-glazed (delftware) several bags
Stoneware
German, Raeren bag
German, Cologne/Frechen bag
German. Westerwald one item
German, seltzer bag
English, salt-glazed 3 crates
English, London bag
English, Bristol-glazed 2 crates
English, Nottingham 1 crate
English, Scratch Blue bag
English, blue bag
English, Basaltes matt bag
Englsih, Basaltes, gloss bag
English, white salt-glazed bag
Pearlware
undecorated 3 crates
transfer-printed, Blue Willow 5 crates
transfer-printed, other blue 3 crates
transfer-printed, other colours bag
transfer-printed, polychrome bag
transfer-printer, lustre decoration bag
hand-painted bag
marbled, stamped, stencilled bag
industrial slipware bag
Creamware
undecorated 7 crates
industrial slipware bag
hand-painted several bags
China
undecorated 9 crates
transfer-printed, Blue Willow 2 crates
transfer-printed, other blue 5 crates
transfer-printed, black or brown 3 crates
transfer-printed, red, green or purple 1 crate
transfer-printed, polychrome 1/4 crate
transfer-printed, lustre decoration 1/4 crate
hand-painted 1/4 crate
marbled, stamped, stencilled 1/2 crate
industrial slipware 1/2 crate
coloured or moulded 1 crate
Porcelain
English 2 crates
Chinese 1/2 crate

During Stage Two, WAS volunteers compiled a background guide to English pottery and a sorting guide based on the training received from Luke Barber and their own research. They also prepared sample boards, of which online versions are currently being produced.

Stage Three started in May 2010. It involves the detailed quantification and recording of the pottery assemblage, and the compilation of an archive of representative sherds. WAS volunteers are being trained in the necessaru skills by Luke Barber and by a professional archaeological illustrator. They are sorting the collection of sherds of each ware into different types of vessel (eg plates, saucers, dishes, cups, bowls and jugs), and recording the number of sherds, their weight and the Estimated Vessel Equivalent or EVE) of each vessel type. An EVE is the percentage of an original vessel represented by a sherd. It is calculated using a set of circles of different diameter set out in a diameter grid (see below). The edge of a rim fragment is aligned with the edge of whichever circle has the closest curvature. As the circles are segmented, it is possible to estimate the percentage of the original vessel represented by the fragment. The sum of the percentages of the fragments of the same type of vessel gives an estimate of the number of whole vessels in the deposit.

Diameter grid, as used to calculate the number of vessels present in an assemblage of sherds

Selected sherds will be photographed to show the range of patterns and maker's marks. All local earthenwares are being sorted into vessel types and an example of each will be drawn. These examples will be retained for long-term curation. Additional sample collections will be assembled for museums and a handling collection of pottery sherds will be put together for local schools to use in the "Victorians" section of their curriculum. The remaining pottery will be discarded.

Stage Four will involve writing up and publishing the results of the project, as well as disseminating them through lectures. However, this stage is dependent on securing funding.

There is still a lot to do and we would welcome more volunteers. Call us on 01797-225333.

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Do you need a diameter grid?

We were unable to buy a professional diameter grid to measure EVEs, so we had one produced. If you need your own diameter grid, we can provide a laminated version with an adhesive backing that can be stuck to a board. The cost, including packaging and postage, is 25. Call 01797-225333.

The history of Blackfriars Barn

Blackfriars Barn is the name for the standing ruins situated on Rectory Lane (A259) in Winchelsea, opposite Wesley's Chapel, on the northeast corner of the Cricket Field. The name "Blackfriars Barn" is a bit of a misnomer. Although the building was used as a barn during the 19th century, when it burnt down, it was never owned by the Black Friars (Dominicans). From 1358, they occupied a site further north, on the corner of Rectory Lane/Roberts Hill and Mill Lane (Pipewell Field).

Although the ruins of Blackfriars Barn consist of just three stone walls, there is sufficient remaining to allow archaeologists to reconstruct the original building. It appears to have been a three-bay hall, set at right angles to the road, probably lit by a Gothic window in the front wall and with a door onto the street. The rear of the hall was partitioned off and divided into two floors. Two back doors on the ground floor opened out into a rear courtyard, one giving access to a covered way, which probably led to a separate kitchen building.

Unusually, the hall had a canopied fireplace against one wall, rather than a central hearth on the floor. This seems to have been intended to maximise floorspace. The first floor room at the back of the hall led to a garderobe projecting into the next-door plot and over a cesspit far larger than would be required by a domestic property. The desire to maximise the floorspace and the size of the cesspit suggests that this was a public, rather than a domestic, building. For example, it may have been a guildhall.

Underneath the ruins is the finest of Winchelsea's 56 known medieval cellars. There are three chambers. The front and rear chambers have quadrilateral ribbing: the middle chamber is barrel-vaulted. The front and rear chambers each have two windows. Unusually for the period, the windows were glazed. They opened into light wells ascending to street level. The presence of windows, the sub-division of the cellar into three chambers (partitioned wine cellars were illegal) and the fact that the front chamber has a fireplace recessed into a side wall, indicate that this was not a wine cellar. The building was derelict by 1364 and is assumed to have been destroyed during the French attack of 1360, reinforcing the argument that it was a public building (as such buildings would have been targeted). It does not appear to have been rebuilt or re-occupied until its use as a barn.