Sherborne’s “Pottery Workshop”

In this latest post our curator, Elisabeth Bletsoe, shares her recent discoveries whilst re-examining some of our archaeological finds.

Many of the excellent archaeological artefacts we have in reserve have been in disarray for some time; in the past the museum seems to have been the repository for the results of several digs in the town but information and context has become detached over time. Large parts of the collection are unaccessioned, others are recorded but lack numbering (so there is a danger of “reaccessioning”), while still others have numbers but neither object entry forms nor descriptions on the database. Our patient accessions team has been methodically working out what is on loan, for example from the Sherborne Castle Estates, and what is gifted – and this is not to mention the bags of unidentified and unwashed pottery sherds found under the stairs or stuffed under the sink in the second floor kitchenette! Luckily, I was able to enlist the help of our county Finds Liaison Officer, Ciorstaidh Trevarthen, who sorted through various groups of black burnished ware, medieval and post-medieval fragments and who was able to isolate a type she had not encountered before which was probably made locally and which she dubbed “Sherborne Beige Ware”.

Something that particularly intrigued me was the “Pottery Workshop, location unknown” labels that kept cropping up; eventually I gathered together from various boxes one single box of artefacts that I felt reasonably confident were associated with this designation. Several groups of sherds were numbered but had no recorded information. Some handwritten labels had pencilled on them “donated by C. Bean?” which led me to think that the pottery might have come from near the Old Castle as Charles E. Bean had carried out a number of excavations there in the 1930s. Some of the pottery was found in a box with pieces of Ham Hill stone labelled “15th century fireplace” and a loose card stating “found in ash-filled pit NW corner”.

15th Century Fireplace, Beckett Room

15th Century fireplace

I was puzzling over all this when I happened to glance through a report of excavations carried out at Sherborne Abbey 1964-73 by Jim Gibb entitled “The Anglo-Saxon Cathedral at Sherborne”. This described a series of digs by Sherborne School pupils under the direction of Jim Gibb and John Leach in the area west of the Abbey church and inside the west cloister range looking for evidence of the pre-Conquest structure. The words “late 15th century Ham Hill stone fireplace” caught my eye and, while reading the whole paragraph regarding a 1967 dig under the Beckett Room (where the School archives are currently kept),  the various pieces of the jigsaw fell into place:

“… a brief mention of the finds of later periods would be appropriate. The removal of the 19th century dado on the west wall uncovered 6 ft. of the south jamb…and also a fine late 15th century Ham Hill stone fireplace (Fig.3d), much mutilated. Some time in the first half of the 17th century the room had been used as a pottery. We uncovered: a cobble area and drain, post-holes of what had probably been a bench, a trough dug into the floor, lined with large flat stones with charcoal lying on its plain earthenware tiled floor. Mr. Kenneth Hudson identified the trough as a device for drying newly-turned pots before firing. Half the 15th century fireplace had been removed and a raised platform with a semi-circular back of burned stones in front of the fireplace probably formed the base of a bee-hive kiln. Many fragments of pottery, some not fired, were uncovered and, with the trough, are now in the Sherborne Museum”.

Labelled Diagram - Beckett Room.png

Diagram (my labelling) of the Beckett Room excavation showing features of pottery workshop (1967)

In the accompanying diagram, a burned depression was also found in the vicinity (the north wall of the NW transept) and many of the sherds accompanying the fireplace fragments are black and sooty. It seems that the fireplace had been converted to heat the kiln, the cobbled area may have been the site of the potter’s wheel and that the pottery shop remained in existence for about a generation. I contacted our President, Katherine Barker, on the subject and she commented: “yet another short term use of the former monastic range after its Dissolution”. Although I have not come across anything so far resembling a “trough” lining, it is very satisfying that the story of these pottery fragments can be told and that they can finally be placed into a context which gives them meaning.