Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Medieval remains found at heart of Cambridge University

A hoard of historic finds, including Roman pottery, medieval remains and the bones of an 11th-century dog have been found at the heart of Cambridge University during an excavation to mark its 800th anniversary.

The dig, which has been taking place eight feet underneath a staff tea room in the University's central offices, known as the Old Schools, has uncovered material which is believed to pre-date the Norman Conquest.

It is the first hard evidence that more than 150 years before the University's foundation in 1209, the area which now forms its administrative hub was occupied by a bustling Anglo-Saxon community.

Archaeologists have unearthed a number of animal bones, boundary markings and signs of quarrying, which suggest that in the final decades of the Saxon era, the foundations of what was to become the middle of the university city were being laid.

Higher up, at what is being referred to as the "1209 level", other materials have helped to provide a snapshot of life at the time of the University's foundation 800 years ago.

"The site has enabled us to prove what we previously had no proof for - that by the time of the Norman Conquest, there was a thriving settlement in the middle of Cambridge," Richard Newman, site director with the Cambridge Archaeological Unit, said.

"Until now this was one of the least-investigated parts of the city. What it has shown is that a century and a half before the University arrived and 300 years before it started to build in this area, people were already living and working here. The boundaries marking where their homes begin and end do not change for several centuries, until the University moved in."

The dig has reached what would have been ground level in ancient times, before even the Saxons arrived. Cambridge was founded by the Romans, who occupied the area on the other side of the River Cam, and pieces of Roman pottery which were probably unearthed as the land was ploughed by later generations have also been found on the site.

In Anglo-Saxon times, a cluster of domestic properties started to emerge. The dog, which appears to date back to that period, would probably have been a valuable ally for the self-sufficient family that owned it.

"It would have been a working animal and an essential part of the household at the time, used for tasks such as catching rabbits," Newman added. "A dog would also have given people security, it was useful when it came to protecting your possessions, and it was cheaper than a lock!"

By the time the first scholars arrived to found the University in 1209, the area was a busy commercial centre. At the 1209 level, archaeologists have found the remains of a number of 13th century houses, large quantities of "Stamford Ware" pottery which was popular at the time, and the bones of cattle and sheep that would have been reared and eaten by the people who lived there.

The original frontage of the Old Schools, now part of one of the most iconic and photographed sites in England, has also been found. Although the early academic community lived and lectured in private houses in the medieval town, by the late 13th century it had begun to organise itself into something resembling a small but structured university.

In 1275, Nigel de Thornton, a Doctor of Physic, gave much of the land on which the buildings now stand to the University and the construction of a Divinity School and University offices began. The first building was finished around 1400 and further construction followed. In 1754, the eastern façade of the schools was given a grand redesign, creating the white, neo-classical frontage visitors see today.