“You always find the best stuff on the last day”: Unearthing a medieval tile floor at Westgate Oxford

Ben Ford, Oxford Archaeology | 14 July 2016

Archaeologist Ben Ford from Oxford Archaeology on a discovery during the Westgate excavation, which won the Best Archeological Project category at the British Archaeological Awards 2016

a photo of a patch of fleur-de-lys patterned tiles
The 13th century tile pavement uncovered at Westgate Oxford© Oxford Archaeology
There is a basic rule of archaeological fieldwork which says “you always find the best stuff on the last day”… And so that moment arrived on the Westgate Oxford site. Well, it wasn’t exactly the last day, and it was one of many great discoveries, but the pressure was on - with construction teams and heavy machinery ready to move into this particular area within a matter of days.

I was sat at my desk in Oxford Archaeology’s offices on a small industrial estate not far from the site when my mobile rang and Ben Attfield (the on-site project officer in charge of the team) said over the background din of demolition and construction activity “we’ve found a decorated tile floor - it’s really nice…”.

The next moment an image pinged into my inbox which showed me what he was talking about - modern tech is great for keeping up to date with site developments). “I’m on my way”.

Half an hour later I was standing with Ben, Tom Black and Adam Fellingham (area supervisors) on the edge of the trench looking at the only surviving section of medieval decorated tiled floor that we had found since the dig began 13 months previously.

a photo of a group of archaeologists cleaning tiles with scrapers and brushes
13th century tile pavement revealed by archaeologists Georgia Wood, and Benjamin Brown in last week of the dig at Westgate Oxford© Oxford Archaeology
It wasn’t large, but we estimated 350-plus tiles or so, and the hint of an interesting pattern through the roughly brushed surface. We discussed what we needed to do; clean and fully reveal the extent, then survey it and compare it to the new foundation designs to see if it could be left ‘in situ’, i.e. preserved in the ground.

By the next morning we had shown our survey to the site engineers, the pavement was directly in the location of a crucial foundation that could not be moved. The survey also showed us that the surface formed the south east corner of the cloister walk pavement - a walkway which would have run around the entire main cloister.

The main cloister was formed of a central open area (probably grassed), surrounded by a covered walkway - the cloister walk. This connected the most important buildings in the friary; the church (to the north), the sacristy and chapter house (usually in the east range), and the lodgings and libraries (in the south and west ranges).

A close up of medieval patterned tiles with fleur-de-lys design
© Oxford Archaeology
Another site meeting was quickly convened to explain the situation to Oxford City Council’s archaeologist, David Radford - and it was agreed that we should record and excavate (in such a way that it could be reconstructed at a later date), but we only had 2.5 days!

We used photogrammetry, a quick and accurate method of recording which we had been developing during the project. The pavement was properly cleaned with water and sponges (which brought out the colours beautifully), and then took multiple high resolution digital photos and combined them in Agisoft, clever software which uses algorithms to produce an accurate 3D digital model.

By the next day we had a scaled print-off of the entire pavement in plan on a drawing board on site. We overlaid this with permatrace and pencilled the outline of the tiles and labeled each one with a unique “small find” number. Knowing that accurate detail could be added to the drawing at a later stage, we were ready to lift, which we completed the following day to meet our deadline.

The tiles were probably made near Newbury in West Berkshire and are of the 'Stabbed Wessex' type, whose main period of use was between AD 1280 – 1350.

a close up of medieval tiles in situ with fleur-de-lys design
© Oxford Archaeology
These were probably laid in the 1240’s-50’s when the friary was constructed. The larger tiles are about 15cm square and 3cm thick and have very deeply-inlaid white slip patterns including daisies, fleur-de-lys and curved-sided 4-pointed ‘stars’. The reverse is characterised by ‘stabbing’ of the wet clay during manufacture, these indents help to keep them mortared into place.

I think the pavement is the most beautiful discovery of the excavation. I love the craftsmanship, the simple designs, the pattern the tiles have been laid in, and the colourful overall effect; but most fascinating, and perhaps poignant, is the worn texture created by many hundreds of thousands of footsteps over the 300 years of the friary's life.

For more info, videos of talks, downloadable posters, and a 3D model of the tile pavement for everyone to play with visit our web page http://oxfordarchaeology.com/community/westgate-excavations.

This is one of a series of ongoing guest blog posts by winners and finalists from the British Archaeological Awards 2016.

More on this story:

"Archaeology is pure pleasure": "Britain's Pompeii" and mesolithic pendant among victors at British Archaeological Awards 2016

British Archaeology Awards 2016: MOLA on winning in 2014

Win all three books shortlisted for the British Archaeological Awards 2016

British Archaeological Awards 2016: Winners to be announced on July 11
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