Archaeological Work at Binham Priory
A number of excavation campaigns have taken place in the precinct at Binham Priory since the 1930s. However, little of this work has been published before now.
- Large-scale excavations and clearance work was undertaken by the Ministry of Works in the 1930s. The Norfolk Archaeological Trust, with grant aid from English Heritage, has now commissioned a systematic study of their results. These excavations produced many important finds which had remained in storage for decades.
- During 2005–8, several small excavations took place in and around the Priory in connection with the interpretation and conservation works funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund.
A full report on all the various excavations and finds analyses relating to Binham Priory has been completed for the Trust by Sue Anderson of Spoilheap Archaeology, and will be published in due course in the journal Norfolk Archaeology. The following provides a summary of the work carried out, along with links to some of the archive reports and other material.
Clearance work in the 1930s and 1960s
Clearance work in progress in 1936
The first recorded excavations at the priory site were carried out in the early 20th century. Excavations of the south choir aisle and presbytery took place in summer 1930. The site was transferred into state guardianship on 26 October 1933, and clearance took place every summer from 1934 until 1938. A newspaper cutting from 1933 provides some details.
An undated, anonymous typed note from the Ministry of Works files on Binham states:
'In 1934 the Department commenced to trace the plan of the Priory and to preserve the ruin against further depreciation and neglect. When the monument was transferred under the Act, there was litle or no indication of the general layout of the Benedictine Priory. Since that date the Lady Chapel, Chancel, Chapter House, Dorter Range, Cloisters, Southern and part of Eastern Ranges of Claustral buildings, have been exposed, and much of the masonry preserved. The Department’s ultimate object is to expose the whole plan of the Benedictine Priory… Amongst discoveries may be mentioned the unique treatment of the Chapter House shafts and vaulting, also important finds of 13th, 14th and 15th-century stained glass.'
On 17 October 1938, P.K. Baillie Reynolds of the Office of Works wrote that 'the excavations here are almost complete', and work finished just before the outbreak of war.
Whatever records may have been made at the time did not survive the war or the sudden death of the excavator, Henry Neville of Tasburgh Hall. Neville had retired from the Indian Civil Service and, as far as we can tell, had no archaeological training and probably did not recognise the need to make records. Some artefacts were kept, however, and form part of the collections of the Norfolk Museum and Archaeology Service in Norwich, whilst the carved stone is held by English Heritage. In 1935, Neville gave a lecture to a local archaeological society; his notes are available here.
Excavations were also undertaken in 1964 at the external angle of the south and west claustral ranges where a thick mortar and flint raft, overlain by sixteenth-century refuse from the adjacent kitchens, was identified. A short report on this work was included in 'Medieval Britain in 1964', part of Medieval Archaeology Volume 9 (available on the Archaeological Data Service website here).
The recent work
In 2005, Archaeological Project Services (APS) carried out a number of archaeological investigations prior to the construction of the new toilet and visitor facility located within the former north aisle of the church. The assessment report on this work, including context information, site plans and finds reports, is available from the links below.
Area B. Foundations of the precinct wall (Scale 2m)
Purbeck Marble grave slab (Scale 10cm)
Area G: Phase 3.3 drain after excavation (Scale 50cm)
An excavation in 2007 along the line of the collapsed precinct wall, adjacent to the gatehouse, was designed to identify the original course. In 2008, excavations of areas associated with access to the new visitor building within the north aisle, and service trenches across the modern graveyard were carried out. Other works included the excavation of pits for four new interpretation panels within the ruins of the claustral ranges, and excavation within the gatehouse during road surfacing and path resurfacing to the church.
Amongst the discoveries was an early burial located beneath the 12th-century wall of the north aisle. Radiocarbon dating of one of the bones provided a date range of AD 770–970. Another burial, dug through the first, also seems to pre-date the construction of the Norman church. Their presence suggests that there may have been a pre-Conquest church, though whether this was a Saxon minster or monastic community is unprovable.
A large pit was found outside the west end of the church and was probably contemporary with the construction of the 12th-century church. Its size suggests a quarry pit, extracting chalk and perhaps flint for building. There was evidence for burning on the side of the pit, and perhaps it was used to burn the chalk to create lime mortar. A rudimentary lime kiln was discovered in a similar position in front of the church at North Elmham, excavated by Peter Wade Martins.
A drain from the kitchen and through the outer parlour was found adjacent to the west end of the church. The projected course of this drain would take it northwards through the graveyard and out into the field beyond, draining into the Stiffkey River. The drain seems to have replaced earlier ditches, which may also have sub-divided the precinct. A bridge-like structure just in front of the west door seems to have provided a crossing point into the church.
Two parallel ditches to the west of the church may indicate the position of an early route into the precinct. On the same alignment, the wall enclosing the yard west of the prior’s lodgings continued south-east as a modern field boundary skirting the claustral ranges. The enclosure map of 1815 shows a footpath along the same route, which is still in use today.
Excavations along the course of the precinct wall revealed evidence for a building within a yard surrounded by an earthwork boundary to the south and building to the east. The building abutted the 15th-century gatehouse and was probably contemporary with, or later than, that structure. The building’s function is unknown but possibilities include a stable, barn or almonry. Few artefacts were found in the demolition layers, suggesting the area was kept clean.
At the north-east corner of this enclosure lies the earthwork remains of a rectangular building, from which some demolition material was retrieved during the investigations. Again, function of this structure is unclear though Richard de Parco’s works included a wall from the gatehouse to the chapel of St Thomas, which would accord well with the layout of the remains. A second gateway leading to an inner court may provide an alternative explanation.
Analysis of the 1930s artefacts
Norfolk Archaeological Trust commissioned the study of the large assemblage of clearance finds in 2007. Reports were prepared on the pottery, ceramic building materials, worked stone, metal small finds and coins. These are summarised below. At the end of each section there is a link to a full report in PDF format.
Grimston Ware jug, 13th/14th-century
Cologne stoneware sherds
Apart from a very high proportion of glazed wares, the medieval pottery assemblage is not particularly unusual for the county. The main coarseware was a type found frequently in Norwich. Glazed wares were almost exclusively of Grimston type, most of which were probably made at the production site near King’s Lynn, but other Norfolk producers may have contributed some wares, and from further afield there were a few vessels from Surrey, the Low Countries, France and other unknown production sites. Vessel forms were limited to the normal medieval range of jars, bowls and jugs, with occasional oddities such as handled jars, pipkins and face jugs.
Much of the pottery assemblage probably relates to the last decades of the Priory’s life. During this period, a very wide variety of ceramic vessels was both available to, and used by, the monastic community. The overwhelming majority in the assemblage, however, is related to the storage and consumption of liquids.
It seems that the Priory was buying stoneware mugs, and some jugs, in bulk from the later 14th century onwards. These vessels were brought into the east coast ports by Dutch merchants. They may have been a popular choice at Binham due to proximity of the port at Blakeney. A few mugs of approximately the same date occurred in local and imported earthenwares, but these were a very minor part of the assemblage. Jugs were more likely to be in locally produced fabrics, particularly Grimston and late medieval and transitional (LMT) ware.
Cooking and food storage vessels were most commonly in the local wares, but were supplemented by Dutch redwares. Some more unusual and exotic vessels were found, including chafing dishes, a possible lantern, a sgraffito slipware dish, costrels and flasks, and water sprinklers.
A few vessels showed evidence for use beyond the normal water boiling, food preparation, cooking and consumption roles. A good example of this is the ‘Tudor green’ mug which contained the remains of vermilion, presumably used in the preparation of illuminated manuscripts. Another of these vessels had some writing, perhaps the owner’s name, scratched into the base. Pots which have evidence of sooting internally may have been used as lamps, perhaps to light the work being carried out in the scriptorium. The larger vessels which contained such deposits could have been used as mini braziers to provide heat for cold hands involved in such intricate work, although they could also have been used as an aid to warmth in cold dormitories or as makeshift chafing dishes at table.
Also found were several crucibles which attest to the industrial side of monastic life, and indicate that non-ferrous metalworking was being practised. Some evidence of horticulture was also identified in the form of water sprinklers, and it is possible that other pots could have been used or re-used to cultivate plants. A large jar made at Glapthorn (Northants), for example, had many pockmarks on the lower half, reminiscent of plantpots which have been left outside and affected by frost action during the winter months.
The few vessels which post-dated the monastic use of the site were largely of 18th- to 20th-century date. Pottery of this date is often found in churchyards and presumably represents the casual disposal of rubbish from nearby houses, although some of the horticultural vessels may be present as a result of tending of flower beds in this period.
Tile and brick
Glazed floor tile from the North Transept
Tiled floor in the North Transept
The small but highly variable group of roof tiles in this collection provides some information on the construction and appearance of roofing around the Priory in the medieval period. It is likely that the church itself had a lead roof, but the domestic and official areas of the House were probably roofed with ceramic tiles, the majority of which were glazed. Finials and crested roof tiles would have provided a decorative finish to the apex of some, presumably those which were most visible from the ground. There may also have been decorative, green glazed, louvres and vents. The overall effect would have been one of colour – bright greens, browns and oranges – in contrast with the grey and white walls and, when new, such roofs must have shone in the sunlight.
The walls themselves were generally constructed with flint and rubble cores. Some broken roof tiles, bricks and possibly Roman tiles were incorporated into these, but were never intended to be seen. The church walls were faced with dressed stone, whilst those of the lesser structures had flint faces, probably hidden by plaster or textile hangings internally. The only areas where bricks and roof tiles might have been visible within the structure itself were the hearths and other fire-related structures, many of which were probably late medieval additions.
The 1930s collection, like the surving in situ ceramic building material, is heavily biased towards flooring. The tiles which survive are likely to have been laid originally in the 14th-15th centuries. Potentially the decorative examples came first, though the presence of both relief and inlaid types in a variety of fabrics suggests that they represent different areas of flooring and perhaps different periods of construction. The remaining areas of Flemish tile on the site indicate that the decorative examples were probably replaced by the plainer variety, perhaps in the 15th century.
It is unlikely that all five areas of surviving floor represent the original schemes laid at that time. The southern part of the floor surrounding the altar in the North Transept is laid out as a chequerboard pattern and this may be original (photo), but the northern end of this area appears to have been relaid at some point as it is poorly aligned with the rest of the scheme and consists largely of yellow tiles. The other areas in the North and South Transept are generally too worn to determine the intended schemes, although they may have been similar to the South Aisle area, which has alternating squares of nine tiles – eight dark around one light or vice versa. The area in the Presbytery is also heavily worn.
It was not uncommon for areas of tiles to be patched, uplifted and relaid many times, particularly in areas where burials were likely to have taken place. Often there was little regard for the original schemes, which had in any case frequently been lost due to heavy wear. Worn tiles were sometimes even relaid with their bases upwards, and examples from excavations in Norwich have been found with traces of bedding mortar on both surfaces.
It is likely that the few relief tiles in this group were made in the kilns at Bawsey, in north-west Norfolk, whilst the closest parallels for the counter-relief tiles are found in Suffolk and Essex. The inlaid tiles present more of a problem in suggesting a provenance. There are no known production sites of this type of tile closer than south Essex, and many of the parallels identified for the Binham tiles are as far afield as London and Wessex. Whilst it is possible that tiles could have travelled these distances, it was more usual for them to be sourced locally due to their weight. The presence of inlaid tiles in King’s Lynn and Horsham St. Faith may suggest that there was a manufacturer working in the area, even if only for a brief period. Tiles of this type were certainly not as ubiquitous in East Anglia as they were in the south and west of England so, if they were not being made locally, perhaps the wide-ranging national and international contacts available within the Benedictine order itself might explain their presence here.
Decorative Caen stone panel, perhaps from the Gatehouse or once part of a font or pulpit
There are 328 loose stones from Binham Priory, held in store by English Heritage. These were briefly catalogued and assessed as part of the 2007 project and a report was prepared on the types present and their suitability for display on site. More than two-thirds of the collection was found to be Barnack-type limestone, as would be expected since most of the standing building were built in this stone. Most of the remainder is Caen stone from Normandy. Other limestones and clunch (locally sourced chalk) are also represented.
More than a third of the collection comprises Romanesque stones, including fragments of capitals, bases and shafts of columns, impost blocks from windows, a corbel, voussoirs and springers from arches, arcade heads, and pieces of string courses.
Only a tenth of the group is Early Gothic and comprises a few pieces of column, windowhead, possible oculi, and 13th-century or earlier vaulting.
Around 40% of the collection post-dates c.1230. Like the earlier material, columns, string-courses, vaulting and arches are represented, and there is a large group of tracery elements and other window fragments. A large square panel (590mm) divided into triangular fields around a central lozenge; each triangle cusped around a Tudor rose; lozenge contains letters ‘ihc’ (the sacred monogram) is in Caen stone and perhaps came from the gatehouse, or was part of a piece of liturgical furniture such as a font or pulpit.
Fragments from tombs and screens are also present, and there are several pieces of an important fourteenth-century pedestal that may once have been related to a shrine or statue canopy. These have been reported on elsewhere (Hall, J. and Atherton, J., 2011, ‘Devotion and image at Binham Priory: a 14th-century hexagonal stone pedestal’, Norfolk Archaeol. 46, 153–70).
15th-century lead figure, perhaps of the Virgin Mary
Fifty-five metal objects, including six coins and jettons and seven fragments of monumental brass, survive from the 1930s clearance work. Fifteen objects, seven of copper alloy, four of lead and four of iron are either undatable or recent. What has come down to us is a misleadingly sparse sample. It can be assumed that many pieces were not seen during the work, and it is quite likely that others were retrieved but not retained.
Two shortcomings of the assemblage are particularly striking, the scarcity of iron objects and the presence of a solitary lead window came. A book mount and three objects with religious associations – a pilgrim badge, a lead sheet depicting the Annunciation, and a lead figurine of Mary – are highly suggestive of what else may have been missed during the work.
Identifiable high and late medieval objects included a buckle, a belt mount, a lace chape, a purse bar, a spoon bowl, fragments of cast copper vessels, a trade weight of Henry VII or VIII, a cast lead weight, an iron knife with bone handle, five iron keys and a horseshoe. Only two medieval coins, both of Edward IV, were collected, and there were two jettons and two post-medieval coins.