Aldin Grange Pottery Kilns Watching Brief

County Durham

Client

Northumbrian Water

Services

Excavation

In 1996, NAA carried out a watching brief in advance of the construction of a water pipeline west of Durham City. It ran from the A167 (the former Great North Road) at Neville's Cross westwards for 4km past Bearpark village. The potential archaeological interest lay in the east of the route, which crossed the site of the Battle of Neville’s Cross (1346), where the army of King David II of Scotland was comprehensively destroyed by an English army led by Lord Ralph Neville.

For much of the route, topsoil stripping revealed only a thick subsoil horizon resulting from medieval ridge-and-furrow cultivation, which masked any archaeological features. However, a small test pit to determine the thickness of the subsoil was fortuitously located over a medieval pottery kiln!

Following this discovery, the subsoil layer was removed and the kiln (Kiln A) and several other features were excavated. The kiln had stone walls and had been elliptical in plan with a stoke-pit at the north end. A flue to the south extended beneath a hedgerow and had been truncated by a road cutting. A gully flanking the kiln may have been for drainage. There was evidence for multiple firings of the kiln, with layers of firing debris and burnt sand inside the kiln and more debris raked out into the stoke-pit. A second kiln (Kiln B) was identified in the pipe trench in an adjacent field, which was recorded in section and a pottery assemblage recovered.

The excavation collected nearly 20,000 pottery sherds, together with over 1,800 fragments of fired-clay and sandstone slabs that probably represented kiln furniture. Some sandstone slabs retained the outlines of the rims or base of the pots that had been stacked on them. The pottery vessels in Kiln A were mainly jars and jugs, with a small number of skillet handles and a possible urinal, mostly in a sandy buff fabric (although fired to a range of colours), often with green glaze. Some of the fabrics in Kiln B were grittier, and the vessels were mostly of a jar form not found in Kiln A suggesting either a different date for the kiln or a different potter. Charcoal from the Kiln A stoke-pit indicated that the main fuel used was oak, although other tree species were present (perhaps as kindling). A few fragments of coal suggested occasional use of this fuel, which is attested as being mined at Aldin Grange in the 15th century.

Archaeomagnetic dating of Kiln A indicated that it had last been fired in AD1340–1375, a period that coincides with the date of the Battle of Neville’s Cross (1346). Prior to the battle, the Scottish army devastated the countryside, so perhaps the potters at Aldin Grange were driven off or killed and the kilns destroyed prior to the battle. The aftermath of the battle also spilled into this area, and King David II is said to have been captured only 100m from Kiln A, hiding under Aldin Grange Bridge.

Following the pipeline works, a geophysical survey of the remainder of the Kiln A field revealed magnetic anomalies likely to represent kilns, suggesting that the excavated examples formed part of a large and previously unrecorded medieval pottery industry. The kiln site is a short distance downstream from the Beaurepaire estate of the Priors of Durham. It may have operated under their auspices and must have been a major supplier of pottery to the nearby city.

The excavation at Aldin Grange demonstrated NAA’s ability to react to unexpected and complex discoveries in a timely and professional manner, recovering the maximum amount of information while avoiding any significant delay to the pipeline construction works. The archaeological work also provided an opportunity to engage the local community with publication of newspaper articles and a site visit by local primary school children.

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