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  • Benjamin Cross

Excavations @ Cwm Dwfn House: Part 1


It started off innocently enough (doesn't it always). The garden's on a slope and I wanted to level part of it off to create a seating area. Sounds simple, right? It is! Unless of course you've got a thing for ancient trash...


So, I stripped the turf off the area in question and slung it on a heap. Even with down-time to nurse my nettle stings and red ant bites, I was steaming ahead with it. I was making such good time in fact that I decided to have me a little break. And that's when it all changed.


No sooner had my ass touched the grass than I spotted something sticking up out of the subsoil. 'Ah whatever,' I told myself. I'm not on the clock here. Who cares even. But who was I kidding. I reached out, plucked it from the soil and brushed the dirt away. It was a shard of 16th-/17th- century pot; for context, Elizabeth I was on the throne and Shakespeare was busy scribbling away during the second half of the 16th, while the Civil War (Charles v Cromwell) took place during the mid-17th, that sort of era.


Pottery of 'post-medieval' date (as it's referred to by my archaeological brothers and sisters) is not especially uncommon. It was during this period that it started to be massed produced, and the road and canal network was advanced enough for it to spread to the four corners.


For me, the interest comes from the fact that the earliest historical evidence for people living at my house, Cwm Dwfn, dates to the late-18th/early-19th Century. Below is the earliest map, penned by surveyor Thomas Budgen over 200 years ago in 1811 (late-Georgian; a year before Dickens was born).

You can see Cwmdwfyn in the middle, with the farmyard to the left of the 'C'. I won't say too much more about the documentary side of things as there's tonnes and I'll lose the thread; just to point out though that this is an earlier iteration of the farm, before it was re-modeled into your classic Victorian courtyard.


The other thing I'd draw your attention to is the area immediately north of the L-shaped northern boundary. Wouldn't that just be an ideal place to dump your trash for a few centuries, give the council time to devise some kind of refuse collection service? If you answered 'yes' then take a bow. That would seem to be pretty much what happened, and it's where I've been digging.


So I'd expected perhaps a few later-18th to 20th-century bits and pieces, consistent with the mapping and the late-Georgian/Victorian architecture. But I hadn't expected either the quantity and range of material that has turned up or the early date of some of it, which predates the house as mapped by some 200-300 years. So anyway, here are the more interesting pieces revealed so far, crudely arranged by type.

This is far from all of it. I'm at the halfway point in the dig and there's at least twice if not three times as much again, mainly the plain white shards in the bottom right corner. There's also plenty of more recent stuff and a good few non-pottery items of interest, chiefly glass and metal. No doubt I'll bore you with all of it in due course, but for now I'll stick to the above pottery. So what exactly are we looking at?


Disclaimer: working in archaeology does give you a good grasp of pottery types and dates etc. But there are those within the community who are true pottery experts; the sort of people who can chew the corner off a shard, date it to the decade (sometimes to the individual potter!), and identify e.g. where the clay was dug from, before swallowing it whole and asking for more. Most of us can't, and that includes me. So in the interest of full disclosure, what follows is an informed but pretty general overview.


Top left are the older (late-16th-/17th- century) pieces. These are shards of 'red earthenware', which was crude and robust, made for utility rather than display. The vessels were often glazed, more usually on the inside, so that they could hold liquid. The green and pale film is a lead-glaze, probably with added copper. The little grit-like inclusions you can see in the clay are known as 'temper', added to strengthen the vessel. I can be pretty certain that most of these shards, including that below are tempered with crushed gravel and imported from North Devon. Care to guess the name? If you said 'North Devon Gravel-Tempered Ware' then take another bow.


The above was produced from the 1550s onwards and was common throughout the 17th Century, alongside the adjacent brown lead-glazes. The pieces with a much darker glaze (below) developed as a variant during the later-17th Century, with notable output from the Staffordshire kilns; this black-glazed red earthenware was typically glazed on both sides, with the dark colour resulting from the addition of manganese.

In addition to these coarse utilitarian styles a range of finer wares started to be produced during the same late-16th/17th- century time period, in an attempt to rival the imports of Chinese porcelain. Practically every piece on the right half of the first photograph (the group shot) above falls into this category. Yes, it looks like 'china', but it's tin-glazed English 'delftware'.


First produced in Holland and originally known as 'Galleyware', numerous delftware production centres were soon established in Britain and, circumstantially, the pieces at Cwm Dwfn are likely to have come from Bristol. I seem to have found three main styles. The first is effectively porcelain imitation: blue on white chinoiserie decoration:

The second is a polychromatic painted style, with naive floral patterning. I have to say that this is my favourite; looks like the sort of thing I'd have produced aged 7:

The third is the standard plain white variety, which is by far the most common (literally buckets-full of this stuff is turning up):

Delftware was produced throughout the 18th Century, but by around 1750 it was being increasingly replaced by 'Slip-wares' and styles such as 'Creamware', a good example of which is below:

Fine ware pottery, decorated with a clay slip (coloured clay suspension) rather than a glaze, became increasingly ornate from the second half of the 18th Century. Several types have turned up so far. The first is so-called 'Tortoise Shell Ware', with its beautiful diffuse polychromatic finish:

The other is possibly the highest status pottery that I've turned up so far. Thin, with a lustrous black glaze, it is known as 'Jackfield Type Ware'. While it originated in Jackfield, Shropshire, the pieces I've recovered are more likely to have been manufactured at the Staffordshire potteries. Even after being buried in the earth for nearly 300 years it is still incredibly beautiful (check out the gold enamel):


Probably the second most common thing I'm finding after the tin-glazed or delft ware is brown-glazed red ware, variously known as 'Treacle Ware' and 'Rockingham Ware' amongst other variants. First produced in the second half of the 18th Century, it remained popular throughout the 19th.

Also from the 19th Century, there's plenty of stoneware, a robust hard-fired utilitarian fabric, which became pretty much ubiquitous:

Later shards that I've recovered include transitional white ware, chinoiserie transfer-printed ware, Pearlware, and hard- and soft- paste English Porcelain. The sorts of things that you will find most commonly in antiques stores.


So there we are. A representative domestic assemblage spanning the later-16th to 20th Centuries. Half a century of life and death at Cwm Dwfn. And I'm only halfway through the dig.


Lots more to come...

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