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A Window into the Material World of Glastonbury Abbey - the Pottery Collection, by John Allan

Archaeological Adviser to the Abbey


Dr Hugo Blake (Royal Holloway)
David Dawson (formerly Somerset County Museums)
Dr Alejandra Gutiérrez (University of Durham)
Dr Mike Hughes (formerly British Museum Research Lab)
Dr Oliver Kent (University of the West of England)
Dr Elaine Morris (University of Southampton)
Dr Roger Taylor (formerly British Geological Survey)
Dr Jane Timby (independent researcher)

The excavations undertaken at the abbey in 1907-79 recovered more than 10,000 sherds of ceramics, including what is probably the largest collection of late Saxon pottery from Somerset. The team of researchers listed above has been brought together to identify and carry out scientific analysis of this major assemblage.

In the lecture three subjects were considered:

1. Site chronology

Previous studies of the abbey's pottery had identified early Roman, Anglo-Saxon, medieval and later material in the collection. Our new study has shown that Middle Iron Age, Late Iron Age, late Roman and Post-Roman ('Dark Age') wares are also present. There are about 300 sherds of Roman pottery, with coins, small finds and Roman tiles. The new identifications show that the history of occupation on the site is much more prolonged than had been appreciated, extending back to the third or fourth centuries BC, spanning the entire Roman period, and with exciting new evidence from the late 5th or 6th centuries - the Post-Roman or early Christian period.

The post-Roman amphorae

The recent recognition of 21 sherds of Post-Roman ('Dark Age') pottery has excited much interest. There are 19 from the 1950s excavations of Dr Ralegh Radford (mainly from below the west range of the cloisters) and two from the general mass of material whose provenance has been lost (mainly pre-1939). They come from amphorae (storage jars) of the type called in the Mediterranean 'Late Roman A1' and in the British Isles 'Class B2': utilitarian red earthenwares of the east Mediterranean, with rilled bodies, known to have been made at Antioch (Syria) and in Cyprus. One vessel shows 'pitching' (coating of the inner surface to reduce leakage); another has a scratched ('graffito') line. They demonstrate occupation on the site at some stage in the period c. AD 450-600; this could have been either secular or ecclesiastical.

2. The changing pattern of marketing pottery to the abbey

Identification of the fabrics of the ceramics allows us to reconstruct for the first time the changing pattern of pottery supply at the abbey over a long period. Surprisingly, it has emerged that most of the ceramics used at the abbey in the late Saxon period were supplied by potters working on the fringes of the Blackdown Hills, far to the south of the abbey, and these remained important suppliers in the 12th and 13th centuries. From the late 12th century, however, the abbey's strong demand for fine tableware was met increasingly by potters in the Bristol area, and they came to dominate the abbey's purchases in the later Middle Ages. The complete dominance of the abbey's ceramics by the potters of Bristol offers a striking contrast with the finds from other sites in the area - even those from the recent excavations at Shapwick, one of the abbey's manors, only a few km away. This suggests a different mechanism of supply to the abbey - possibly bulk purchasing, comparable to that which the royal household is known to have carried out. After 1500, the market switched again, first to South Somerset, but later to the kilns at Wanstrow.

3. The evidence for the wealth and status of the abbey

A scatter of exotic Saxon, Norman, medieval and later ceramics attests the great wealth of the abbey. They include a number of finds otherwise unrecorded in the county. The late Saxon material includes at least one remarkable glazed white ware bowl of unknown (?continental) origin. Imports of the Norman period include fine green-glazed jugs from Normandy and - much more unusual - sherds of a superb jug paralleled at Orléans. More predictably, the site has yielded examples of the late 13th- and 14th-century pottery from the Saintonge region of western France, which are widely distributed in Britain, including the celebrated polychrome ware. The later medieval finds include exotic products from Malaga, Valencia and Seville (Spain), and Tuscan tin-glazed pottery. Scientific analysis has now established the precise origins of some of these finds.


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