Thursday, 13 February 2014

Preliminary work gets underway on the Old Grammar School

From March 2014 until Spring 2015, Coventry Transport Museum is undergoing a major £8.5m redevelopment project, which will transform and re-energise the museum, enabling us to tell the story of our City's proud motoring heritage in a world-class, innovative new way.  As part of this project, which is funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and European Regional Development Fund, we will be redeveloping our neighbouring Grade I listed, 12th-century Hospital of St John, which became a Grammar School in the 16th century, and is known now as ‘The Old Grammar School’.  This will be brought back into public use as an exhibition, education and events space.

Whilst the work is not due to begin in earnest until the end of March 2014, preliminary work has already begun on the Old Grammar School, particularly with regards to the vital matters around conservation, which must be undertaken when dealing with such an old building.

We thought that visitors to our blog would be particularly interested to read about the archaeological excavation which took place at the end of January 2014.  Following an initial exploratory dig in June 2013, the archaeology service of Warwickshire County Council (Archaeology Warwickshire) established that enough items of interest existed within the building to warrant this full dig in January.  This meant excavating the high floor level in the former chapel down to a similar level as elsewhere on the ground floor

The dig took place in the chapel room, where the concrete floor was removed, revealing evidence that a wooden floor had once existed within this room, and some rotten joist remains were found. This meant that as soon as the concrete floor was removed, the archaeologists immediately began to find items of interest, almost on the surface.  This included old slate pencils and marbles, probably lost through the boards of the floor by schoolboys of centuries ago!

Many of the items found were pieces of clay smoking pipes, some of which even had the maker’s names or initials stamped onto them.  The archaeologists explained to us that they can date such pipes with a good degree of accuracy by using the size and shape of the pipe bowls to determine their age.  Because tobacco became more affordable through the ages (at least until very recent times!), in general the smaller the pipe, the older it is likely to be.  The pipes found in the chapel are thought to be from the late 1600s and early 1700s - quite an amazing thought.

Other finds included a number of ‘jettons’ or ‘reckoning counters’ – coin-like objects used in the calculation of accounts.  Jettons would have represented a value, by means of their position on a reckoning table (or cloth) also known as an abacus.  These items are thought to date from the later 1500s to the early 1600s, as their use probably ceased soon after this period.  Single copper coins of Charles I and Charles II were also found along with a copper token of Robert Bedford, a local businessman who was mayor of Coventry in 1650, and several lead tokens. 

The relatively large number of coin-like objects strongly suggests that schoolboys were playing games with them and used whatever counters they could get hold of.  Several small objects made from animal bone (a common material until the invention of plastics) seem almost certainly to be ‘apple-corers’, again probably belonging to pupils at the school.  These seem to date from the 1600s and 1700s (17th and 18th centuries).

We were also excited with the discovery of pieces of glass from the original stained glass window, some with painted designs and others which were red and blue in colour.  The windows would not have been the only decoration as glazed and patterned fragments of floor tiles from one of the building’s medieval floors (probably a 14th-century one) were also found.  A mortar surface exposed, 1.4m below the original floor level of the dig (in a test-hole to see if any medieval floor level survived) would have been the base for such a tile floor, showing how much the level had been raised within the chapel.  The question of why the floor was raised so much is still not certain.  All we do know is that it was not due to dampness or flooding as the deepest excavation was still dry even after the wettest January since records began!

The finds from the dig have now been taken away by Archaeology Warwickshire staff, to Warwick, where they will be cleaned and examined.  Some of the finds, such as the pottery, will be sent off to specialists.

As well as a large number of finds, the reduction of the floor level revealed a buried medieval feature within one of the walls.  This was a sandstone piscina, essentially a small basin in which a priest would wash the communion plate and chalice after a service.  The water used for this was considered sanctified and was often used for the poor and the sick (appropriate for a hospital).  The piscina is a useful find as it proves that this part of the building was used as a chapel and it was already believed that it was once the chapel of St Katherine.  The buried walls of the building were still covered by layers of medieval plaster and whitewash.

This work is just the very start of what will be a really important and exciting time for this fascinating 12th-century building, as bit-by-bit we carefully nurture it back to life as an important part of Coventry’s story.  We will keep you informed as work continues. 

For further information on the finds contact Dr Cathy Coutts, or Bryn Gethin at Archaeology Warwickshire, on 01926 412278.

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