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Archaeologists unearth medieval structure of nunnery that preceded Jesus College, Cambridge



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A medieval structure that could explain a 50-year gap in the history of the Jesus College site has been unearthed by archaeologists.

A previously unknown cloister and deposits have been discovered that will yield clues to the way of life at the 12th-century nunnery that preceded the University of Cambridge college.

Excavations at Jesus College's Pump Court. Picture: Jesus College
Excavations at Jesus College's Pump Court. Picture: Jesus College

The nunnery was dissolved in 1496 and the site repurposed as a college, the centre of which retains the basic layout of the medieval nunnery, including the cloister court and the conventual church, which is now the college chapel.

Excavacations are taking place in Pump Court, on the northern side of Jesus College’s hall, ahead of work to extend and modernise the kitchen block.

Cotswold Archaeology and the Cambridge Archaeological Unit (CAU) have uncovered what appears to be the wall and floor of a medieval cloister.

Jesus College’s archivist Robert Athol said: “The foundations are a real find. There's next to nothing surviving in the archives that tells us about the site when occupied by the nuns, and there's roughly a 50-year gap in the early records of the college's history, so this discovery is extremely important in our understanding of the history of the site.”

The stub of a large wall has been found running parallel to the college’s hall, which replaced the nunnery’s refectory hall.

The archaeologists believe it may be the remains of a covered walkway on the edge of a yard space, such as a pentice or cloister, with an open or arcaded side facing across to the nunnery hall.

It is thought the mortar and clay floor may have supported a surface of glazed floor tiles or timber planks.

Preston Boyles, of Cotswold Archaeology, added: “We have what appears to be a floor surface packed in some sort of cloister arrangement. We believe this belongs to the nunnery phase of the site’s history, and represents a previously unknown architectural element.

“This is a unique opportunity to study the remains of two successive, self-contained and near-single-gender communities, which both occupied the same location.”

Kitchen and domestic waste, as well as layers of building rubble including bricks, glazed floor tiles and ceramic and stone roof tiles have been unearthed.

Evidence of centuries of renovation, demolition and reroofing work at the nunnery and college have also been unearthed.

Excavations at Jesus College's Pump Court. Picture: Jesus College
Excavations at Jesus College's Pump Court. Picture: Jesus College

Medieval stonework - including pieces of windows, doorways and columns - has been found in later layers, recycled as rubble used in the foundations of some early college buildings and capping several of the many 16th to 19th-century culverts that cross the site.

CAU founder Christopher Evans said: “We’re going to get firm economic evidence of the way of life at the nunnery and that’s a fantastic opportunity. This has proved to be an absolutely extraordinary site. It is basically a matter of gender succession – an all-female community superseded by an all-male community. It is very difficult to think of how many situations that would happen in.

“It’s always been presumed that the college fossilised the plan of the nunnery… [but] there’s a whole new cloister of the nunnery that we’re unearthing.

“Occupational remains from the college and the nunnery will help us to compare the quality of their respective diets - what they ate and the health of their animals - and the quality of their tableware.

“Hopefully, we'll also be able to do isotopic study on livestock bones to establish where they were bringing animals in from, and so how far afield their respective economic reaches were.”

Excavations at Jesus College's Pump Court. Picture: Jesus College
Excavations at Jesus College's Pump Court. Picture: Jesus College

Window glass and cames - strips of lead used to hold pieces of glass together in a window - have also been found, with some cames twisted into bundles after, it appears, being stripped from a window.

There are the remains of walls and cellars, belonging to a series of small buildings that include coal stores, a shoe place, a cinder place, a stable and a sedge store, in existence until at least the late 17th-century. They were demolished and replaced by an extension to the college in 1822.

Foundations for a hall designed in 1876 by Alfred Waterhouse, architect of the Natural History Museum in London, have also been uncovered.

The hall, demolished in the 1960s, incorporated the remains of a much earlier well.

It is thought a pump was associated with the well, which may explain the origin of Pump Court's name.

The eating, smoking and socialising habits of those who lived in the college may be deduced from nearby post-medieval garden soils and 17th-century kitchen waste dumps.

The domestic waste sites contain animal bones, oyster shells and clay tobacco pipes.

A 16th to 17th-century Bellarmine jug uncovered in Jesus College excavations. These are known for the distinctive bearded face on the neck of the vessel. Picture: Jesus College
A 16th to 17th-century Bellarmine jug uncovered in Jesus College excavations. These are known for the distinctive bearded face on the neck of the vessel. Picture: Jesus College

The site has also turned up 16th to 17th-century Bellarmine jugs, which are known for the distinctive bearded face on the neck of the vessel.

Several jettons – which were counting aids used from the medieval period to the 16th century – have also been found by the team. These were often repurposed as gaming counters or gambling chips in card games.

Many of these finds corroborate documents in the college archive.

“It’s fascinating to see the last surviving remnants of some of the buildings mentioned in the historic record of the college,” said Robert.

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