Fairfield Gardens, Glastonbury, Somerset

Excavations in advance of a new housing development in Glastonbury have uncovered evidence of medieval occupation and 15th or early 16th century leather making.

The earliest features on the site are 13th or 14th century ditches that would have defined the boundaries of gardens or yards behind properties along Benedict Street (formerly known as Madelode Street). By the 15th or early 16th century one of the properties appears to have been occupied by a whittawer (someone who made white leather from sheep, goat or other small and medium sized animals), fellmonger, glover, or possibly a parchment maker.

The evidence for this industry includes a row of three lime-filled pits and huge quantities of sheep or goat foot and head bones (mainly jaws and horn cores) dumped in pits and hollows, and a smaller quantity of cattle, dog and other bones. The lime pits would have been used to de-hair animal skins after the feet and heads had been removed. These skins could then be treated with alum, egg-yolk, oil and flour to make white leather, or stretched on a rack to make parchment. Producing leather from cattle skins involved a different process during which the de-haired skins were first softened by soaking them in a mixture of dog excrement and urine, before being placed in vats of water and oak bark for up to a year. The noxious nature of these processes meant that leather-making premises were normally located on the edge of town.

Trade in Glastonbury was intimately linked with the fortunes of the nearby Abbey, and its suppression in 1539 caused a serious economic decline which affected the town for over a century. Indeed, evidence from the excavation suggests that by the 17th century the site had reverted to agricultural use.

It is hoped that the post-excavation work will refine the exact nature and date of the earliest activity on the site, how long it was used for leather-making and what happened after the industry ceased.

archaeologists uncovering evidence of medieval occupation on a site in glastonbury

The site looking north-east towards St Benedict’s Church

an archaeologist records a late medieval refuse pit full of animal bones on a site planned for new housing in glastonbury

Recording a late medieval refuse pit full of animal bones (including two complete dog skeletons)

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