Do you remember the fantastic rams head aquamanile that was discovered at Cosmeston during the 2011 excavation? Today Cardiff PhD student and pottery specialist Alice Forward brings you an in-depth update on how this fantastic discovery is shaping up in post-excavation:
An aquamanile in context
Work on the pottery assemblage from the Cardiff University excavations at the Cosmeston manor house (2009-2011) has been rather a large job. I am still in the process of cataloguing the final group from 2009 which produced the greatest amount of pottery out of the three seasons. So far the total number of sherds comes to around 6000, and this will certainly rise by the time I have finished. As you can imagine three years of digging has produced a rather sizeable quantity of material, with pottery dating from the early post-conquest years in the late 11th, early 12th centuries, right up to the 19th century. For the most part the material is medieval and early post-medieval (16th –17th century) but the distribution of the pottery is particularly telling, and this has significantly added to our understanding of the demolition of the medieval manorial building and the later phases of the activity associated with it.
The aquamanile was found in one of the large demolition layers with sherds scattered predominantly in the area dug during last season’s work (June-July 2011). The demolition layers are sealing the medieval archaeology in all the trenches dug by the University in this area. Each year a new number has been assigned to the layer, but by looking at the descriptions and discussion on the context sheets it is possible to join them up and prove that it is a consistent presence across the site. This widespread layer (up to 0.5m deep in some areas) is made up of large limestone rocks, patches of clay, mortar and silty soil. It’s not a particularly nice layer to dig and one which requires good mattocking skills. This context is very much the result of the robbing of the manor house walls, with very few cut and shaped stones left; only the core material which comprises of angular chunks of limestone, clay and bonding mortar remains. We also get a large amount of roof tiles, now broken up into smaller parts, adding further evidence to the conclusion that the context represents the pulling down and destruction of the medieval manor house. The pottery in this layer may also represent the vessels that were being used by the household in the last years of the building’s life.
As well as demolition layers we also find numerous large post-medieval pits. In 2009 and 2010 a large pit was found dug into the main north wall of the manor house. In 2011 the Nuremburg Jetton was discovered towards the bottom of another pit (see here for a photo) which had disturbed the later building to the north of the main manor house.
The pottery we find from the demolition layers is generally consistent. In the main demolition layers there is a real mix of later 13th- 14th century pottery along with 16th and 17th century sherds. The aquamanile was distributed and mixed up with a lot of other material including other Vale Ware jugs, consequently piecing together and understanding the shape and size of the vessel was initially perplexing. The pitting introduces later ceramic material as well as bringing up the medieval material initially buried with the building debris. This creates more of a mix of material, but because there is so much post-medieval pottery come up from some areas this enables us to identify the later activity and continued use of the area.
An aquamanile in detail
Aquamaniles are typically zoomorphic in shape, although you do find some with general jug bodies. Knights and rams are particularly popular in Britain and have been found from sites all over the country. These high status vessels would have been used for hand washing before meals. Initially it was thought that the aquamanile from Cosmeston was a zoomorphic type similar to the reconstruction (based on an example from Scarborough ) displayed in the village. During August however, while examining the archive of material excavated by GGAT in their 1987 Castle Trench, I found the back of the rim and the handle which confirmed that only the rim had the ram decoration. It has been questioned whether the vessel was a normal jug rather than an aquamanile but the presence of a rounded spout for the snout of the ram rather than the normal lipped and pulled spout indicates that the function of this vessel is more in keeping with that of an aquamanile. Other locally produced ram aquamaniles have been found during excavations at Cardiff and Rumney Castles, and they too likely had a jug shaped body rather than complete zoomorphic form. This could indicate a design particular to the local area.
The ram decoration is interesting with regards to the construction of the vessel. It appears that the general shape has been made in a very similar way to the general jugs forms. The ram horns have been added on and neatly incorporated into the rim which has been shaped to look like wool on the very top. The additional missing rim sherd with the handle was easy to spot as part of the aquamanile because of this wool decoration. The handle itself is decorated with stabbing running down the centre; this is a general decorative form found on many other handles. The body of the vessel has small pellet decoration running round the circumference at particular points. This decorative element is not only seen on this vessel, but also on other jugs also found in the same demolition layers. It was pointed out by one student on the post-excavation course that the additional ceramic pellet decoration looked a little like the stitching on leather water carriers. This emulation of a leather vessel is interesting as ceramic aquamaniles are considered the poorer brother of metal aquamaniles.
It is difficult to provide definite dimensions for the vessel as little survives. We can say that the diameter of the rim was 12cm, unfortunately there are not enough sherds to provide any information on its height. It will take a lot of patience and time to work through all the sherds to see whether they belong to the aquamanile or not, and so far I have not found anyone with the time or patience to have a go.
The clay and minerals the aquamanile is produced from (called a fabric by archaeologists) is fairly standard for Vale Ware jugs. Vale Ware is the type of ceramic fabric typically found in South Glamorgan. Evidence for pottery production in the region is slim, and the only site which has any direct evidence for this is in the grounds of the former Bishop’s palace at Llandaff (now the Cathedral School). Here where a small group of kiln waste (such as pots that failed during firing) was found in a large medieval ditch. Despite evidence for production only coming from this one site, the fabric of the wasters excavated at Llandaff clearly supports the idea that Vale Ware was made in this region. It is also very likely that there are other, yet to be discovered, sites in the Vale of Glamorgan.
Vale Ware jugs have a very standard make up. The minerals added to the clay in order to help the vessels survive the firing process are generally quartz and iron oxides. The quartz is typically a white colour and the iron oxides appear as red and black inclusions. The aquamanile is made of the same clay mix as other Vale Ware vessels, allowing the potter to use their knowledge and skills for making the jugs with just the additional decorative elements added to create the ram.
The Cosmeston aquamanile is, I think, my favourite example of the style. Its face is amazing and the detail on the horns and the woolly rim are incredibly endearing; someone took a lot of time and care making him. The actual vessel itself is not as technologically superior as the zoomorphic ceramic examples, and this may reflect the standard of ceramic technology in South Glamorgan during the medieval period. It is particularly interesting that locally produced wheel thrown vessels are not really found in the archaeological record until the very late medieval and post-medieval transitional phase. This lack of technological development may have meant that styles beyond normal forms were not generally attempted; consequently in the late 13th-early 14th century (when the aquamanile was made) a jug body would have been the chosen form. What is clear is that the aquamanile was one vessel within a group of table wares including jugs and a spouted pitcher which would have adorned the dining table in the manor.