Charlotte Newman, Collections Curator at English Heritage, on her favorite object from the collection
In the 1950s, construction workers were shoring up the foundations of the Jewel Tower in London and creating a nearby underground car park. In excavating the area around the tower, they uncovered something amazing. Alongside the medieval structure was an L-shaped moat, and that moat had been filled in with a load of 17th-century artifacts. It was basically a rubbish pit, but inside of this rubbish pit are all of these objects that offer this really cool snapshot of 17th- and 18th-century life in and around parliament and court.
One of real standout objects is this bright green cat skull – literally bright pea green – which is weird. Why is it bright green all over? It’s not splotchy, it’s a total, even covering of green. We had some XRS data gathered from it, and it’s clearly been somewhere near a brass solution, but we don’t know if that happened while it was in the ground in the deposition, or whether someone had deliberately stained it. Normally, if objects are near copper or brass in the earth then they can discolor, but to be so evenly covered is really odd and, when we looked inside the skull with cameras, it’s not green on the inside. I would suspect that it was colored on purpose.
It’s a bit of a mystery object. But that’s the fun of archaeology – you’ll never know for sure. You can only pull the most credible interpretation for the evidence that you’ve got.
The cat skull is one of the weirdest, spookiest items that we have, but from the same moat, we also found some more witchy objects. There are some examples of unusual glassware, which are thought to be examples of distilling equipment. When experts looked at it, they found residue in the bottom of the glass vials that was some kind of super nasty substance. I wonder what they were brewing?
I just love all the specimens from the moat. There’re such fascinating stories buried in it. For example, I really like these well-traveled pieces of ceramics. They struck a chord with me because they seem so relevant to our present day situation, when there is so much conversation at the moment around immigration, multiculturalism, borders, and trade. It’s something that’s in the press every day in some way shape or form. What struck me is that in such a small space, we had examples from China, Syria, Southeast Asia, Persia, Portugal, Italy, North Africa, which just shows that London's been this amazing multicultural city with influences from all over the world for the best part of 400 years. My favorite one originated in Southeast Asia and is a black heavy-duty storage jar that has a Japanese symbol on it. It’s nuts to think that it traveled across the world to England, to the area around parliament, when that kind of travel would have taken months, and then it was used, passed on, and then ended up in this moat. What an incredible journey.
It sounds silly, but this moat is my absolute favorite. Archaeologists love ditches, and we love rubbish tips, cesspits, anything like that. Anywhere rubbish is dumped is actually a fruitful find for an archaeologist!