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National Archaeology Week 2008

August 2008

Piecing Together the Past

Posted by Louise Mumford on 13 August 2008

In 2002, during building work at the Cathedral School, Llandaff, archaeologist Dr Tim Young discovered thousands of pieces of 14th century pottery in a deep ditch near the Bishop's Castle  The pottery is what's known as "wasters", pots that for various reasons have failed to make the grade and been thrown away after emerging from the kiln, which would have been nearby.

The result is one of the biggest medieval jigsaws in Wales, fragments of green-glazed jugs, earthenware cooking pots and ridge tiles with crests like coxcombs, all mixed up and waiting to be sorted so that they can tell their tale.  And sort them we did, for two days during NAtional Archaeology Week, on big tables in the main hall at National Museum, Cardiff: boxes of pottery, rows of foam-lined red plastic trays, staff from the Department of Archaeology & Numismatics and a constant stream of willing volunteers of all ages, patiently sorting the sherds; first separating the glazed and unglazed pieces, then hunting through the trays to find the bits of decoration, the fragments of rims and bases and handles which might just join together and allow us to learn something more about this extraordinary collection of pottery. Looking for pieces that fitted together was the best bit, a reward after some serious sorting!

The workforce was wonderfully varied - students from the School of Modern Teaching in Kostalin, Poland, a British family from Sweden, another family from Ireland, a very young Norwegian boy who sorted a whole tray with the most astonishing concentration, local people pleased to have the opportunity to contribute to a local project, foreign visitors pleased to be handling a bit of Welsh history, parents, children, grandparents, grandchildren and even the occasional passing member of staff (no-one can resist a puzzle!).



Some of the jug bases have an edging made with a thumb or finger, and sisters Vi Watts and Joan Coslett thought that it looked just like a pie-crust; they tried their thumbs for size (a perfect fit!), and liked the thought that theirs were the first thumbs that had rested there since the thumb of a potter in the 1300s.



Three school students on work experience deserve special mention - Charlie John from Cathays High, Sian Davies from Llanishen High and Emily Durbin from Stanwell. They were a great help, many thanks to you all!

And at the end of two days, was there a proud row of complete pots, testament to all this hard work? Sadly, no. What would be a perfectly feasible task with the fragments of two or three pots mixed together becomes a very different prospect with the fragments of two or three hundred, all very similar. Although some joins were found, there will need to be further meticulous work behind the scenes before jugs, cooking pots and tiles rise again . If you can't wait for that, you can see two complete Vale Ware jugs in the Medieval section of the Origins Gallery!

But at the end of two days, six huge boxes, all full to the top with neatly labelled bags - a fantastic effort. Many thanks to everyone who helped!


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