The dig site in Greyfriars Leicester
Topic: Greyfriars feasts
Archaeologists gather new information on monks’ lives with treasure trove of Bones, stone and slate. Peter Warzynski reports.
To the untrained eye, the pile of dust, stones and detritus is about as uninteresting as it gets. But to an archaeologist, the image tells of gluttonous friars, grand churches, medieval tradesmen and 15th century fashion.
The University of Leicester dig team is in its third week excavating the city’s medieval Franciscan Grey Friars friary.
The team has gathered a host of new information about how the city’s medieval friars lived.
Just one square foot of the archaeology can reveal:
1. Animal bone
Most people would deduce the presence of this small mammal bone, possibly from a pig, indicates the friars ate meat. That is not a great leap of logic.
However, the Franciscan order, which occupied Greyfriars, were a frugal bunch.
They supposedly carved out an existence by begging for food, having given up their worldly belongings.
Meat was an especially rare and expensive commodity, the medieval peasant making do with a variety of vegetables.
Greyfriars has turned up the remains of chickens, cows and pigs.
Site manager Mat Morris said: “Finding loads of discarded animal bones shows they didn’t live as frugally as they made out.
“Meat was a luxury, and the more exotic the animal, the more it would cost.”
The presence of these bones also shows archaeologists the friars might have farmed, or at least cared for livestock.
Other clues on the bones, such as cut marks, give information about butchery and the kinds of knives and tools used.
2. Copper pin
This copper alloy accessory is part of something bigger. What, though, is a bit of a mystery.
Similar finds have been identified as brooch fastening or part of a buckle, but archaeologists said whatever it comes from it was probably used to hold a cloak or robe in place.
Friars traditionally wore modest clothes, but this delicately ornamental piece of jewellery could show that they liked a bit of opulence, too.
The Grey Friars got their name from the colour of their habit with a hood, a cord and sandals.
Belts were tied in three kinds of knot, signifying the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.
3. Slate fragment
The site is littered with slate. Some pieces are tiny, like this, others are larger – often disappointing archaeologists who believe they have stumbled across tiles, only to brush away the dirt to find they have been duped. Again.
The Greyfriars dig team believes most of the slate, from Swithland, in Charnwood, was used for the roof.
During the dissolution, when Henry VIII ordered the destruction of churches, friaries and monasteries, most of the intact pieces were stripped and used elsewhere.
Ironically, demolition helped to preserve parts of the friary under a layer of rubble – containing broken tiles and stonework from such things as window arches, they tell archaeologists a great deal about the make-up of the structure.
Swithland slate quarried from Roman times until the mid-19th century.
Although the majority of the friary was built from this material, little of it survived the dissolution.
Like all of the stone and slate which made up the friary, it was quarried nearby by miners, who lived near Western Park.
The Danes Hill quarry, or Dane Hills quarry, “no-one really knows” said Mat Morris, was a huge sandstone pit in the west of Leicester.
The city once had a thriving mining industry, most notably clay, for bricks, gypsum, for plaster, limestone, for mortar, and sandstone.
Sandstone is known as a free stone, which means it does not contain fracture lines such as slate or granite.
5. Snail shell
The shell can give archaeologists information about the gardens and grounds of the friary.
Depending on the species – some prefer warmer, wetter climates, others dry – they help create a picture of what kind of plant life there was at the site.
Together with soil samples and analysis of charcoal remnants, experts can extract data about what the friars were cooking and learning more about their diet, whether meat or vegetables grown on the site.
this is Leicestershire
July 18, 2012