Oxford dig reveals monks’ wine and beer habits

One of the largest urban excavations ever undertaken in the UK has uncovered a vast array of artefacts belonging to the monks of medieval Oxford – especially those revealing their eating and drinking habits.

Cutlery and crockery discovered during the dig, beer mugs and jugs (top right) were much in evidence.

The artefacts were uncovered by a team from Archaeology Oxford during an 18-month long dig at a site once run by Franciscan friars during the 13th-15th centuries.

Once at the cutting edge of Oxford University, the friary building was either torn down or at least fell into disuse during the mid 1500s when the Franciscans fled the country during the dissolution of the monasteries.

Built over for many centuries, it is only thanks to redevelopment for a new shopping centre that archaeologists have been able to delve into the treasures it contains.

‘Greyfriars’, as it was known, was home to both the friar lecturers and scholars and their students.

So far the archaeologists have found thousands of artefacts, many hundreds of which – in true student fashion – are related to alcohol.

Beer mugs are much in evidence, along with jugs that were likely used to serve, wine and water during meals.

Many are also richly decorated with many bearing depictions of palm fronds and no doubt commemorate – and indeed may have been used exclusively for the feast of – Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.

It is not clear from any reports as yet whether any of the pottery was imported from Saintonge (an area in the Charente) and which became quite commonplace in medieval England thanks to the wine trade with Aquitaine.

Interestingly, the archaeologists also say they have found bits of clay amphorae, which would have been about a metre high and probably came from Spain – suggesting the shipping of wine (and possibly olive oil) in these vessels lasted far beyond the fall of the Roman west.

The friars and their students would have had quite the larder to wash down with their beer and Spanish wine too.

The archaeologists have found evidence of mutton, lamb, pork, beef, chicken, goose and song birds, cod, whiting, mackerel, herring, eel, salmon, sea trout, gurnard and thornback ray, oysters, mussels, hazelnuts and walnuts; as well as wheat, barley, oats and peas and herbs and rare spices such as pepper.

Their bone-handled knives and spoons (forks hadn’t been invented by the Middle Ages) and cooking utensils have also been found – even a mortar.

Away from eating and drinking, small bowls made of plum and apple wood have been found, which were likely used to catch blood during medical bloodletting, pilgrims’ badges, the clasp from a book, writing implements and even a wooden ball – presumably used before Edward III’s decree in the 14th century forbidding, “handball, football or hockey or other such idle games”.

The buildings uncovered so far include the chapel, refectory, infirmary, kitchen and two cloisters as well as the sewerage system (complete with flushing loos), which seems to have been directed to channel waste towards the friary of the Franciscans’ chief rivals at Oxford – the Dominicans.

Among the famous scholars who studied and lectured at Greyfriars during the Middle Ages were the mathematician Robert Grosseteste (‘Bighead’ rather aptly); the pioneer of empirical science Roger Bacon; the international lecturer Haymo of Faversham; a future Archbishop of Canterbury who debated St Thomas Aquinas, John of Peckham; the Italian and future Antipope (as Alexander V) Peter Phillarges and the philosopher and political theorist William Ockham (he of Occam’s Razor fame).

All of the artefacts are currently being examined and the dig is expected to finish in 2021.

It is hoped that many of the discoveries will go on display at both the Museum of Oxford and one of the tile floors has been put on display at the new Westgate shopping centre, close to where it was discovered.

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