North Devon

Last week I travelled to the UK (from my new home in Germany!) to explore North Devon, the region which I believe the ship site in Maryland to have come from. Those who have read the previous posts will know that we found very little material on the site, so our general approach to the analysis is to extract every last bit of information we can from each artefact. I was lead to North Devon, partly because of the single ceramic sherd found on the site, originating in North Devon, and also as I had found a geological feature along the N. Devon coastline with  cobbles which appeared to match the ballast from the Maryland site. My general understanding of this feature was that it was very unique, based on what I was able to gather from internet searches while back in North America.

My goals for my time in North Devon were to examine the Northam Burrows Pebble Ridge, visit the museum of Barnstaple, and search the cities of Barnstaple and Bideford for old buildings with oddly sized bricks (approx.  1.75x5x10 inches), as found on our site. I was staying in the seaside village of Westward Ho! (yes, the exclamation mark is part of the name), directly along the pebble ridge. It is truly an interesting feature. It is literally the edge of a glacier, one that once connected England to mainland Europe prior to the end of the Pleistocene. Walking around, I became quite certain that I was in the right region. The stones were geomorphologically identical to the ballast from the St. Mary’s ship. Unfortunately though, the stones are not quite as unique as I had thought. They could have come from a large number of shoreline sites along the Bristol Channel. The limestone and chalk stones are also interesting. There is no limestone on the English side of the Bristol Channel. There is plenty of it though on the Welsh shore of the Channel, meaning that the ship had likely visited Wales. Lime was imported to N. Devon though, which was used as a tempering agent in the ceramics produced in Barnstaple and Bideford.

The next day I got on the bus to Barnstaple to visit the Museum of North Devon to have a look at the ceramics on display. Of course, the Sgraffito ware was the main focus, as this was the type found on the site. The museum was small, but well laid out. They put a great deal of focus on the pottery produced in the area, which was exactly what I was hoping for. North Devon produced several utilitarian wares, known in the archaeological community through equally utilitarian names: North Devon Gravel Tempered, and North Devon Gravel Free. But the Sgraffito and Trail decorated slipwares are of a much finer, high status type, and were very popular in England and its colonial holdings. We find a fair amount of all types of ceramics from North Devon in the Chesapeake, so it was exciting to visit the museum and see some complete examples, which are rare in the ‘plow zone’ archaeology that largely defines the practice in Maryland and Virginia.  At the end of the museum visit, I asked at the front desk if there was anyone I could talk to about stylistic dating of sgraffito wares, not expecting much from such a small museum. To my surprise, the museums development manager for Barnstaple, Alison Mills, another archaeologist, came down and greeted me, and let me explore the collections above. They have a wide range of ceramics from the various kiln sites of Barnstaple, which was absolutely fascinating for me. A normal collection of ceramics from an archaeological site is one of finished, salable products. Being that these are from kiln sites, I was viewing instead a very different type of collection. This was largely comprised of ceramics that were not good enough for sale, often over-fired, or defective in some way, causing them to be discarded before sale. Sadly, throughout the entire collection of sgraffito, I could not find an analogue for the sherd from the ship site. There is hope though, as I am now in contact with the leading expert on this type. Hopefully I will have an update in the coming days.

The final day was spend walking around Bideford and Barnstaple observing the local sites, and hoping to find some old brick architecture. There really wasn’t much around. I stopped in Bideford first, and walked around finding very few old brick buildings. One place that caught my eye, was a  pub called ‘The Custom’s House.’ I decided to go in for a coffee, and to get out of the rain. It was a rather quaint little pub with more than a little maritime charm. This building was in fact, the customs house for the city, built sometime in the late 17th-century, and used as such until sometime in the mid-19th century (English Heritage). The bar was made to look like the hull of a wooden ship, which I rather appreciated.

Moving onward to Barnstaple, I wanted to walk around Tuly Street, once the centre of ceramic production for the city. To my disappointment, the street is now home to car parks and grocery chains. Heading back to the High Street I came across the only potentially 17th-century building I had yet observed. English Heritage places this building at an early to mid 17th-century date. Of course it is now a store, but it is constructed of odd and irregular sized handmade bricks, very thick mortar joins, and laid out in English Bond, meaning one row of stretchers (laid out lengthwise) and one row of headers (laid out width-wise). Interestingly, many of the bricks were rather thin, at around 1.75 inches, and rather long, at around 10 inches. This is quite similar to the the bricks found on the Maryland ship site, which were almost all only around 1.75 inches thick. While this doesn’t say much, it can be said that analogous bricks are found in England, and particularly in North Devon. I haven’t spent enough time observing old brick work in other parts of England to say that this is rare, but bricks of this size certainly are for the New World.

All in all, this was a very informative trip. I certainly gained a lot of insights into this historic area, the role it played in the tobacco trade, and its connection with the Chesapeake region. Aside from that, it is simply a hugely interesting area. The geology is something which I have never before encountered and the historic period ceramics are fascinating. The inter-tidal area of the river was something new and interesting for me as well. This area experiences the second highest tidal range in the world, and at low tide the beach extends about 300 meters from the pebble ridge. At high tide, the ridge is partially submerged. Watching the tide come in was a real treat. To finish this post, I’ll leave you with a few of the more scenic photographs from the trip. Thanks for reading!

-Scott

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About smrarchaeology

Scott Tucker is an historical and maritime archaeologist from Hagerstown, MD. Currently, he is working on his doctoral research into early English merchant trade in the Chesapeake region at the University of Southampton, UK, as a member of the Centre for Maritime Archaeology. He is also a visiting graduate researcher at the Historic St. Mary's City Museum. View all posts by smrarchaeology

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