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An Archaeological Project

Martinmas Fair and Priory Street Excavations

In 2008 and 2009, SLR Consulting Limited excavated on behalf of NET2 to investigate the utilities in the area. They also completed four evaluation trenches; two or which were located in the area of the Lenton Martinmas Fair. On the north side of Gregory Street adjacent to the White Hart Inn pre-20th century deposits were as little as 40cm below ground level, with probable medieval deposits at a depth of 1m below ground level. The trenches located within the probable site of the medieval Fair, produced significant sequences of medieval and early post-medieval deposits and features, 40 and 70cm thick respectively, within other features in the underlying terrace-deposits. Masonry courses in the lower parts of the existing boundary wall of an industrial site near to one of the trenches were noted; as this wall is believed to lie on the priory’s outer precinct boundary, and they may have been medieval.

Based on the evidence above, full excavations of the potential fair site were going to have to take place before the tram tracks were to be installed and constant monitoring of the works within Lenton were going to have to be observed during the lifespan of the Tram Project.

Lenton Martinmas Fairground Excavations (October 2012 – March 2013)

The excavation, which was the largest piece of archaeological field work undertaken in Nottingham City in the last 20 years, measured 1110m², lasted for 20 weeks and employed 20 field archaeologists. After the initial use of a machine to clear away the modern deposits, the site was hand cleaned and hand excavated. A total of five distinct phases of activity were identified which range from the 11th/12th centuries to the 19th century. A wealth of information was revealed by the archaeological investigations, which is summarised below:

Phase 1 – 11th and 12th Centuries:

Two large ditches were discovered containing 11th-13th C material, including fragments of late 11th to early 12th C pottery at the base of one and fragments of medieval leather shoes. Residual Roman finds were also discovered; namely a fragment of samian ware pottery and a coin dating to 270-273 AD. They probably date to foundation of priory, but they could also pre-date it. They have the potential to have been large boundary ditches or could have fed fish ponds situated within the priory complex.

Phase 2 – 13th and 14th Centuries:

The main features of this date are the north to south aligned ditches which were situated towards the north end of excavations and were found to cut through earlier features. They appeared to continue beyond the northern end of excavation and it is therefore unlikely that the outer precinct wall of Lenton priory as suggested by Elliott and Burbank (1952) would have existed here throughout the 13th C and the majority of the 14th C, as the suspected route of the wall and ditches would cross over.

The purpose of a group of these ditches was perhaps to drain the surrounding wider landscape into the larger earlier, and now backfilled, ditch. These ditches seemed to go out of use by the mid 13th C and other ditches were excavated on a slightly different alignment. This reorganisation could be associated with further development to the priory complex and the Lenton fair, such as the designation of a permanent trackway or road through the site. As well as the ditches, a number of pits were recorded in this group. Evidence from some of these pits, such as the regular presence of bone and seeds appeared to suggest that they were used to deposit cess and food waste. One pit even seemed to have been lined with wattle, which suggested it could have been used as a latrine.

Phase 3 – 15th and 16th Centuries:

During the 15th and 16th centuries, there was a major shift in the organisation of the site and its uses. Once the Phase 2 features were infilled and the associated activities abandoned, a re-organisation of landuse in the 15th century reflect the formation of a formalised priory outer precinct and a possible origin or expansion of the fair into the excavation area.    

Two enclosures orientated parallel to Abbey Street, suggesting its age, and, potentially, the outer precinct wall, were constructed during Phase 3. The northernmost of these, Enclosure 1, whose northern limit runs along southern extent of excavation and parallel to Abbey Street, measured 38m x 9.5m and may have temporarily hosted the fair as well as being used to deposit waste. Medieval pot, brick and tile were found in these enclosure ditches.

Within enclosure 1, a line of oval pits were uncovered. These are suggested to be deliberate recesses dug into the ground, may be to hold baskets. The lower layers within these pits contained 16th C domestic kitchen waste. Within one of these recesses a silver trading token of French origin was found.

An Edward III gold noble was also found, however this is believed to have been disturbed from lower layers below the base of the pits.

An articulated cow burial was also excavated within the enclosure, and found with 15th/ 16th C pottery.  It appears to have been buried under paving, around the same time as the coins were lost. The presence of livestock remains which do not appear to have butchered within the confines of the priory precinct suggests that cattle were kept for the exploitation of secondary products like milk.

The second enclosure appears to have been more intensively utilised and could have been a focus of market activity. Although only a small area of this enclosure was exposed, 28 post holes were revealed, potentially suggesting timber stalls.

A ditched ‘cell’-like plot to the north of the main excavation, parallel with Abbey street, appears to have been maintained and adapted over a couple of centuries, suggesting a reasonably intensive focus of activity, although its actual function remains ambiguous. It contained 15th C pot. 21 postholes of the same date were excavated within the cell.

A stone lined well was also found, and was made from reused stonework, some of it worked. The well suggests that there was a more direct domestic or habitation focus within this part of the site. The 18th-19th C pot in the well suggests it was not sealed off until this date.

Phase 4 – 17th and 18th Centuries:

Phase 4 includes a series of ditches, a well preserved stone-lined drain and an enigmatic stone structure.

 The ditches are on the alignment common in Phase 3, which was perpendicular to Abbey Street, but they appear to continue under the course of what would have been the precinct wall. This suggests that the precinct wall was at least partially demolished by the 17th century. There is also a noticeable abatement in the development of features within Enclosure 1, further emphasising the apparent re-organisation of the precinct in this phase. This shift in the focus of the site may relate to the dissolution of the monasteries.

Alongside the on-going activities within Enclosure 1, developments in and around Enclosure 2 appear to have continued with the installation of a substantial stone-lined drain following outside of the enclosure ditch. Other features were also added within the confines of the enclosure.  

Although the evidence points towards the partial deconstruction of the precinct, renovations to the cell appear to have occurred in Phase 4. These included the re-cutting of ditches, the division of the cell into two separate areas, modifications of the entrances and the digging of refuse pits on the peripheries of the cells.

Phase 5 - 19th and 20th Centuries

Regular rectangular pits and ditches were discovered containing tile and clay pipes, however they were in alignment with early phases, which is to be expected as the surrounding landscape has for the most part developed around these features and continues to do so to this day.

Priory Street Excavations:

Fieldwork was also carried out between February and April 2013 on Priory street and Old Church Street so that cables associated with the tramworks could be laid down. One trench was excavated on the footpath linking Old Church Street to Priory Street. From here, the planned route of the cable crossed onto the south side of Priory Street and proceeded west underneath the pavement toward Abbey Street

The approximately 60m-long run of trenches through the pavement on the south side of Priory Street revealed a thin slice (70-90cm wide) of the extensively-preserved remains of the cloister and south transept of Lenton Priory. Thanks partly to chance, and the fact that the medieval priory was aligned, more or less, exactly with the modern orientation of Priory Street, the positioning of the cable trench meant that almost the entire length of the northern inner wall of the cloister walkway was uncovered. This cloister wall proved to be approximately 30m in length, with a possible threshold through it 9m from its east end. This east-west aligned stretch of wall was flanked by two very substantial north-south walls, each roughly 2.5m thick. The first of these was probably the main west wall of the cloister, while its partner (positioned 36m metres away to the east) may have functioned as both the east wall of the east side of the cloister and the west wall of the south transept simultaneously.

Immediately adjacent, on the eastern side of this wall, a surface of large horizontally-laid stones had the appearance of being a rough make-up layer for a floor within the south transept. The widening of the trench during the second phase of the watching brief revealed an east-west section of wall butting up to the semi-circular recess of the south transept. The beginning of the arc of this recess was just visible within the trench, curving away to the south.

In the trenches located directly east of the main apse, human remains and further structural features were recorded reconfirming the character of the archaeological material present in this area.