Rescue Excavations at Thornton 1974

Dennis Mynard and Robin Cain


The foundations of a building associated with medieval pottery were disturbed during the course of levelling a new hockey pitch in the grounds of Thornton Convent, 1 an area thought to contain the remains of the medieval village of Thornton. A rescue excavation by the Bradwell Abbey Archaeological Unit on behalf of the Department of the Environment established that the structure was probably a kitchen, originally square but later enlarged, of 13th and 14th century date. The excavation produced an interesting sequence of local pottery types.


The grounds of the Convent of Jesus and Mary are extensive and contain the parish church and the convent itself, a mid-Victorian structure incorporating a much earlier building. 2 The focus of the small modern village of Thornton is a quarter of a mile away from the church, strongly suggesting the presence, in the convent's grounds, of the medieval village of Thornton, possibly deserted as a result of emparkment. The site lies just below the 250' contour on a west-facing slope, the ground dropping away gradually to the River Ouse 250 metres to the west.The soil in the area is stiff clay overlying limestone and gravel deposits.

The earthmoving operations which located the site initially involved removing soil from the upper part of the slope and depositing it lower down, creating an artificial terrace approximately 5000 square metres in area. It was during these operations that a particularly stony area containing medieval potsherds was noticed 100 metres to the south of the church (Fig. 1). The Bradwell Abbey Archaeological Unit was informed and in February 1974 an excavation lasting 4 weeks began in advance of the final destruction of the site.


An area approximately 50 metres square was cleared of a stony destruction layer approximately 50 centimetres thick and consisting primarily of limestone rubble and containing a considerable quantity of medieval pottery.

The removal of the destruction layer revealed the stone foundations of a small, two-roomed rectangular building (Fig. 2). The surviving walls were of drystone construction and stood from one to four courses high (Fig. 2, section A-A). The walls varied in thickness from 50 to 75 centimetres. The removal of rubble exposed clay floors in both rooms, each of which was trowelled and examined for features. A small area outside the building was also examined before the final destruction of the site.

Room 1

Room l represents the original structure on the site. It was a square building (4.5 metres internally) with a doorway 1 metre wide in the middle of the south wall.

The main feature in Room 1 was a sunken hearth against the west wall roughly square in shape (approximately 1.5 metres), which had been hollowed out to a depth of 20 centimetres and lined with clay. The fill of the hearth was rich in charcoal and burnt stones. The hearth showed traces of having been relined with clay on several occasions during its period of use.

The excavation of this floor indicated that the building had undergone 2 phases: a 13th century phase associated with the construction of the building and a 14th century phase associated with the building's main period of use.

Room 2

At a date subsequent to the construction of Room 1 a second room was built against its north wall (Fig. 2). Room 2 was slightly narrower than Room 1; the distance from the east wall to the west wall being 4.3 metres internally. The room's north-south dimension was less clear due to considerable disturbance of the north wall. Excavated material from the floor indicated contemporaniety with the second phase in the life of Room 1.

There were three features in Room 2: a stone-lined pit hearth against the middle of the south wall, and two post holes. There was no clear indication of a doorway.


The area in the vicinity of the building had been considerably disturbed by earthmoving before the beginning of the excavation. It was, however, possible to examine several features immediately prior to the final destruction of the site.

Cobbled entrance feature (Fig. 2, section B-B).

There was a small semi-circular cobbled area immediately outside the doorway in the south wall of Room 1. A section through the feature revealed a layer of dark clay sealing a charcoal layer. Finds from the feature indicated a period of use corresponding to the second phase in the life of Room 1.

Pit 1

A rubbish pit 2 metres south of the south-east corner of Room 1 produced an interesting group of jugs and bowls of fine sandy fabric. This (Group III) is discussed more fully below. The pottery is similar in type to Phase 2 excavated material from Room 1, but includes flanged bowls suggesting a slightly later date for the pit.

Pit 2

A post-medieval pit appears to have been cut through surviving wall footings at the north-east corner of Room 2. The pit was apparently oval in shape although the north edge was untraceable due to destruction incurred during pre-excavation earthmoving activities.

The pit produced a few bones of cattle and sheep (some with signs of butchering) and the almost complete skeleton of a small dog associated with clay pipe fragments and post-medieval pottery.

The dark, greenish fill which showed indications of considerable organic decomposition, displayed no apparent stratigraphy. Some large fragments of wood were preserved in the fill. The pit was two metres deep.


A section 10 metres long and 1 metre wide was cut mechanically from the east wall of Room 2 in a north-easterly direction. The section revealed a Vshaped ditch cut into the natural sub-soil (Fig. 2, section C-C) and sealed by a charcoal layer and a layer of rubble. One fragment of a medieval jug of 14th century type was sealed in the ditch, suggesting contemporaniety with the building's main period of use.


The building at Thornton did not exist in isolation but must have been connected in some way with a whole complex of buildings, including, presumably, a large house. It was unfortunate that it was not possible to investigate the entire site more thoroughly.

The building is tentatively interpreted as a kitchen on the grounds of its large, out-sized hearths and the large quantity of pottery on the site. The absence of nails and roof-tiles further suggests that the building was probably entirely built of stone and had a thatched roof.


Bronze Objects

The Thornton excavation produced only three small finds, all of bronze (not illustrated). None of them was stratified and all appeared during the final bulldozing of the site.

1. Baluster-shaped object, slightly convex, 15mm long with a small rivet at either end, chip-carved decoration possibly suggesting basketry; a well-finished decorative piece of unknown use.

2. Bronze strip 35mm long, 11mm wide, 1mm thick; perforated in three places and showing some signs of wear round the perforations; possibly a belt fitting.

3. Bronze and iron object, roughly rectangular 30mm long, 20mm wide; a bronze plate fixed to a slightly larger, much corroded piece of iron, use unknown.


The pottery has been divided into four groups:

I. Pottery associated with the early life of the building.

II. Pottery associated with the later life of the building.

III. A group from Pit 1 of slightly later date than II.

IV. Pottery from the Yard surfaces around the building and the destruction levels around and over it.

Within these groups the pottery is further subdivided and dealt with by fabric types, 3 which are:

1. a. Early Medieval Shelly Ware 11th-12th century. A wheel-turned fine shelly ware, grey core with characteristic smooth surfaces ranging in colour from light to dark grey brown with red undertones. This is a development of the late Saxon St. Neot's type, our Thornton examples are considered to fall late in this series.

b. Late Medieval Shelly Ware 13th-14th century. Hard-fired shelly ware with limestone and shell grits, tempering is larger and sparser than in 1(a).

2. Medieval Sandy Wares.

a. Coarse Sandy 11th-12th century.

Hard dark grey-brown coarse sandy ware with grey core.

b. Medium Grey Sandy Ware 13th century. Hard-fired smooth textured medium grey sandy ware, the core is slightly darker.

c. Dark Grey Sandy Ware 13th-14th century.

A hard-fired, almost black sandy ware which contains micaceous grits.

d. Fine Grey Sandy Ware 13th-14th century. A fine sand-tempered ware, light grey throughout.

e. Buff-brown Sandy Ware 13th-14th century.

A hard-fired sandy ware, buff-brown surfaces with grey core.

3. Medieval Glazed Wares.

a. Potterspury Ware 13th-16th century.

A fine sand-tempered ware with fairly smooth surfaces, ranging from pink-buff to off-white with a grey core. The glaze is generally olive green.

b. Brill Wares 13th-16th century.

Similar to Potterspury wares but with a wider variation in colours, ranging from fine off-white fabrics to orange-buff with a light grey core. The glaze is generally a mottled grey or light orange brown. A characteristic decorative feature of the jugs is applied strips of clay in body colour and red.

c. Red Brown Sandy Ware 14th century.

A hard red-brown sandy ware with grey brown glaze. This may be a Brill product.

Group I (Fig. 3, 1-8)

Pottery associated with the early life of the building. This small group dates from the first half of the thirteenth century. The shelly ware sherds 1-4 are perhaps the earliest material.

Fabric lb

There were ten sherds, all buff brown in colour, with a reduced grey core and fairly smooth surfaces.

1. Large bowl diam. 49cm with rim thickened internally.

2. Rim of bowl, diam. 44.2cm blackened externally

3. Everted rim of cooking pot, diam. 24.2cm light buff brown.

4. Wall sherd with rouletted decoration from jug.

Fabric 2b

5. Rim of cooking pot, diam. 22.3cm squared externally with slight internal hollow.

6. Thinner and more developed rim from cooking pot, diam. 20cm. The bead is rolled over and slightly undercut.

Fabric 2a

7. Large everted rim, diam. 22.7cm, from cooking pot. The rim has a slight external bead and a groove internally.

Fabric 2.c

Two wall sherds.

Fabric 3a

8. Rim of cooking pot, diam. 14cm, undercut, off-white fabric with dark grey core. Also several wall sherds.

Fabric 3a

Several wall sherds.

Group II (Fig. 3, 9-19 and Fig. 4, 18)

Pottery associated with the main period of use of the building and the extension.

Most of this group is of Potterspury Ware (3a), and is of late thirteenth to early fourteenth century date. This general date is indicated by the rim forms which are fairly well developed thirteenth century types.

Fabric 2c

9. Cooking pot with squared and undercut rim. Diam. 16.1cm.

l0.Thumbed base diam. 20cm from jug.

Fabric 2d

One flat base.

Fabric 3a

There are numerous wall sherds all of characteristic Potterspury fabric and glaze.

11. Rim of cooking pot, hollow internally, diam. 16.3cm.

12. Similar but larger rim, diam. 24cm, the top edge is perhaps a little squarer.

13. Cooking pot rim, diam. 14.2cm.

14. Bead rim from bowl diam. 40.7cm, coarser than usual.

15. Bowl with flattened bead rim, diam. 40.7cm.

16. Smaller bowl diam. 34.5cm, with rounded bead rim.

17. Flanged rim from bowl, diam. 30.2cm.

18. Wall sherd from jug with horizontal rilling and incised decoration.

Another jug sherd had the base scar of a handle of almost square section.

19. Sherds of a curfew with incised decoration of circles on top and vertical slashes on the site. Darkened internally. Diam. across top 36cm.

Fabric 3b

Three wall sherds.

Fabric 3c

Six wall sherds.

Group III (Fig. 3, 20-27 and 31. Fig. 4, 28-30 and 32-33).

Pottery from Pit 1.

This is a sealed group of slightly later date than Group II. The later date being inferred by the presence of flanged bowl rims, nos. 25 and 27.

Fabric 3a

20.Everted and undercut cooking pot rim, diam. 20.3cm.

21.Squared rim from cooking pot, diam. 20.7cm.

22.Similar to nos. 11 & 12, diam. 20.4cm.

23.Similar to nos. 11 & 12, diam. 28.5cm.

24.Bowl with flattened bead, like no. 15 diam. 34.6cm.

25.Thin flanged rim from bowl, diam. 36.6cm.

26.Flanged rim, hollow on top, from bowl, diam. 32.5cm.

27.Similar rim but larger flange, diam. 34.1cm.

28.Strap handle from jug with stabbed decoration, coarser than usual.

29.Typical Potterspury jug handle with stabbed and slashed decoration.

30.Rim sherd from jug, diam. 10.1cm with applied pellet of clay suggesting an ear, perhaps from a face jug.

31.Curfew with applied thumbstrip around top edge. Dark grey internally. Diam. across top 30.5cm.

Fabric 3b

Eleven wall sherds and two jug rims of typical Brill type.

Fabric 3c

Two wall sherds.

Fabric 2a

Seven sherds.

Fabric 2e

Three wall sherds.

32.Wall sherd from upper part of jug with rouletted decoration suggesting basketwork. Shiny olive green glaze externally.

33.Wall sherd from upper part of jug with incised wavy line decoration in horizontal zones.

Group IV (Figs. 4 and 5, 34-76)

From the Yard surfaces and Destruction levels.

Whilst this group is of mainly thirteenth to fourteenth century date the presence of residual material in the form of the shelly ware (fabric 1a), confirms the occupation of the site at least as early as the late twelfth century, particularly cooking pot rim Fig, 3, 3. The shelly forms 1 and 2 in Group I were recovered from the lowest floor in Room 1 and associated with the first use of the large hearth.

The rest of the group is of the second half of the thirteenth century and the first half of the fourteenth. This group obviously covers the life span of the building which may have been a little in excess of a hundred years.

Fabric 1a

34. Inturned rim of St. Neot's type bowl, diam. 35.5cm buff brown with grey core.

35. Similar but larger bowl, diam. 29.5cm. The rim is more upturned, dark buff brown surfaces.

36. Rim of straight sided bowl, diam. 24.5cm.

37. Bowl with flattened external bead to the rim, diam. 40.5cm blackened externally.

38. Large bowl with flattened bead rim, diam. 50.8cm.

39. Similar bowl, diam. 32.5cm.

40.Thickened rim from a cooking pot, lighter in colour and coarser than above, diam. 16.2cm.

41. Simple everted rim from a cooking pot, diam. 23.8cm.

42. Pointed rim from cooking pot, diam. 15.2cm.

Fabric lb

43. Rolled over rim from cooking pot, diam. 21.8cm. Chalky surfaced fabric, pink-buff with grey core.

44. Jug rim, diam. 14.7cm.

Fabric 2c

45. Heavy rim from cooking pot, diam. 19cm with large thumb impressions on inside edge of rim. This is an unusual form in North Bucks.

46. Rim of cooking pot, diam. 18.3cm similar to nos. 8, 20 and 21.

47. Similar but smaller example, diam. 18.3cm.

48. Cooking pot rim with pointed top and internal hollow, brown-black surfaces, diam. 34.7cm.

Fabric 3a

49.Jug rim, squarish rim, rounded on underside and slightly upturned. Diam. 18.3cm.

50.Similar rim but more square in shape, diam. 12.1cm.

51.Wall sherd from jug with rilling on body and applied narrow thumb strip.

52.Rim of jug similar to 49, diam. 10.2cm rouletted decoration around neck and thin olive green glaze.

53.Part of jug handle almost square in section.

54.Jug rim diam. 10.6cm, rounded rim with internal hollow. Scar shows that the handle was of strap type and had stabbed decoration.

55.Part of slashed jug handle.

56.Part of slashed jug handle.

57.Wall sherd of jug with deep horizontal rilling and fragment of lower part of handle.

58.Cooking pot rim, diam. 20.4cm similar form to nos. 8, 20, 21, 46 and 47.

59.Cooking pot rim diam. 18.3cm similar to nos. 11, 12 and 22.

60.Similar but smaller rim, diam. 18.4cm. 61.Larger rim more like no. 12, diam. 18.4cm.

62.Jug rim diam. 14.2cm and part of strap handle with stabbed decoration.

63.Lower part of jug handle, strap type with slashed decoration.

64.Bead rim bowl, diam. 40.5cm.

65.Rim of bowl, diam. 48cm with flattened bead, less pronounced bead than on nos. 15, 24.

66.Flanged bowl, diam. 36.acm. 67.Larger flanged bowl, diam. 44cm.

Fabric 3c

68 Jug rim diam. 10cm, rather red colour.

69.Flanged bowl, diam. 29.9cm.

Fabric 3b

70.Cooking pot with applied thumbed strip around neck and vertical strips on the body. The top of the rim has been stabbed by a fine knife point, diam. 32cm. Occasional splashes of almost clear glaze externally.

71.Cooking pot rim, like 11, 12, 22 and 59. Diam. 20.1 cm.

72.Similar rim, diam. 16.2cm from finer vessel. Very hard-fired, grey-brown external surface and splashes of glaze on rim and internally.

73.Stabbed strap handle from jug.

74.Strap handle from jug with typical Brill decoration of slashing and a vertical groove.

75.Flat base, diam. 13.9cm from jug.

76.Wa11 sherd and lower part of handle from attractive Brill jug. The body decorated by fine applied strips with rouletted decoration. The strips are of body clay and a red, iron-rich clay laid alternately. The strap handle was stabbed.

The value of this collection of pottery from Thornton is that it provides us with a useful series of late thirteenth and early fourteenth century Potterspury and Brill forms. Potterspury products have been discussed in outline4 and a fourteenth century pit group from Bradwell Priory has been published.5

We now have a fairly wide knowledge of the main rim types and can begin to see the development.

Cooking pots

During the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries the main type is squared and undercut, nos. 8, 20, 21, 49 and 58. The other main rim type is mainly of fourteenth century date; this has a rounded external profile and an internal hollow, nos. 11, 12, 22, 23, 59, 60 and 61. These rim forms are also copied in other local sandy fabrics which may also be of Potterspury manufacture.


The flattened bead rims nos. 14, 15 and 24 are characteristic of the thirteenth century being copied from Shelly Ware types illustrated here by nos. 37-39. The bead rims become more pronounced and eventually undercut, nos. 14 and 15, developing into theflanged rime flangedrims rims nos. 25, 27, 66, 67 and 69, which are typical of the fourteenth century.


The characteristic strap handle with knife slashing, nos. 29, 55 and 56, is common throughout the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.

The stabbed form nos. 28 and 62 may be of thirteenth century date only.

Brill products

So little is known of the Brill pottery industry;6 the main forms appear to be the same as at Potterspury.

A larger proportion of the jug handles have two vertical grooves running down them, nos. 63 and 74, but this form is also found at the Potterspury kiln site.

A distinctive Brill product is the highly decorated jug with applied strips of red and body clay used alternately around the body and bearing rouletted decoration, no. 76.

The Curfews

The two Curfews (Firecovers) are of Potterspury manufacture. The inner surface of 31 is darkened but 19 appears to have been little used. They are classified as Curfews in view of the external decoration which would hardly have occurred on the bases of bowls.

The pottery and finds have been deposited at Bradwell Abbey Accession No. 1974/27.


We are grateful to the Nuns of the Convent of Jesus and Mary for allowing us to excavate the site; to Mr. John Marchant for informing us of his discovery and for assistance in our work, and also to the Department of the Environment and Bradwell Abbey Field Centre for providing grants to enable the work to be undertaken.

The completion of this report so soon (one month) after the excavation has shown that a small group working as a team is an effective force in the archaeological world. Excavation was carried out by Julie Bradley, Paul Smith, Brendan Murphy, Robert Roberts and supervised (at a distance) by Robin Cain under the general direction of Dennis Mynard.

Robin Cain has written the section dealing with the excavation, Brendan Murphy drew the plans and sections, June Burbridge, who also spent a few days on the site, drew the pottery. Finally the pottery section was written by Dennis Mynard who has completed and edited the whole report, which was typed by Mrs. D. Eley.


1. The discovery was reported to us by the contractor Mr. John Marchant.

2. V.C.H. Buckinghamshire IV, 243.

3. For discussion of these fabric types see D.C. Mynard "Rescue Excavations at the Deserted Medieval Village of Stantonbury, Bucks". Records of Buckinghamshire XIX, Part 1 (1971) 21, and

also D.C. Mynard, "Excavations at Bradwell Priory", in this present Journal.

4. D.C. Mynard "Medieval Pottery of Potterspury Type", Bulletin of the Northamptonshire Federation of Archaeological Societies IV (1970) 49-55.

5. D.C. Mynard "Excavations at Bradwell Priory" in this present Journal, Fig. 9, nos. 6-10.

6. A general survey is in preparation by D.C. Mynard.


Elizabeth Pater, widow, was buried 11 July 1686, after having lyen about seven weeks without any evacuation downwards and most of ye time not upwards neither. (Thornton Register)

Francis Jarvise was buryed in Woollen July 25th 1687. He dyed of a cancer in his eye wch had severall years (5 or 6 or more) afflicted him, and eaten into his head. (Thornton Register)

Richard ye son of William How and Elizabeth his wife was baptised 15th day of September 1689 (Called out of Church in midst of Sermon to baptize it, bee likely to dye). (Thornton Register)

Francis Colman dyed March 3rd 1695/6 but was not buryed in this parish, because He dyed excomunicate, and was fetcht by some Anabapt, brethren to a Burying place of theirs at Stony Stretford. (Thornton Register)

John reputed son of Catherine Cartwright Leckhamstead (found hanging in a basket on the gates which open out of the great yard into the Highway) was baptised 4 October 1713. (Thornton Register)

1661 August 18th. Collected for Henry Harrison, Mariner who had suffered 7500 li. losse by shipwracke, ye summe of three shillings and two pence.

1663 Collected for Dandulo ye Turke three shillings. (Thornton Register)