Once again Brasenose is learning about its past by improving for its future. Old Cloisters is back to being a reading room for Trinity term, however in the last few months a number of exciting discoveries have been made during the renovation works in Old Cloisters and in Deer Park (which is currently undergoing a redevelopment to allow the vents from the underground archives to be fitted, and to make the space fit the aesthetic of the new library). I was interested to learn from the archivist that Deer Park is its third appellation, previously being known as ‘St Mary’s Entry’ and then ‘Chapel Quad’.
While landscaping Deer Park the contractors quite unexpectedly came across a well shaft several feet beneath the topsoil, a few metres from the wall of the Medieval Kitchen. This was quite a find considering that the well is at least five metres deep, and stone-lined. It even has fresh running water at the bottom. The archaeologists were called back to college to investigate this interesting feature. Unfortunately, wells are not immediately datable, a consequence of the almost unchanging technology and materials used to construct them. However, the archaeologists were in luck. A sherd of Brill Boarstall-ware pottery was recovered from the fill of the construction trench, a lurid swamp-green Tudor glaze ware worth Googling. Pottery is a highly useful means of dating a site because it has changed form so regularly throughout history and geographical location, and has been assigned a relative chronology. The sherd’s presence in the fill tells us that it ended up beneath ground before the well was created, forming a terminus post quem (date after which) for the original construction of the well.
Specialists have confirmed that the pottery dates to somewhere in the 15th or 16th century. Sadly the archives have not presented any documentary evidence for the commissioning of the well. This is in some ways useful however because by the late 17th century new drainage and water systems were being well recorded. The archaeologists have therefore proposed that the well was created to supply the kitchen, which is a building apparently older than the foundation of the college, dating to the 15th century. The well also features a lead pipe than runs from the base to the surface, and an adjacent stone channel. These were added in a second phase, most likely when the well was capped. The pipe would have enabled water to be pumped from the well despite its closure. Graffiti can be seen in the interior of the well scratched onto three pieces of masonry, reading as Hg and 18. This may be some form of construction mark. The discovery of the well means that in Deer Park we have a piece of visible history that pre-dates any section of college as it can be seen today. In the future it might grant Brasenose finalists the wishes they need.
Perhaps more significant has been the discovery of remnants of wall painting in the Stocker Room that were revealed when panelling was removed with the intention to insert a new door into the south wall. The fragmentary remains would initially have covered the entire south wall, which is formed of large stone blocks and once had a large fireplace. The wall was covered in a rough plaster, then a skim coat and limewash to form the ground layer for the decorative paint scheme. The Wall Painting Condition Survey revealed that there is evidence of two previous painted schemes, separated by limewash layers, underneath the finest top layer. Clearly old stocker has undergone many refurbishments in its lifetime.
The most evident remains originally formed an overmantle scheme which included floral, grotesque and foliate motifs. Sadly only the right hand side is still extant. However, as mentioned, a number of other layers can be identified. These include a patchy brown layer, thin lines of yellow ochre (this may have formed scroll work), and a bright green paint layer. Interestingly this layer includes a clear red letter ‘S’ in either red lead or vermillion. Another letter, perhaps an ‘I’, ‘J’ or ‘T’ near the ‘S’ appears to have been purposely obscured with white limewash, leaving the ‘S’ still visible. It has been proposed that if it is a ‘T’ then the inscription refers to Thomas Singleton, who was Principal of Brasenose between 1595 and 1614. Another suggestion is that the letters were paired with a set on the other side of the fireplace, perhaps commemorating a married couple. The painting-out of a letter may indicate a death or divorce. The final scheme is brownish-green. The large scrolled pattern appears to include a grotesque animal, proposed to be an elephant. Interestingly this scheme is similar in both technique and style to an overmantle painting in Lincoln College, which dates to the first quarter of the 17th century. We may therefore be able to link this wall painting with the addition of a second storey to Old Quad in 1614-36, when it is likely there was a large scale renovation of the college’s interiors.
This wall painting is especially important because if the proposed date of the first quarter of the 17th century is correct, it had become popular to use panelling at this time, making painting from this period rare. The specialists have had a tricky job stabilising the friable mortar and preserving the painting during the current works. It is the current plan to incorporate both the well and the painting into the renovations for everyone to enjoy.
3rd Year Classical Archaeology and Ancient History