food for thought: report on the Trust’s watching brief at Grey Friars Hotel in Colchester

Yesterday (27th November), Trust archaeologist Don Shimmin completed his site report on the long-running archaeological watching brief which we conducted at Grey Friars Hotel on the High Street in Colchester (CAT Report 740). The watching brief began in February 2012 and ended in June 2015, and during which Don monitored the works to renovate the Grey Friars complex of buildings and convert them to a boutique hotel. Grey Friars was, previously, an Adult Community College, and it actually consists of three beautiful listed buildings, ie All Saints’ House, Grey Friars and Hillcrest, which front on to the east end of the High Street. The complex includes a garden and the private hotel and public car-parks to the rear (access via Castle Road). The modern Grey Friars is named after the Franciscan friary which was founded on the site in about 1237 and dissolved in 1538. In 1538, the friary included a church, a hall, chambers, an infirmary, kitchen, bakery, brewery, gatehouse, gardens, and four acres of land, all within the precinct wall, and including fishponds to supply fish to the kitchen. The Trust has conducted a number of archaeological projects at Grey Friars over the years.

Don’s report summary reads: ‘… Significant archaeological remains were recorded during a watching brief at the Grey Friars Hotel… In several places on the site, Roman deposits were observed, including the floors of a Roman building … Medieval remains in the vicinity of the existing buildings were sparse, although a pit was uncovered that possibly pre-dated the Franciscan friary [here]. Machine-trenching in the hotel car-park at the northern end of the site revealed a large medieval pit, which had probably been dug for sand- and gravel-extraction. Further east, in trenches in the public car-park, archaeological deposits associated with the demolition of the friary buildings were uncovered, including two north-south robber-trenches and a layer of demolition debris. Among the other remains exposed on the site were post-medieval and modern foundations, floors and pits …’.

Our newest information on the watching brief has been provided by a specialist in osteoarchaeology, Julie Curl, whose report on the faunal (animal material) assemblage from the site has now been incorporated in the site report. The faunal evidence derives from a medieval pit. It is very interesting and suggests that the diet of the medieval friars here was quite varied. The assemblage includes quite a lot of fish bones, which is unusual for Colchester. Don says that the fish bones are interesting and represent more than six species of fish, ie marine species mackerel, herring, and ling; inshore marine species butterfish and rockling; and two unidentifiable species. Freshwater species were represented by eel bones. Mackerel and herring were, apparently, very popular fish for eating in the medieval period. The assemblage also produced evidence of twelve species of molluscs (over 4,000g), ie marine species (shellfish) oyster, mussel, whelk, piddock, and tellin; six species of land snails; and a freshwater pond snail (but it is probable that only the oysters, mussels and whelks represent food waste!). Oysters were a food staple in Britain for centuries. The animal-bone fragments show evidence of butchery and represent different cuts of meat from pig/boar, cattle, sheep/goat, and unidentifiable species. The bird bones represent ‘fowl’ and even several geese…

The friars may have kept their own livestock and/or bought foods from the markets in the High Street. Colchester is on the River Colne and not far from the sea, and the town would always have benefited from coastal and marine food supplies. Fish was an important medieval food, especially in monastic establishments – including those of the Grey Friars – as religious orders would have observed prohibitions on the consumption of meat. The watching brief at Grey Friars also produced the small mystery of the cockerel bone: we retrieved a large tarsometatarsus (lower leg long-bone) from the site, which probably derives from a large cockerel. This bone includes a 14.5mm-long spur and shows evidence of trauma, so it may have belonged to a fighting-cock. Cock-fighting was a very popular ‘sport’ – but why was this bone found on the site of a friary?

The Trust is now conducting a watching brief on the historic East Hill House, opposite Grey Friars Hotel, which is being converted to a hotel annexe to Grey Friars.

The hotel web-site is at . Visit the Grey Friars community web-site at .

The images show the front of Grey Friars Hotel during the works and the watching brief, and the cockerel bone.


Grey Friars Hotel