happy Hallowe’en! – with our ‘cauldron’ from Asheldham in Essex

Happy Hallowe’en from the Colchester Archaeological Trust!

Hallowe’en is the traditional festival which precedes All Hallows Day or, these days, All Souls Day on the 1st November, a day to honour the dead. It is now associated with witches, monsters, horror and supernatural phenomena… A ‘witch’ can be a bewitching female, a practitioner of magic or an exponent of Wicca (modern paganism). Witches are often associated with cauldrons, which are symbolic as well as practical items of magical equipment… In ordinary life, a cauldron is a cooking-vessel for use over an open fire, usually defined by being tripod in form – that is, having three feet (see featured image above).

At the beginning of October, the Trust conducted an archaeological evaluation on a site at Asheldham in south Essex. The site is located within the area of a number of sites of archaeological interest, including the site of ‘Asheldham Camp’, which is a Scheduled Ancient Monument and represents an Iron Age hill-fort; cropmarks of multi-period linear features such as trackways and enclosures; and the site of a Roman farmstead. We excavated two trial-trenches, ahead of the construction of two new houses with associated car-parking and services. The trial-trenches exposed two modern rubbish-pits and we completed our report on the site – CAT Report 1179 – a couple of weeks ago. The site report includes a section by Trust pottery specialist Steve Benfield on a selection of finds from the site. Quantities of finds dating to the late 19th-mid 20th centuries, predominantly of the early-mid 20th century, were recovered from the pit fill of both rubbish-pits, one in each trial-trench (Trench 1 and Trench 2).

The finds from Trench 1 include an attractive fragment of modern pottery. This is a rim with one handle from a small, decorative ceramic vase or jardinière. This was a Royal Doulton (‘Lambeth ware’) vase which would have contained a small flowerpot and plant or flowers. It is made of salt-glazed stoneware and is described as a ‘cauldron’ or cauldron-shaped, as it would originally have had three handles and three feet. We have identified it as a ‘Gilt Circle’ pot made by artist-potter Ethel Beard at the Royal Doulton factory at Lambeth in London, in association with the Lambeth School of Art. There were two different sizes of ‘cauldron’ and they may have been designed as a matching set of three, with one larger vase and two small vases. The body of the ‘cauldron’ is decorated with small gilt swirls and a motif of hearts, rings and four-petalled ?flowers, which seems to be a less common design than flowers with an abstract acanthus leaf motif. This small vase would have had a diameter of about 6″ and the larger vase had a diameter of 8″. When complete, the vase would have included a Royal Doulton mark and the incised monogram of Ethel Beard. Apparently, Ethel Beard worked at the Royal Doulton factory until the 1930s, but the vase probably dates to about 1901-1914. Perhaps it belonged to a set of three ‘cauldron’ vases which once graced the drawing-room, dining-room or conservatory of a house in Asheldham and contained small flowerpots and plants or flowers…

The latest-dated find from Trench 1 is a nearly-complete cream plastic tea cup with faded blue swirl decoration of mid-late 20th-century date, plus several whole machine-made bottles. These are all of clear glass with visible moulding seams. The bottles which include lettering advertise products or companies. There is a Corona soft drink bottle inscribed CORONA THIS BOTTLE / MUST ONLY / BE USE FOR and PURE DRINKS THIS BOTTLE IS THE PROPERTY / OF THOMAS & EVANS LTD (the bottle can be dated to after 1920 and pre-1958); a bottle with small five- and six-pointed stars and inscribed RE Co No 818766 D; a sauce bottle inscribed HAZELWOOD & Co and (PRODUCTS) LTD (dated to after 1930); a whole clear glass ink-bottle; part of a ceramic tile teapot stand; and fragments of willow-pattern earthenware china. There were also two rectangular-bodied medicine bottles with raised lettering, ie ELLIMAN’SEMBROCATION and LUNG TONIC (this was probably a bottle of Owbridge’s Lung Tonic, a cure-all preparation invented in 1874 by pharmacist Walter Owbridge of Hull), plus a squat bottle inscribed Stemcol which may also have been medicinal. Fewer finds from Trench 2 were retained, but these include the latest closely-dated find which is a fragment of a round, upright, white stoneware jar which displays a blue-printed pottery mark of BOVEY POTTERY Co…LTD / 1942. There is also a fragment from a Canada Dry ginger-beer bottle with a painted label of red lettering on a white background, dating to the mid 1940s.

It is interesting that the fragment of ‘cauldron’ vase was recovered from a rubbish-pit along with drinks bottles and medicine bottles, combining elements of magical and medicinal potions… (You don’t believe in witches, do you?!)

All the Trust’s fieldwork reports are published online at http://cat.essex.ac.uk/ .

The images show a vintage Hallowe’en postcard which features a young witch with a cauldron in use in the background; the fragment of our ‘cauldron’; a rough sketch of how the complete vase would have looked as one of a pair; some of the other modern small finds from the site, on site, including the medicine bottles; and a photo. of part of the site with spoil-heap and machine-trenching in progress.
The vintage postcard is published online at https://thegraphicsfairy.com/ and is reproduced here with thanks to the Graphics Fairy.