Archaeologists have uncovered a remnant of the medieval mansions that lined the Strand, a key thoroughfare linking Westminster Palace to the city of London. Regional bishops used to stay in these mansions when they were in town to serve the monarch, but relatively little is known about them.
These opulent properties included the Chester Inn, founded in the 15th century, which stood on the site of today’s well-known Somerset House and belonged to the bishopric of Coventry, Lichfield and Chester. Specialist archaeologists from the Museum of London Archaeology (Mola) were excavating the basement of The Courtauld Institute of Art at Somerset House when they uncovered an enormous medieval cesspit, filled with a wide range of archaeological objects discarded over the centuries.
The location of the chalk-lined structure, which measures nearly 15 feet deep, suggests it could have been used by both the residents and visitors to the household as they entered and exited Chester Inn’s courtyard. Archaeologists carefully excavated the cesspit by hand over the course of a month, and it was found to contain many fascinating objects that shine a light on this poorly understood period in the development of the Strand.
These include a rare 14th century ‘Penn’ floor tile, pottery drinking vessels and tableware dating from the 14th and 15th centuries, as well as a range of metalwork artefacts including a finger ring, iron spur, belt buckle, bone-handled fork and pendant. The objects found were likely to have been dropped in accidentally to the cesspit, or possibly thrown in to discard them if they were no longer wanted.
The archaeologists also uncovered building foundations, some of which were medieval, with others dating from the Tudor period and beyond. According to Mola senior archaeologist, Antonietta Lerz, the original medieval cesspit was converted into a cellar by the 17th century and a series of successive brick floors were then laid down. The latest of these dates to the 18th century when a small latrine was inserted in the corner.
“It’s an amazing coincidence that on excavating the exact spot of the new Courtauld Gallery toilets, we found not just one, but two ‘toilet precursors,’ which document the less glamorous side of almost five hundred years of luxury life alongside the Thames," she says. "This is certainly not your typical find, and represents a fascinating glimpse into the many levels and layers of history beneath the current building.”
The archaeological finds have been taken to Mola for further study and conservation, and there are plans to exhibit a selection of these artefacts at The Courtauld when its gallery reopens to the public in spring 2021. Further information can be found on Mola's website here.