Oyster shell holds clue to medieval Dereham

An oyster shell found among rubble unearthed when a Dereham church wall was demolished could have been collected on the Norfolk coast and used by a medieval artist creating wall paintings.

The shell, one of two found in the rubble, contains residues of two colours , a rich yellow and a reddish, earthy brown colour and there is also a small spot of black.

Archaeologists believe that these palettes are of the medieval period, stretching back to the 12th and 13th centuries, and usually associated with church sites.

According to a report of the archaeological survey carried out on the southern boundary wall of St Nicholas’ parish church, it is probable that these shells provided medieval artists with a free, readily available and disposable supply of palettes.

The connection of painters’ palettes with archaeological sites reflects the fact that during medieval times the church was part of the minority within the community able to afford to commission art.

According to the report, the discovery of this palette among the waste from this trench indicates either church waste or rubbish from a high-status household.

Two of the other interesting finds found in the rubble when the wall was demolished last year were an ivory handle and a tang knife with antler handle. These items suggest higher status remains than would be expected from a small cottage.

According to the report compiled by assistant project officer Suzie Westall, the animal bones indicate that every part of the animal was being utilised and it may also point to the fact that – with the inclusion of wild game – even poorer members of the community ate a diet rich in meat.

The presence of two fragments of human bone may be explained by the fact that the edges of the new foundation trench for the wall cut slightly into the churchyard soils.

NAU Archaeology prepared a project design for the survey work and it is likely that the items found will be offered to the church and may end up in Dereham’s Bishop Bonner Cottage museum.

Ms Westall explained that demolition of the 11-metre stretch of wall revealed remains of former buildings on the outside of the wall and showed that the wall itself had been built on to the remains of those buildings. This indicates the collapsed wall was a 20th-century construction.




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