St John's College Gardens

Project Profile

Project Title :

St John's College Gardens, 6 South Bailey, Durham

Client :

St John's College

Type of Work :

Evaluation, Excavation and Archaeological Monitoring (Watching Brief)

Project Gallery 

The souvenir teacup found in the cesspit   The cesspit, looking north-west  
18th Century flower beds and garden bench   Remains of the Castle wall  
Excavations at St John's College   Excavations underway  


St John's College Gardens, Durham

A Walk Through Time in St John's Garden, Durham

The redevelopment of part of St John's College has recently given us the rare opportunity to investigate something of the history of the south bailey. A small team of archaeologists from NAA have been digging in the garden since the beginning of August and have excavated two areas; one at the back of the college and one at the bottom of the garden over the castle wall. In addition, we have also monitored all groundworks undertaken by the building contractors in advance of the construction of the new college accommodation block.

A series of trial trenches dug by NAA in the gardens last winter had already established that archaeological remains were likely to be well-preserved at St. John's. This is largely because the site has remained a garden since the medieval period so there has subsequently been very little disturbance. The most significant remains to be unearthed was a clay bank which is thought to have been the remains of a rampart - an earthen defensive feature - that predated the stone walls of the medieval castle. Part of this feature still remains visible today at the bottom of the garden when viewed from Principal's Walk. The rampart was located over 2m below the current ground surface so, for health and safety reasons, it could only be recorded during the construction of the foundations for the new building.

This early rampart would most probably have been associated with a timber palisade. Two sherds of Roman pottery, and a sherd of likely 11th century pottery, were recovered from low within the bank material meaning that the structure is likely to date to the Anglo-Saxon or early Norman period (the Roman pottery probably being residual within the material used to construct the bank). The evidence also suggests that a rampart was probably maintained to the rear of the stone wall and that ovens were located within it. The stone castle wall was found to be 2.95m wide at this point, although this was measured to the wall facing Principal's Walk, a section that is probably a post-medieval re-build.

When the defensive function of the wall began to wane it took on a much more polite purpose. By the 18th century it had been greatly reduced in height and served as retaining wall dividing the garden from the precipitous river bank. It also formed the base for a long garden bench at the back of the formal gardens. The remains of other garden features were also well-preserved and included a stone boundary wall, between numbers 6 and 7 South Bailey, and an arrangement of flowerbeds. The standing brick wall dividing the garden also dates to this period.

The castle wall and the later garden bench had been buried by soil during the first half of the 19th century. Excavation did identify a gravel path located around the garden perimeter, on the south side of the existing brick wall, and it is likely that this was the path represented on the 1861 Ordnance Survey map. Also on this map was an outshot building which once stood at the back of the existing college buildings. The foundations of this structure were very well-preserved and found to contain the remains of a stone-lined cesspit. Although this was post-medieval in date it was constructed against masonry that was medieval (an outshot building to the rear of 7 South Bailey). The cesspit was associated with a privy and it would have been periodically cleaned out by the nightsoil men who, as their name suggests, were employed to empty cesspits during the night when it would not disturb the delicate sensibilities of the residents. The contents would have then been mixed with other rubbish, including ash, and sold to farmers as fertiliser to spread on the fields.

The cesspit was backfilled with material that contained an abundance of domestic rubbish, including a Victorian souvenir cup of Durham, complete with views of the cathedral and the castle. Based on the date of much of this material we can tell that the privy was probably demolished in the mid to late 19th century. This material provides an interesting glimpse into the evolution of the toilet at a time when privies were replaced by water-closets (flushing toilets) within the more wealthy households.

Archaeological investigations within the bailey at Durham are rare and the excavations have provided some very important and unexpected results, with a further opportunity to investigate more of the gardens when the service trenches and rain water storage tanks are dug in November. Specialist work on the on the finds assemblages are just beginning and it is hoped that when all of the planned redevelopment work is completed the results will be published.

Keep watching our website for further information and updates as work progresses.