“Random encounters with the unusual” is a repository for the oddities that me and Mrs J have encountered on our travels, which we find interesting or amusing in some way. Have a look, maybe you will find something interesting or amusing herein.

Monday, 25 August 2014

The Depressing Chair of Bishops Cannings

Bishops Cannings is a village in Wiltshire, which is a short drive north-east of the town of Devizes. The village church is the Church of St Mary the Virgin and it is believed that the church was built in the second half of the 12th century and gradually augmented and improved over the years. It is during this lengthy history that the church became home to a very depressing chair.

The chair in question is a type of pew that can be found inside the church and which has a  “hand of meditation” painted on its back. The hand is decorated with a number of depressing phrases in Latin, that are presumably designed to make the person sitting in the pew consider their life, their actions and their life's meaning.

The accompanying inscription dates the “hand of meditation” to the 15th century: The origin of this ancient pew is uncertain. It is thought by some to be a confessional; by others a monastic carrel or study desk. Only the painted panel is medieval and belongs to the 15th century. The surrounding woodwork seems to have been added in the 18th century. 

The inscriptions on the hand are all rather depressing, and apparently translate to the below:

The inscription of the palm reads:
What thou oughest to think upon.

The thumb reads:
Thou knowest not how much.
Thou knowest not how often.
Thou hast offended god.

The index finger reads:
Thy end is bitter.
Thy life is short.
Thou hast come into the world.
With sin.

The middle finger reads:
Thou shalt carry nothing with thee but what thou hast done.
Thy life thou canst not lengthen.
Thy death thou canst not escape.
Thou shalt die.

The fourth finger reads:
Thou knowest not whither thou shalt go.
Thou knowest not how thou shalt die.
Thou knowest not where thou shalt die.
The hour of death is uncertain.

The little finger reads:
Thou shalt quickly be forgotten by thy friends.
Thy best will seldom do anything for thee.
He to whom thou leaveth they goods will seldom do anything for thee.
Thy end is miserable. 

Notwithstanding the very sombre and depressing nature of the inscriptions on the chair, it is a very striking piece of furniture and I have never seen anything like it in any other church that I have visited. Who knows, perhaps it is unique?

The Church of St Mary the Virgin.

The Pew.

A confessional or a carrel? 

The "Hand of Meditation". 

Translating the hand. 

Pictures, Wiltshire (August 2014).

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Friday, 15 August 2014

Gun End of Base?

If you live in the Salisbury area you will likely be familiar with the ancient site of Old Sarum. Old Sarum was originally an Iron Age hill fort, and following the Roman invasion of Great Britain it became the Roman settlement of Sorviodunum (43 AD – 410 AD). The site remained in use as a fortified settlement during the Saxon era and the Normans erected a motte and baily castle on the site (circa 1069).

A cathedral was built on the site between 1075 and 1092 and this was followed by the construction of a Royal Palace within the inner castle between 1130 – 1139. As the hill fort of Old Sarum was somewhat exposed to the elements, it was eventually decided to relocate the cathedral to a less exposed position, and in 1220 the construction of what would become New Sarum (Salisbury) Cathedral commenced. The general populous of Old Sarum followed the relocation of the cathedral, and Salisbury began to emerge as a settlement as the population moved themselves and their homes from Old Sarum. By 1240 the majority of the local population had abandoned Old Sarum in favour of Salisbury. Even though Old Sarum was now effectively population-less it still retained the right to send two members of parliament to the House of Commons. As such Old Sarum became known as one of the most famous “Rotten Boroughs” in the land, with wealthy people owning the land to ensure that they could become elected to parliament.

What most visitors to Old Sarum will miss however is a stone monument on the opposite side of the A345 to Old Sarum, which sits half way between Old Sarum and the Portway roundabout. The monument is marked on Ordnance Survey maps and on 1:25,000 scale maps and it is accompanied by the cryptic label “Gun End of Base”. The monument itself clearly explains its purpose and bears the following inscription  “In 1794 a line from this site to Beacon Hill was measured by Capt W Mudge of the Ordnance Survey as a base for the triangulation of Great Britain”.

It seems that in 1794 Captain William Mudge (1762 – 1820) of the Royal Artillery measured the distance between the site of the monument and nearby Beacon Hill, which is approximately 7 miles north east of Old Sarum and can be found between the A303 and the village of Bulford. This measurement apparently became the baseline from which the first definitive mapping survey of Great Britain began. The label “Gun End of Base” on today’s Ordnance Survey map apparently refers to the spot at which a cannon was buried vertically in the ground. It seems that the buried cannon would have been used as a point for Mudge to erect his theodolite on, prior to him making his measurements.

The question that springs to my mind is whether the label “Gun End of Base” appears on any other Ordnance Survey maps or if it is particular to Old Sarum. Time to get looking!

The monument to Captain William Mudge.

Old Sarum from a distance.

Information board showing an aerial view of Old Sarum.

Looking towards Old Sarum's motte.

The motte and its protective ditch.

Ruins inside the motte.

Looking out from the motte towards the ruins of the Old Sarum Cathedral.

New Sarum Cathedral can be seen in the distance.

A model showing what the motte may have once looked like.

Pictures, Wiltshire (August 2014).

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Friday, 8 August 2014

Uncovering an Unknown Building

Over the weekend of the 2nd and 3rd of August I was lucky enough to be able to spend some time helping a local archaeology team who are seeking to understand an unknown building that has been discovered in the hamlet of Bincknoll in Wiltshire.  

Bincknoll (pronounced Bynol) is a secluded rural hamlet that lies in the shadow of a former 11th Century (Norman) motte and bailey castle (Bincknoll Castle). The castle is believed to have been the seat of power for the local land owner of the period and today all that remains of this castle are some partial earthworks, which hint at what the site used to be. Bincknoll is also believed to have once been home to a medieval chapel and there is some documentary evidence that hints at its existence. However the location of this chapel has never been identified.

Finding the location of this medieval chapel recently became a possibility when a local home owner removed some trees from her lawn and uncovered what appeared to be a wall and some rubble from an previously unknown building. The wall that has been uncovered is made from chalk stone and has a west-east alignment, which interestingly does not align to any other local features (e.g. the road). Buildings with a west-east alignment are typical of Christian places of worship.  

With the possibility that the unknown building is medieval and may be the previously unlocated Bincknoll Chapel the excavations on site began.

The main aims of the excavation are to understand the extent of the building and its relation to the local landscape and to find features of the structure and contextual evidence that will enable it to be dated with some degree of confidence. Finding the original floor level of the building is a key objective, as the construction of the floor is likely to shed considerable light on the nature of the unknown building.

During my 2 days helping on the dig the wall and rubble field were uncovered to begin to understand the extent of the site and to enable the features to be charted and recorded. During these initial excavations a number of finds were made, which included:

  • Fragments of roof tiles.
  • Pig and sheep bones.
  • Pieces of mortar, and also what seems to be some mortar in situ on the outside wall of the building (this possibly shows that the outside of the building was once rendered?).
  • Oyster shells, which are apparently typical of Roman occupation in the area.
  • Flint cores and flint shards, which typically date from the Mesolithic era (10,000 - 4,000 years BC).
  • A possible piece of plaster with a thin surface of paint on it. If the building did have painted plaster it would hint towards it being a place a worship. 
  • Pieces of early medieval pottery. 
  • A return wall, enabling the team to be confident that they know what is the inside and what is the outside of the building.   

The dig will continue for a number of weeks, and once the team have planned and documented the exposed walls and rubble field they will slowly remove sections of the rubble field to explore the building. Painstakingly the team will remove layers from the site and eventually they may reach the original floor level. Hopefully during the dig the team will uncover suitable evidence to enable them to date the building and understand its former purpose, and maybe they might even be able to prove that it is actually the medieval Bincknoll Chapel.

The Bincknoll dig is being organized and managed by Broad Town Archaeology and the Wiltshire Archaeology Field Group, visit their Facebook pages to find out more!

Day 1 - The site ready for excavations to begin. The home owner had already uncovered some of the rubble field after removing some trees from the lawn. The wall of the building is on the right hand side of the picture.

Day 1 - The wall of the unknown building, which runs along a west to east alignment.

Day 1 - The other end of the site, marked out and ready for exploration. 

Day 1 - The wall and the rubble field are slowly uncovered. A trench is opened on what is believed to be the outside of the building to explore the depth of the wall.

Day 1 - At the end of the first day. The team continue to slowly uncover the rubble field and the trench outside the building is prepared for documentation.

Day 2 - Mrs J continues to expand the trench downwards. 

Day 2 - The wall and rubble field are cleaned ready for planning and documentation. 

Day 2 - Planning commences, objects of interest are marked using flags and a grid is used to enable the site to be sketched.

Day 2 - The hard job! The rubble field and wall have to be documented and planned before any rocks can be lifted to enable the team the excavate deeper. 

Day 2 - Some of the finds from Mrs J's trench, a flint core and some flint chippings - evidence of flint knapping on the site. 

Day 2 - Some of the finds from Mrs J's trench, mortar from the unknown building. 

Some of the remaining earth works at Bincknoll Castle.

The view from Bincknoll Castle, looking towards the M4.

Pictures, Wiltshire (August 2014).

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