Medieval Cesspit Discovered Beneath The Courtauld Gallery At Somerset House

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Medieval Cesspit Discovered Beneath The Courtauld Gallery At Somerset House

Archaeologists digging beneath the Courtauld Gallery have hit upon an "enormous cesspit".

Dig anywhere in central London and you're sure to uncover something interesting. Archaeologists excavating the basement of the currently closed Courtauld Institute recently found the remains of a lordly cesspit.

As you can see from the photos, this wasn't so much a cess pit as a faecal abyss. The chalk-lined toilet sinks almost five metres down, and took a month to excavate by hand. Needless to say, you wouldn't have wanted to fall into this odious chamber. Here's a 3-D model, so you can explore from a safe distance:

The Courtauld Institute and gallery, in the north-west corner of Somerset House, stands beside the Strand. This part of London was first settled by the Anglo-Saxons some time in the 7th century. It later became a fashionable place for dukes, royals and avaricious clergy to build mansions.

The rediscovered cesspit belonged to one such house — probably Chester Inn, a mansion built in 1543 about which little is known. It is the first major structure to be uncovered from the mansions of this part of Strand. By coincidence, the pit was found beneath the site of the Courtauld's own toilet facilities.

The cesspit was later reused as a cellar for Somerset House, with successive brick floors added closer to the present surface level. The photo below shows one of these floors under excavation.

MOLA archaeologists working on the brick floor near the top of the cesspit.

Archaeologists from MOLA also uncovered a number of interesting objects from the pit:

"These include a rare 14th century ‘Penn’ floor tile – a decorating material of choice for palaces and monastic sites – 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 Courtauld is currently closed while it undergoes a significant redevelopment, drawing on £9.4m from The National Lottery Heritage Fund and philanthropic grants. It is expected that some of the recovered objects (though not the pit itself) will go on display when the gallery reopens in early 2021. Happily, the accessible toilet facilities will be a little more modern than this medieval discovery.

Images courtesy of and copyright MOLA.  

Last Updated 27 January 2020