Ongoing excavations at Jesus College, Cambridge, are revealing a wealth of finds spanning centuries, including previously unknown details about the medieval nunnery that occupied the site before it became a college.
Cotswold Archaeology, along with the Cambridge Archaeological Unit (CAU), began excavating on the northern side of Jesus College’s hall at the beginning of the year, ahead of work to extend and modernise the kitchen block.
During the course of this investigation, a late medieval or early post-medieval walkway and associated building were discovered, appearing to form part of a courtyard, perhaps even a cloister. The walkway ran parallel to the College’s hall, with one open side that would have faced the original nunnery hall, and the opposite side adjoining a building. These features were replaced during the early history of the College by a large precinct wall and culverted ditch, which were in turn replaced by a series of ancillary storehouse buildings.
Historical records indicate that the nunnery, dedicated to St Radegund and St Mary, was founded on this site in the 12th century and dissolved in 1496. After this, the buildings were repurposed as a college for the University of Cambridge. It was previously assumed that the college had retained the same layout as the nunnery, including the cloistered court and the church (which is now the College chapel), but these new discoveries suggest at least some alterations were made.
Robert Athol, Jesus College’s Archivist, said: ‘The foundations are a real find. There’s next to nothing surviving in the Archives that tells us about the site when occupied by the nuns, and there’s roughly a 50-year gap in the early records of the College’s history, so this discovery is extremely important in our understanding of the history of the site.’
Overall, it is hoped this project will provide a rare opportunity to analyse two different self-contained single-sex communities: the all-female medieval nunnery followed by the originally all-male college (the first female undergraduates arrived in 1979).
As Christopher Evans, Director of the Cambridge Archaeological Unit, explained: ‘Occupational remains from the College and the nunnery will help us to compare the quality of their respective diets. Hopefully, we’ll also be able to do isotopic study on livestock bones to establish where they were bringing animals in from, and so how far afield their respective economic reaches were.’
Watch this space for further updates as the work on the site continues.
TEXT: K Krakowka.