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29 October 2014
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The vast monastic drain unblocked at Lacock Abbey
The vast monastic drain found at Lacock

Ancient finds in Nuns' sewer

A 16th century nuns' sewerage pipe, at Lacock, throws up all sorts of archaeological surprises...


A vast monastic drain, dating back to 1232-5, has just literally been unblocked at Lacock Abbey and is throwing up all sorts of archaeological surprises.

The 15 metre long drain structure is vast.  Over six metres high, and over a metre wide,  it runs right underneath the Abbey and is easily big enough to walk through from end to end.

The vast drain is 6 metres high
The vast drain is 6 metres high

But in the 13th century, you would have been ill advised to take a ramble down it, as it was the main sewer for the Abbey servicing all the lavatories or reredorter for the nunnery.

In-filled in the 16th century, and used as the equivalent of a builders skip by the than new owner William Sharrington, the drain was left buried until the National Trust had to tackle a damp problem:

"We undertook these excavations," says David Formby the National Trust Custodian of Lacock Abbey, "to ease problems of rising damp in the building by undoing the work of Sharrington's sixteenth century builders, who used the drain as we do a skip."

With the Trust's excavations, along the north wall of the Abbey, the vast drain system was unearthed.  Since than 64 tonnes of debris has been removed, by hand, and a wide range of archaeological finds brought to light:

"What was viewed as rubbish in the sixteenth century is of great interest to us in the twenty-first century as it gives us clues about life at the time," says Jane Harcourt the archaeologist who managed the project for the National Trust.

Some of the 16th century 'rubbish' uncovered
Some of the 16th century 'rubbish' uncovered

"Of the archaeological finds, some dating from the nineteenth century, the most interesting date from Sharrington's time."

Among the finds, seen as rubbish in the 16th century, are several hundred fragments of floor tile, some painted glass fragments, a lead pilgrim's ampulla, bronze shears and several hundred bronze dress pins:

"We have found over 300 bronze dress pins," says Jane Harcourt, "which would have been essential for nuns in the thirteenth century to secure their pleated wimples and which were used in abundance by all women in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries."

Dropping things in the WC by mistake, it seems, is an age old problem.

Visitors to Lacock Abbey, later this year, will be able to see some of the finds once they have been conserved.

Meanwhile on February 1st, 2006, Jane Harcourt will be giving a lecture on the Monastic Drain Works at Lacock's Manger Barn.

last updated: 30/01/06
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Ivan C. Bayly
It's always interesting what can be found down a toilet - great work!

Elana Rourke, California
An amazing discovery - how exciting.

W T Haley Bellevue, Nebraska USA
What a find!!

Ken Morvell. Kyabram Australia
From a plumbers view - most interesting

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