Excavations at the Courtauld Institute of Art at Somerset House, London, have uncovered a cesspit belonging to one of the luxurious medieval mansions that used to exist in this area.

An archaeologist standing in a deep, brick-lined, square cesspit
A MOLA archaeologist recording the 15th-century cesspit uncovered in the basement of the Courtauld Gallery. [Image: © MOLA]

MOLA (Museum of London Archaeology) was working on the site during building works in the basement of the Courtauld Gallery when they revealed a large chalklined cesspit – a container for toilet waste that would have had seats directly above it. The pit was c.4m2 in size, with its four walls still intact, and contained a variety of artefacts mostly dating from the 14th and 15th centuries.

The size and location of the cesspit suggest that it was used by residents of, and visitors to, the 15th-century Chester’s Inn, the London home of the Bishop of Chester. This area along the Strand was once the location of many opulent buildings, which were occupied by regional bishops when they were in the capital, with extensive gardens and jetties onto the Thames, conveniently located between Westminster Palace and the City of London. However, until this discovery there was little evidence for these residences beyond a few written sources and a single drawing from 1543, which is believed to be relatively inaccurate.

The mansion’s cesspit appears to have remained in use in a variety of ways for over 400 years, including after the bishops’ residences were demolished and replaced by a Tudor palace once occupied by the future Queen Elizabeth I, evidence for which was uncovered beneath the courtyard of Somerset House in 2000. By the 17th century, the upper parts of the walls of the cesspit had been converted into a cellar, and several layers of brick flooring were added over time up to the 18th century, before the building that currently occupies the site was completed in 1801.

A square brick tile with decoration
Part of a four-tile panel from a tilery at Penn, Buckinghamshire, dating to c.1350-1390.
[Image: ©MOLA]

Objects deposited in the cesspit provide links to the occupants of both the medieval settlements and the subsequent palace. One of the most revealing discoveries was a rare floor tile, dating to 1350-1390, depicting a mythical creature with a human head at one end and a leaf-like tail at the other. It is part of a four-tile panel from a tilery in Penn, Buckinghamshire, and was the decoration of choice for palaces and monastic sites in the 14th and 15th centuries.

Also found were a surprising number of complete, or almost-complete ceramics from the same period, such as small condiment bowls, several wine jugs, and a dripping dish used for cooking meat. The pit also yielded several metal objects, including a pendant, an iron spur, a belt buckle, and a post-medieval fork with an ornate bone-plate handle, as well as a delicate 14th-century gold-plated finger-ring with an oval cabochon setting, probably containing a garnet, which was most likely dropped into the cesspit by accident.

These discoveries open a vivid window on a relatively poorly understood period of this area’s history, and the less glamorous side of luxury life there over the years. It is also an interesting coincidence that the site of the cesspit was found on the exact location chosen for the new Courtauld Gallery toilets.

A 3D model of the cesspit is available at https://skfb.ly/6PYIx.


This news article appears in issue 361 of Current Archaeology. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.

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