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Wednesday, 2 May 2018

Entitled Tiles

During the late 1970s, a joint team of students and staff from Bath College of Higher Education and the University of Leeds uncovered, among other things, four complete medieval tiles from a manor house in Newton St. Loe. Striking in design and aesthetic, these tiles provide unique insight into the medieval world, and make excellent learning tools in understanding core archaeological principles. They will shed light on how we can approach a better understanding of a site.

The team at Newton St. Loe dated these tiles to 1290 – 1320, and the question I want to ask is how exactly can an accurate estimate be made? 

Fig.1 – Floor tile found at Newton St. Loe displaying the royal arms established by Richard the Lionheart, reversed.

Take the example above (fig. 1). The most obvious feature is the clear heraldry, but as is often the case with heraldry, it could prove to be a red herring. We can see it displays the royal arms established by Richard the Lionheart in 1198. In 1340, the royal arms were quartered by Edward III, incorporating the fleur-de-lis. In addition, medieval tiles in England came into production around the mid-13th century. Using this evidence, we could say the tile was made during the late 13th and early 14th century.

But what if our method is wrong? Perhaps either the artist or the patron preferred an earlier design, despite what was socially accurate. It’s possible the tile was part of a cheaper, mass produced set from the late 14th century, a result of the Black Plague severely hampering the customers’ ability to afford unique, custom-made tiles. Many cheaper tiles that re-used old designs flooded the market as a result of the plague.

Ultimately, any number of reasons can undermine even the best and most seasoned logic. The heraldry alone is only going to get us so far.

Fig.2 – Found alongside the royal arms tile, the circular, floral, design of this tile is of unknown origin or heraldry.

So how can we date an object like this, while also ignoring its most identifiable feature? The key is context. It was the manor’s family history, the interesting architecture, and the layers of archaeology, that all work towards informing the tile, and allowed the archaeologists to estimate a suitable date. It is the job of an archaeologist, a historian, even an enthusiast, to try and fit each small piece into a grand mosaic that is in the end, far bigger than the sum of its parts.

Placement Student

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