Artists’ palette from medieval Dereham

Oyster shell holds clue to medieval Dereham

An oyster shell found among rubble unearthed when a Dereham church wall was demolished could have been collected on the Norfolk coast and used by a medieval artist creating wall paintings.

The shell, one of two found in the rubble, contains residues of two colours , a rich yellow and a reddish, earthy brown colour and there is also a small spot of black.

Archaeologists believe that these palettes are of the medieval period, stretching back to the 12th and 13th centuries, and usually associated with church sites.

According to a report of the archaeological survey carried out on the southern boundary wall of  St Nicholas’ parish church, it is probable that these shells provided medieval artists with a free, readily available and disposable supply of palettes.

The connection of painters’ palettes with archaeological sites reflects the fact that during medieval times the church was part of the minority within the community able to afford to commission art.

According to the report, the discovery of this palette among the waste from this trench indicates either church waste or rubbish from a high-status household.

Two of the other interesting finds found in the rubble when the wall was demolished last year were an ivory handle and a tang knife with antler handle. These items suggest higher status remains than would be expected from a small cottage.

According to the report compiled by assistant project officer Suzie Westall, the animal bones indicate that every part of the animal was being utilised and it may also point to the fact that – with the inclusion of wild game – even poorer members of the community ate a diet rich in meat.

The presence of two fragments of human bone may be explained by the fact that the edges of the new foundation trench for the wall cut slightly into the churchyard soils.

NAU Archaeology prepared a project design for the survey work and it is likely that the items found will be offered to the church and may end up in  Dereham’s Bishop Bonner Cottage museum.

Ms Westall explained that demolition of the 11-metre stretch of wall revealed remains of former buildings on the outside of the wall and showed that the wall itself had been built on to the remains of those buildings. This indicates the collapsed wall was a 20th-century construction.

Flickr pics of excavation in progress by Sue White

8 comments on “Artists’ palette from medieval Dereham

  1. I’ve been reading your blog since I started my own blog, in July 2006.

    Granted, I’m not a scientist, but I still find your blog fascinating.

    And now I’m getting the chance to go to England this September. Can you recommend one or two archaeological sites that in your opinion I must not miss?

    I particularly love small, un-heralded museums …


  2. saesferd says:

    Hello Marianne,
    It’s good to know that The Attic has a loyal fan!
    There are many archaeological sites that I could suggest, but if you can give me an idea in which area of England you’ll be staying, I can recommend sites local to that area and within easy travelling distance.

  3. I’m actually arriving in London and then heading to Edinburgh, where I’ll be for most of the time. But I can take short trips from London, and from Edinburgh. (The entire trip is about five weeks)

    Thanks so much for your help!


  4. Thank you! Thank you so much!

    Can’t wait to see these places!

    I’ve never seen a museum of falconry before …


    • saesferd says:

      Hello Marianne,
      There are so many interesting places – it’s so difficult to know which ones to recommend. It is dependant upon how much time you have to spend there and how much travelling you want to do to get there.
      Sutton Hoo isn’t a museum of falconry – it’s just one of the types of events that they have occasionally, as well as the permanent exhibition and the burial mounds.If you go to my Flickr photos (link in the side bar) and find the Sutton Hoo set, you’ll see some images of the site and some of the events there.Ditto West Stow.

  5. Oh, sorry about that mix-up about the falconry. If only I typed a bit slower!

    I checked out your Flickr photos. I’m dying over the wisteria walk and walled garden. I’m also a gardener. Are those open to the public?

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