Below and behind the John Gray Centre…
As you stand in the JGC it is difficult to remember that it only opened a year ago. However, were you aware that the John Gray Centre itself is in fact its very own historic document and artefact? The Library, Museum and Archives are only the latest incarnation of the buildings that make up the centre.
As part of the refurbishment of the buildings a full programme of archaeological investigation was carried out. Not only were excavations carried out inside the building (which was a pleasant relief for the excavators as it was winter) but once the fittings and fixtures had been removed to reveal the fabric of the building you could trace the history of the changes that the structures had been subject to. Add to this some historical research and bob’s your uncle (I actually do have an Uncle Bob!) what may seem on the surface to be a pile of bricks and mortar turns into a fascinating historical document.
One of the first things that was looked at as part of the archaeological analysis was the old maps. This clearly showed that there have been structures on this site since at least the mid 17th century and most likely longer. The first map evidence we have for buildings on this site is the Adair map dating to 1682. What we don’t know is what the building actually looked like but we can say that some buildings were located on this site. Although a number of maps General Roys map (1747); Armstrong(1773) and Wood (1819) all show buildings on the site they are schematic. It is not until the 1st and 2nd edition Ordnance Survey maps (1854 and 1894 respectively) that you can see details of the actual buildings.
The buildings that make up the John Gray Centre have at various times been a bank, a pub, a seed warehouse, a weaver’s house as well other uses. Only a very brief historical study (using documents as opposed to the physical remains) was done of the building at this stage but it is hoped that we can, along with our colleagues in Local History and Archives, pull together the both the documentary and pysical evidence to eventually tell the full stories of the buildings themselves.
One of the main questions that we hoped to answer at this stage was had the later changes to the building completely removed all signs of the earlier incarnations? To try to answer this a full programme of archaeological work was carried out during the refurbishment of the buildings between 2009 and 2011 by CFA Archaeology. The recording of the historic fabric of the building showed that the buildings had a hard life and it seems like every few years they have been subjected to a quick ‘nip and tuck’. We have moving roof lines (you can still see where the roof was raised on the outside of the building), blocked windows, a set of roving stairs and fireplaces which seem to merrily move around the building. This is a probably a reflection of the different uses that the building has been put to over the years but it made it a very difficult building to understand.
In addition to the recording the standing building a number of archaeological trenches were excavated inside the building. We uncovered an internal cobbled courtyard and internal walls, which all relate to different uses and incarnations of the building, and a still active well! Unfortunately there was very little datable evidence recovered from the excavations but what was uncovered showed that the building alterations had a long and complex history with the earliest piece of pottery dating to the 16th century.
As is usual though it was not the archaeologists who uncovered the best finds from the site but the builders. After all the archaeological work had been completed the building contractors handed in a cannon ball that they had uncovered while levelling the old floor and probably the most spectacular find was found behind a loose stone in one of the walls – a small hessian sack filled with seed delivery receipts dating from the late 19th and early 20th centuries (this was duly handed into Archives and Local History). We really have no idea why these were put there as they do not seem to be at all salacious or incriminating but my pet theory is that it was an attempt to hide something from the tax man (a sort of DIY offshore account!).
So as you visit the Library, peruse the objects in the Museum or read the fascinating historical documents in Local History and Archives just remember that you are also actually inside a building which is just as valuable as to helping us understand our past as the objects and documents housed inside.