Mythical Beast Unearthed in Medieval English Cesspit
Since discovering the 14th century chalk-lined cesspit in London, England, at the end of 2019, archaeologists at the Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) have said it had been transformed over time into a fashionable cellar with a latrine. And this ancient structure designed for human waste contained several “priceless artifacts” including a gold-plated ring, an iron spur for riding horses and a fork from the post-medieval period.
Iron spur unearthed at the cesspit excavation site. (MOLA)
But standing above all the other finds in this ancient loo, the archaeological team uncovered a rare medieval tile depicting a mythical creature with a human head at one end and a leaf-like tail at the other, said Antonietta Lerz, a senior archaeologist at MOLA, speaking to Live Science.
Digging Into the Ancient Cesspit
The MOLA team members found the cesspit while excavating in the basement at The Courtauld Institute of Art ahead of a planned construction project. It measures 15 feet by 15 feet (4.5 meters) square, and the chalk-built structure has walls measuring about 3 feet (1 m) wide and 13 feet (4 m) deep.
When it was first created, the cesspit would have had seats for use by residents and visitors of Chester Inn, the former town residence of the Bishops of Lichfield, where the Bishop of Chester stayed while in London. Lerz said their preliminary examination indicated the structure had been used to hold human waste for about a century and he added that “cesspits were routinely cleaned out,” so it may have been used for much longer than the recovered finds suggest.
Fishing Treasures From the Latrine
By the 17th century, the chalk cesspit had been converted into a wine cellar and workers then added several layers of brick flooring. In the 18th and 19th centuries a small latrine was added in the northwest corner of the cesspit and as the scientists went “deeper and deeper,” Lerz told the Guardian, “almost every time we put our mattocks in the ground, something else came up.”
Among the recovered artifacts recovered was a coarse-border ware condiment dish with a copper-green glaze dating to between the 14th to 15th centuries, a 14th-century gold-plated ring with an oval cabochon setting thought to likely contain a garnet, a glazed bowl and a glass inkwell and a two-pronged fork with a bone handle.
Gold ring found at the cesspit site (left), fork (middle) and condiment dish with a copper-green glaze (right). (MOLA)
However, what is being called the most curious find is a floor tile depicting a mythical beast dating to between AD 1350 to AD 1390.
Interpreting the Beast of the Ancient Toilet
The archaeologists say the stylized tile was part of a four-tile panel made at a tile-production shop in Penn, a village in the district of Buckinghamshire, and Lerz said, “Penn’s tiles were often used in palaces and monastic sites during the medieval period,” but how it ended up in a cesspit-turned-cellar “is anyone's guess.” And at this stage, so too is the nature of the mythical beast, “anyone’s guess,” so here goes…
The tile of the mythical beast found at the cesspit site. (MOLA)
The mythical creature features “a human head at one end and a leaf-like tail at the other,” which perfectly describes the manticore of Persian legend, where its name was “man-eater,” which was similar to the Egyptian sphinx that so heavily influenced western European medieval art with its “human head,” body of a lion and a tail of “venomous spines,” similar to porcupine quills or a scorpions tail end.
Following this line of thinking, according to Rodney Denny’s 1975 book The Heraldic Imagination, the manticore first appeared in English heraldry in AD 1470 as a badge of William Hastings, 1st Baron Hastings which falls within a century of the dating given to the tile.
Manticore or mantyger badge of William, Lord Hastings, c.1470. This version has tusks. (Public domain)
Looking closely at this medieval representation of the manticore the artist has stylized the beast in a fluid flowing, floral-way and its tail looks similar to the “leaf-like tail” on the tile discovered in the cesspool. But as this is still “anyone’s guess”, now that I’ve put my neck on the line, perhaps you could too? What do you think the mythical creature might be, if not the manticore suggested here?
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Top image: Main: The cesspit excavation site. Inset: The tile of the mythical beast found at the site. Source: MOLA
By Ashley Cowie