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Archaeological dig at £7m car park suggests hats were made from cats in medieval Norwich

An artist's impression of the proposed £7m car park in Rose Lane/Mountergate. Pic: Submitted.

An artist's impression of the proposed £7m car park in Rose Lane/Mountergate. Pic: Submitted.

Archant

Fresh light has been shone on Norwich’s grisly medieval history, after archaeologists uncovered evidence suggesting the site of a proposed £7m car park was once a 13th Century leather workshop.

More digs on the way?

At the planning committee meeting on January 8, councillors could choose to impose conditions that further archaeological work be carried out if the

application is approved.

This may result in further digs, but could involve a “watching brief” only – allowing building work to progress as normal, and only halt if workmen stumble upon something of interest.

The site of the proposed multi-storey is currently occupied by the former UK Fire premises and the Fishmarket, which is a locally listed building.

Archaeologists have already dug seven trials trenches, each four metres by four metres, to investigate the low-lying site near to the River Wensum.

An eighth trench is set to be dug and evaluated after planned demolition works have taken place, with analysis of any finds to feed into a new report in early 2015.

Evaluation of the site to date has identified activity from the prehistoric period to the modern era.

And, from animal bones discovered at the city centre site, it seems our medieval ancestors knew of at least one way to skin a cat - possibly so they could make hats or gloves.

Archaeologists have been studying the site between Rose Lane and Mountergate, ahead of a decision on whether a 595-space multi-storey car park should be given planning permission.

They found so many goat horncores - the bones at the centre of horns - that archaeologists think the site may have been a high-quality leather tanning works, with animal corpses brought to the area to be processed.

And, with the site close to the river and near two friary sites, archaeologists are wondering whether the site might have served monks, producing high-quality leather items and vellum - a parchment used for scrolls and books.

The report by archeologists speculates: “One interesting aspect is whether the name of this activity, the manufacture of vellum being carried out by parchmenters, is in some way retained as the derivation of Parmentergate and the church of St Peter Parmentergate on King Street.”

But it was not only goats and cattle skinned at the site. Cat bones, including one from a kitten showing evidence of knife cuts, suggests other animals were also used.

The archeologists’ report states: “The cat bones in the assemblage are of interest, especially the cut juvenile bone. It is quite possible that cats were also providing skins and fur at this site – a common practice in medieval Britain and one that has been seen in Norwich.

“There is the possibility that the cat fur could have made small items or contributed to other garments being produced eg fur trims to leather gloves or hats.”

David Gurney, county archaeologist, said: “It is a very interesting site. By this time there are lots of people living within the city walls, but you still get places like this being used for quite unpleasant activities.

“These activities would have been very smelly, noxious and quote dangerous, with urine or lime used to remove the hair or allowing it to rot for several months. You wouldn’t have wanted to live next door to it!

“We know that from the late 13th century there were more than 120 different crafts and trades going on in Norwich and leather working gets mentioned quite a lot.”

Plans for the car park have been lodged with Norwich City Council and further archaeological work could be a condition if permission is approved.

• Have you made a remarkable discovery about Norfolk’s past? Call reporter Dan Grimmer on 01603 772375 or email dan.grimmer@archant.co.uk

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