David Dawson and I were invited to visit Newport in Pembrokeshire recently to see the Newport Medieval Kiln and contribute our thoughts. This amazing survivor has been hidden in plain sight under the Memorial Hall in Newport for over 100 years and is now the subject of an appeal to raise funds to conserve and present it to the public.
In 1920, during the construction of the Memorial Hall in Newport, Pembrokeshire, the builders stumbled on the remains of two pottery kilns one of which was very well preserved. The people of Newport were obviously very pleased with this addition to the history of their town and the hall committee decided to preserve the more complete kiln within the basement of building, adjusting the structure to accommodate it.
The kilns were quickly excavated and published in note form with a sketch plan and elevation drawn by archaeologist Sir Mortimer Wheeler. The very limited knowledge of pottery kilns, especially post-Roman ones, in the first quarter of the 20th century meant that the potential for interpretation was limited. The excavation had revealed a firebox and the base of a kiln not unlike the few Roman ones known and a broad medieval date was suggested probably on the basis of the pottery found with it.
The continued preservation of the kiln is remarkable. That the Memorial Hall committee saw it as important is evidence of their pride in their community and perhaps Welsh identity too. In 1920 it would have been the only site of its kind in Wales and one of a handful in Britain as a whole. It remains amongst a very small number of historic pottery kilns recorded in Wales to this date. Added to this is the exceptional level of preservation that rivals or exceeds anything else in Britain. The decision to enclose it has preserved it in very good condition for future generations to study and despite the use of parts of the basement behind the kiln for storage, damage over 106 years appears to have been minimal. From the point of view of anyone interested in ceramic technology and kilns it is a very valuable survivor.
The excavated firemouth. Newport Medieval Kiln. Newport Pembrokeshire
Newport Medieval Kiln. Newport, Pembrokeshire. The kiln seen from the back of the basement – not very easy to see I’m afraid. Two of the flues in the kiln floor can be seen on the left. Central is the ware-chamber floor with the west firebox straight ahead. The photographer is on top of the unexcavated eastern one.
Newport Medieval Kiln. Two of the holes in the chamber floor allowing the flame through from the flues below. The nearer one is fed from the west firebox, the other from the east.
Newport Medeval Kiln. View inside the flue looking up at the warechamber floor. At the top is one of the ceramic ‘bars’ bridging the flue to carry the floor.
As it stands now, the kiln is partially excavated and sits neatly within the foundation walls of the stage area of the Memorial Hall. The excavated area covers the firebox and whole of the combustion chamber of the kiln and part of the stoking area. The flue structure is intact along with the roof of the firebox and all or most of the kiln chamber floor. A few centimetres of the ware-chamber wall above are also present. The structure is primarily built of flaky slate/shale bonded with clay and consists of a circular outer wall cut into by the firebox and containing a central drum. Around the drum is a flue bridged by approximately sixteen slim rectangular ceramic blocks that form bars supporting the floor of the kiln as it passes over it. An internal examination by potter Karen Slade for the Hall Committee in 2013 drew attention to the presence of an unrecorded internal wall cutting off the flue at the north-south mid-line of the combustion chamber effectively dividing it into two C-shapes at right-angles to the firebox.
This seems to have the first time anyone had compared Wheeler’s drawings with the kiln itself. Karen suggested that this implied a previously unknown second firebox on the east side. David and I agree completely. A shallow retaining wall divides the basement space into two, and behind it the unexcavated half of the space must cover the archaeology of this eastern firebox and parts of its stoking area.
Newport Memorial Hall from the garden. The medieval kiln is in the space behind the two garden level rooms.
The relationship between the kiln as it survives and it surroundings is uncertain. The Memorial Hall is cut into a sloping site, its main floor level with the street but a storey above the garden behind which is in turn terraced above the next part of the slope. The foundations of the building cut the kiln off entirely from any related archaeology outside and the terracing of the slope has probably removed large parts of it. It is likely that the main body of the kiln is built into the natural ground slope, running across it. It is like to be set into the ground – it would be unusual for a kiln to be a free-standing structure. The outer walls of the kiln appear to have an external face but this may reflect a stone lining to a pit – given that such a lining would be necessary. The excavated firing area is level with the firebox floor but it is likely that access to the ware-chamber would have been at the higher level. The slope would easily accommodate this. The site as a whole might be expected to include buildings, shelters, clay processing areas and clay pits.
The pottery from the site is of a type known by archaeologists as Dyfed Gravel-tempered ware and does not have a clearly established date range. The fabric/body varies in coarseness and many sherds have little or no glaze. None of it is from a dated archaeological context so it is hard to say much about it. It may not all be of the same date.
Parallels and Dating
A review of post-Roman pottery production in Wales was carried out in 1968 by Eric Talbot and John Musty. They republished Wheeler’s drawing and thirteen pottery sherds from the original excavation retained at the National Museum of Wales. Representing jugs, jars, bowls and ridge-tiles, these they dated to the late 14th or 15th century. The study of late-medieval and post-medieval pottery and pottery technology were relatively new areas at this time. It is a shame that Musty did not actually visit the site because, as the then leading authority on medieval kilns, he might have questioned Wheeler’s hasty drawing and reinterpreted the structure. 
Based on the drawings, Musty noted the similarity with the late 16th century kiln excavated at Crockerton in Wiltshire in 1967. This kiln has a single firebox but uses a system of bars to support the floor above a solid drum in the same way. More closely related structures can be found amongst 17th century kilns from Donyatt in Somerset, an undated kiln excavated at Bridge Farm Nurseries, Ewenny in 1949, the 18th kiln surviving almost intact at The Pottery in the Park in Dunster in Somerset  and the 19th century kiln from Ewenny in Mid Glamorgan,  reconstructed at the St Fagans National History Museum. All of these are linked, having two opposed fireboxes and an internal dividing wall to separate the two firebox systems. Unaware of the English examples, Jeremy Lewis, writing in 1982, coined the name the Swansea-Ewenny group for these kilns. Newport would be the earliest example currently known of this particular design.
The late-medieval early modern period is not well recorded when it come to pottery production. There is as steady change of pottery types moving away from a model dominated by glazed jugs/pitchers and unglazed jar/cooking pot forms to a much more complex range of forms many of which have very specific functions – chafing dishes, bowls, plates, and small drinking jugs for instance. Kiln sites are rare and the nature of technological change is uncertain. The use of kiln furniture inside the kiln may become more frequent and flue structures more complex. Taking the very limited evidence of parallels for the Newport kiln and the few sherds of pottery that can be directly associated with it, it seems reasonable to suggest that Talbot’s date is too early and that a date in the late 15th or early 16th century is more likely. The kiln type relates most closely to post-medieval ones. The pottery appears late-medieval or early post-medieval. This in itself contributes to the value of Newport as an example from a period for which the range of archaeological evidence for pottery production is thin and potentially provides an early date for an innovative kiln design reflecting a growing understanding of gas flow and heat management.
Newport Memorial Hall. Sherds found in the foundations of the building placed alongside drawings of those retained in the National Museum of Wales from the excavations in 1920.
This is such a valuable site and such a worthwhile project. It is extraordinary that a site excavated in the 1920s is still intact and available for study. From the point of view of anyone interested in the development of ceramic technology or in medieval pottery or in building simple kilns it is really exciting to have access to such a complete structure. The early history of European kiln technology is poorly understood and interpretations of archaeological evidence are often well off the mark. The emergence of the ceramic technology of the Industrial Revolution was on the back of earlier knowledge, skills and innovations that are hard to trace. To have an early kiln with its firebox, flue and floor structures intact is a big step in developing sensible interpretations of much less complete archaeology.
Since this post work at the Memorial Hall has gone on rapidly. Permission was agreed to re-excavate the kiln to establish what was there and confirm conservation needs. This was approved and we went ahead in December 2016. For more information see my December post Excavating the Medieval Kiln at Newport, Pembrokeshire.
 Slade, K, 2013, The Significance of the Newport Kiln, Pembrokeshire. An Assessment by K. Slade, Company of Artisans. Report to the Newport Village Hall Committee.
 Talbot, E. J. (1969) ‘Welsh Ceramics: A Documentary and Archaeological Survey.’ Post-Medieval Archaeology 2, 1968, 119-139.
 Wheeler probably only visited for a few hours and had little comparative evidence available to him to interpret the site. His drawings will have been based on quick on-site notes drawn up some time later (it was published in 1925).
 Algar, D. J., 1969, ‘Wiltshire: Crockerton,’ in Hurst, G (ed) ‘Post-Medieval Britain in 1967.’ Post-Medieval Archaeology, 2, 1968, 187-8.
 Lewis, J. M., (1982), The Ewenny Potteries. Cardiff: National Museum of Wales, 48-50.
 Dawson, D. and Kent, O., ‘‘Animated Prospect,’- An 18th-century Kiln at ‘the Pottery House in the Old Park, Dunster, Somerset,’ in Finch, J. and Giles, K., (eds), Estate Landscapes. Design, Improvement and Power in the Post-Medieval Landscape. Society for Post-Medieval Archaeology Monograph 4. Woodbridge: SPMA/Boydell and Brewer, 95-112
 Lewis, J. M., (1982), The Ewenny Potteries. Cardiff: National Museum of Wales. 50-1.