Image courtesy of Chloe Rowland/Plymouth Archaeological Society

Image courtesy of Chloe Rowland/Plymouth Archaeological Society

An archaeological investigation at the site of Plymouth’s first Royal Navy supply yard has uncovered evidence of pottery, glassware and other rare items from the mid-17th century.

Experts from the University of Plymouth and Plymouth Archaeology Society have spent the past week carrying out excavations at Commercial Wharf to the south of the Barbican.

The area was used for nearly 200 years to supply the Royal Navy with bread, biscuits and beef until those operations moved to Royal William Yard in the 19th century.

However, investigations have found several items dating from before the quay wall of the victualling yard was built in the 1660s.

The star find so far is one half of a glass bead, believed to have been made on the island of Murano in Venice lagoon. Also known as a Chevron or Rosetta bead, complete 17th century examples can be found in museums around the world such as the Corning Museum of Glass in New York.

Volunteers working on the site have also found Mediterranean and Iberian pottery, including fragments of Pisan-type marbled ware and Montelupo ware from Florence.

They also have part of a costrel of Portuguese coarseware from Aveiro and now have three fragments of Chinese blue-and-white Ming porcelain, which were used by those in high society at the time.

Other finds indicate aspects of daily life in the town, including clay pipes, butchered animal bones, oysters, cockles and a fish vertebrae, probably from a cod.

These have been added to discoveries that led to the current investigation, including pottery from the UK and Europe as well as tableware, jars, and a candlestick.

The project was launched after conservation work on the quay wall at Commercial Wharf, currently being undertaken by JNE Construction Ltd on behalf of Plymouth City Council, revealed important 17th century material.

A mixture of English and continental ceramics, including pieces from North Devon and Somerset (Credit Martin Read)
Two pieces from the early 17th century - a piece of Pisan-type marbled ware from Italy and a Delftware shard from Holland (Credit Martin Read)
A variety of continental ceramics, including pieces from France, Holland and Rhineland (Credit Martin Read)

University of Plymouth maritime archaeologist Martin Read, chairman of the Plymouth Archaeology Society, has been directing the work. He said:

“The finds we have uncovered over the past week have given us a fantastic insight into life in Plymouth during the 17th century. They reflect the triangular fishing trade between Plymouth, Newfoundland and continental Europe, which saw thousands of fishermen each year sailing to Newfoundland in the spring and salting the cod they caught on the Grand Banks (& in New England). Some of these vessels would then journey to Iberia and/or the Mediterranean at the end of summer, from where they always brought back cargoes of fine tableware to sell in Plymouth.”

Plymouth has been used as a Royal Navy base for centuries, but initially had no dedicated facilities for supplying the Navy.
This changed during the Commonwealth when the Lambhay was chosen for the earliest victualling yard in the 1650s. Phoenix Wharf was built at this time, towards the southern end of the present Commercial Wharf, while at the northern end of the wharf, the quay had been built by 1665.
After the opening of the Dockyard in 1693, the Lambhay was considered in the wrong place to easily supply the Navy and was eventually moved to the more convenient Royal William Yard in the 1830s.
The old yard was then sold for commercial uses, including the making of biscuits and an embarkation depot, although the buildings were retained. The buildings on the wharf were demolished in the 1930s when the road behind was widened during the building of Madeira Road around the Citadel.
Royal William Yard aerial
Royal William Yard

Images from the dig (courtesy of Plymouth Archaeology Society)

Commercial Wharf archaeological dig (Credit: Plymouth Archaeological Society)
Commercial Wharf archaeological dig (Credit: Plymouth Archaeological Society)
Commercial Wharf archaeological dig (Credit: Plymouth Archaeological Society)
Commercial Wharf archaeological dig (Credit: Plymouth Archaeological Society)

Read more information linked to this article

Plymouth Archaeology Society: for marine to moor and urban archaeology

Archaeology draws people from diverse disciplines and of varied interests, which is reflected in our membership. Our core functions are to offer a series of lectures in the winter months and local guided walks in the summer. The winter lectures cover topical, British, marine and international work. Summer walks are similarly varied and exploit the range of sites which are within easy reach. In addition, there may be an organised visit to a site under excavation. There are occasional opportunities, often at short notice, to participate in local digs.

Lectures and walks are held on the first Monday of each month except in January when we hold our AGM and members present their own research.

Plymouth Archaeology Society

Plymouth, a city steeped in maritime history

Find out how Plymouth played a role in history from 1588 until the present day.