British Collection Highlights:

Medieval Chimney Pot

This cheeky chimney pot (or, more properly, a smoke-vent) once belched smoke from a merchant’s house in the High Street of fourteeth century Oxford. It was found when excavating for the new buildings at Brasenose College in the nineteenth century.

The arms and base are broken: the bases of many chimney pots tend to be missing as they get broken off when detached from the roof. The facial features of this pot were moulded by hand: you can see where the clay has been smoothed under the nose and round the ear by the potter. The beard and hat have been incised with a pointed tool. The pot is made of unglazed, fired clay. In addition to more standard building materials, such as bricks and tiles, the building trade demanded from the ceramics industry a supply of ridge tiles, decorative roof-finials and louvres to allow for the escape of smoke, like this one.

In the medieval period, houses were generally organised around a hall with a central hearth rather than a fireplace. The smoke from the fire would rise up through the rafters and escape through the chimney pot: in this case it would have been a dramatic sight as the smoke billowed from the pot’s various orifices.

From the late Anglo-Saxon period to the second half of the sixteenth century, medieval housing was predominantly timber-framed. Until the fourteenth century most roofs were thatched. In order to reduce the frequency of fire, stone and slate tiles then began to be used for public buildings and, when they could be afforded, for private houses.

In the medieval period chimney pots were usually made of stone, but in south-eastern and southern England clay chimney pots were used from the thirteenth century. This one is a particularly decorative example. Most were simple and conical, starting off wide at the base and tapering towards the top. Sometimes the sides were decorated with incisions or applied finger- or thumb-pressed clay strips.

Click to enlarge

Chimney Pot (Click to enlarge)

Fourteenth century chimney pot from Oxford (AN1887.3206)

Further Information

Hook, M. and MacGregor, A., Medieval England: Archaeological Collections in the Ashmolean Museum from Alfred the Great to Richard III (Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, 1997).

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Arthur MacGregor
January 2012