Several hundred years ago, the avaricious rats of Oxburgh Hall in Norfolk, England, collected scraps of fabric and manuscripts from around the house and used them to assemble two rather opulent nests beneath the floorboards.
The long-abandoned nests lay undisturbed until just this year, when a massive restoration of the manor house prompted a close investigation of all its hidden nooks. The Guardian reports that the National Trust couldn’t staff a full team because of the coronavirus pandemic, and the job fell mainly to one freelance archaeologist named Matthew Champion. With the help of the construction crew, Champion pulled up the floorboards and probed every inch of space using his fingertips.
And there, in Oxburgh’s northwest corner, he discovered the nests. According to a National Trust press release, the rodent abodes were filled with more than 200 textile fragments from the 1500s to the 1700s. Among the silk, satin, velvet, embroidered wool, and other fabrics were additional surprises: shreds of printed pages and even some 16th-century handwritten music.
“It was utterly filthy work, and there is nothing like spending all day covered in rat crap to encourage social distancing,” Champion said on Twitter.
The rats’ cache of stolen treasure wasn’t Champion’s only finding. He also unearthed an empty chocolate box, wrappers included, from the World War II era—which he speculated may have been “rationed contraband”—hundreds of pins and other sewing materials, wax seals, and cut-up manuscripts that could’ve been reused as sewing patterns. Because the boards hadn’t been lifted in centuries, the items were extraordinarily well-preserved.
The two most precious artifacts were both excavated by members of the construction crew. As Champion recounted on Twitter, a builder named Rob Jessop extracted a sheet of paper from the surrounding debris and asked, “Is this anything?”
It definitely was. National Trust curator Anna Forest consulted with Cambridge University Library’s medieval manuscripts specialist, Dr. James Freeman, and concluded that the page—printed with the Latin psalm “Expectans Expectaui”—may have come from a 15th-century psalm book or a private devotional book. And since the page is embellished with blue and gold ink, instead of the usual blue and red, it would’ve cost a pretty penny. The other most thrilling discovery was a nearly complete 1568 edition of The Kynges Psalmes, some of whose fragments had ended up in one of the rats’ nests.
Together, the artifacts reveal much about the Bedingfields, Oxburgh Hall’s founding family. Sir Edmund Bedingfield constructed the manor in the late 1400s, and the family was well-esteemed in the royal court until Sir Henry Bedingfield declined to endorse the 1559 Act of Uniformity banning Catholic Mass. As evidenced by the Catholic manuscripts found at Oxburgh, generations of Bedingfields continued to practice Catholicism; it’s possible they even concealed their prayer books intentionally to avoid persecution.
When the renovation project is complete, the National Trust plans to display some of the “star finds” in Oxburgh Hall so visitors can see them in person.
[h/t The Guardian]