Marine archaeologists are used to working on sandbanks, but usually on their own. At Barnstaple in north Devon they were joined by local enthusiasts to track down buried evidence from the town’s historic pottery industry.

A new road bridge is being built over the River Taw at Barnstaple. The building works have caused changes in the flow of the river which caused part of a sandbank being scoured away. This revealed a large quantity of 17th pottery that had lain buried beneath the sand.

Barnstaple was an important centre for pottery manufacture from the medieval period until recent times. Large quantities of the attractive, decorated, pottery were exported to North America in colonial times. The sandbank in the Taw lies not far from one of the main potteries in Barnstaple and it seems likely that much of the material came from there.

Devon County Council asked Wessex Archaeology to undertake the survey, co-ordinating the work of the local enthusiasts who made the discovery. Volunteers and professionals worked together to make a careful record of the finds.

Some of the pots are shapes that have not been seen before. They were either new styles that did not catch on, or were difficult to make. Other finds are what are called wasters; damaged during firing and thrown away.

It seems that the potters threw the wasters into the River Taw where they were washed downstream before coming to rest in the sandbank.

As well as the 17th century pottery there was also pottery of medieval date, some 300-400 years older, which was also made in Barnstaple.

Local enthusiast Mike Palmer had been combing the sandbank for months, and his local knowledge and experience was a great help. Margaret Bunyard of Wessex Archaeology said ‘we are used to working in conditions like these, and often work with the public, but we haven’t done both at the same time before!’

The volunteers spent three days combing the site for pottery, then washed and marked their finds. John Allan of Exeter Archaeology, who is an expert on pottery from North Devon is writing a report on the pottery before it goes on display at the Museum of Barnstaple and North Devon.