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Was oratory digger drunk as a Perraner?

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: March 19, 2014

  • St Austell Brewery archivist Chris Knight with the bottle

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Archaeologists working at the site of one of Britain’s oldest Christian buildings have made an unexpected discovery – a bottle of beer drunk by one of their counterparts more than a century ago.

Researchers working to uncover St Piran’s Oratory in Cornwall say the artefact, dating from the first decade of the 20th century, still contains some of its original contents.

The bottle, bearing the embossed stamp of Walter Hicks & Company – the forerunner of today’s St Austell Brewery – is perfectly preserved. Cornish historians say it is particularly apt because as well as being patron saint of tinners, St Piran was said to have been partial to a tipple. Legend states that the holy man died , aged 200, after falling down a well while inebriated – hence the local saying “drunk as a Perraner”.

St Austell Brewery archivist Chris Knight, who was told of the discovery by St Piran Trust, said: “There are plenty of stories about St Piran and his fondness of the hop, so it’s sort of appropriate that some quality local ale managed to find its way on to such a hallowed site.

“There is a small amount of the original beer left in the bottle. So, who knows, we might even be able to work out which of Walter’s ales played its small part in the conservation of this site.”

Undamaged and in pristine condition, the bottle features a swastika-inscribed top. A popular feature of brewers in the 19th and early 20th century, the Sanskrit symbol for brewing and fertility was later abandoned when appropriated by the Nazis.

Eileen Carter, founding member of the St Piran Trust, which is overseeing the excavation, said: “The find was totally unexpected. The bottle itself is made of two halves of glass sandwiched together and the lid is cork with an overlapping flat, metal head with a swastika on.”

Archaeologists and a team of local volunteers have been painstakingly removing an entire sand dune from the 5th century oratory at Gear Sands, above Perranporth, since February. Claimed by some historians to be the oldest Christian building in Britain, the oratory was last excavated in 1910 and it is thought the beer bottle has been in situ since then. The granite ruin was encased in a concrete bunker at the time to protect it from encroaching sand and sea.

The bunker was buried in 1986 and the current excavation is the first stage of a project to give the ancient site proper protection.

Lead archaeologist and site manager, James Gossip, praised the work of his team, adding that they had achieved a great deal in a short time.

“It has been a very enjoyable project, largely because of the number and quality of the volunteers,” he said. “There has been huge support. We’ve had between 20 and 30 every day. There’s a mixture of local people, Truro College students, retired people, members of archaeological societies, and all ages and abilities.”

The bottle has now been taken to St Austell Brewery’s laboratory, where its contents will be tested to find out the type of beer it contains.

Chris Knight added: “There weren’t that many ales being produced at that time, so hopefully we can find out what it is – it certainly smells hoppy.”

Excavation work at the oratory is due to halt on March 20 and will resume in October. For details visit stpiran.org or staustellbrewery.co.uk

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