Archaeologists trying to locate a ‘missing’ Shaftesbury church have found two interesting features beneath the Bury Litton churchyard.
Images from last year’s radar survey, undertaken as part of the Abbey’s SAVED project, reveal a rectangular ‘diffuse’ and what could be an underground wall at the St John’s Hill site. ThisIsAlfred spoke with Shaftesbury Abbey Museum Chairman, Pete Ryley.
As I walked through the Bury Litton churchyard, Pete and I agreed that Shaftesbury’s Open Spaces Group had done an incredible job in clearing the overgrowth around the churchyard, known by many as the home of the ancient Shaston Yew. That tree is said to outdate Christianity. Many people hope that a later, lost religious landmark can be located.
In the 18th century, historian John Hutchings described ‘the marks of the foundations of the little church and chancel’ which lay in ruins here. Local cartographer William Upjohn marked the churchyard on his 1799 map. It hasn’t moved – the church has vanished.
“People wouldn’t be calling it a graveyard of St John’s church lightly, no matter how many hundreds of years ago. So I think there probably was something somewhere near here. Whether it’s actually on this site, we don’t know,” said Pete.
He’s interested in solving this mystery because it will give more information about how the town has evolved. “One of the things we’re trying to find through the ‘Shaftesbury Abbey Voyage Of Exploration and Discovery’ or SAVED project, is how the Abbey linked in with the other dozen churches, chantries and chapels in Shaftesbury,” said Pete. “So we asked our Austrian surveying team to bring their ground penetrating radar machine and survey this ground to see if they could find evidence of any structures that are currently hidden from view.”
The archaeologists’ kit sent radar pulses down into the ground. It produced a three-dimensional picture, revealing the depth and time period of patterns beneath the surface. The cross section reveals layers, like a lasagne, showing whether the earth has been disturbed and what lies within it.
The first radar picture has been produced of Bury Litton but the team is waiting for the more detailed ‘slices’. “We’ve got their first zero to 140cm. If you like, a complex diagram that shows everything within there. And afterwards they sent us the ‘sliced lasagne’, showing it every 20cm. So we’re looking forward to getting the other images, both for Bury Litton and the deeper ones from around the town as well, including the Abbey site,” said Pete.
The first image has thrown up some curious formations beneath the surface. “They found two particular areas within the confines of this graveyard where somewhere under the ground, to a depth of between ground level and 1.5 metres, there is something. We don’t know yet what it is. One of the areas, at the south end of the churchyard, looks as though it might be a wall. The other is, again, some sort of hard structure,” said Pete.
We were standing on the path that dissects the Bury Litton churchyard. Our backs were facing St James’, down the hill. At the top corner of the site, towards Castle Hill, there’s a bungalow and a fence. The survey has revealed an item of interest in this northwest corner.
“A feature has been identified here but we don’t know what it is. We don’t know how old it is either. If you look over in the corner, you can actually see a concrete slab that was the support for a bench or something. That’s relatively recent. It may be that there was something similar, 100 years ago, that left a hard-standing that was picked up on the radar,” explained Pete. “Or it could be something a lot older. It could be part of a perimeter wall, part of a building. We don’t know. And we won’t know until we can do a trial excavation in that area.”
I referred back to Rev Dr Hutchings’ 18th century Dorset book. He wrote that the 1724 ‘altar tomb’ of a Reverend Clarke lay near the vestiges of the church. That tombstone is still in the churchyard today. So doesn’t that suggest that the church ruins are nearby?
“Tombstones were, quite often, moved when graveyards were redeveloped and moved around,’ said Pete. “It may be that there is something very close to that gravestone. There’s a small bungalow, right on the perimeter of the churchyard. It might be covering up any vestiges of an original building. And obviously, we can’t see those – not while the building is there.”
We moved onto the southeast corner of the site, looking over St James’. “We’re not sure, but it does look as though there is some kind of structure here that was picked up by the radar, which looks like a wall. But again, the only way of being sure is to actually dig down and see it.”
So would that potentially have been a retaining wall at the top of the escarpment or would it have been further inside the current churchyard? “From the image, it is slightly in from the edge of the escarpment. But we know that people had a habit of throwing stuff off the top of the cliff. Whether that current lip before you fall off, down to St James, was in the same place 500 years ago, we don’t know,” said Pete. “It could have eroded and it was actually further away. That tentative wall appears to have a corner. It could be a perimeter wall. It could be the wall of a small building. We need to dig and find out.”
Town councillors discussed the survey results during Tuesday’s meeting. One councillor offered his idea that the wall, overlooking the hill, may have formed part of a town gate, although Pete isn’t sure. “I don’t think we’ve got any evidence to answer that question one way or the other at the moment,” he said.
One of the Austrian experts has been away on paternity leave, so the Abbey team have not received a detailed analysis of the first images, yet. “One of the leaders of the Austrian survey team was very non-committal in his report back to us. I think they’re unsure and they’re the experts at using this kind of equipment, identifying what lies beneath the ground level. He didn’t know. So, at the moment, we don’t know.”
People often assume that a church is going to be a stone structure. It may well have been wooden, a construction material often used by Saxons. “When they started, it would have been totally wooden. Wood rots away over time. There won’t be much left of that,” said Pete. “Some Saxon stone church foundations do still exist , but have we got some here at Shaftesbury? Maybe when we get the results of the deeper archaeological radar surveys then we’ll be able to answer that question.”
Pete says the team will probably have to dig down to get the answers they seek. “The only way to find out what these two structures are is to conduct some trial excavations to see what is down there. It might be that there’s nothing. It might be some disturbance over the last couple of hundred years that has left some stonework or hard material. Or it might be that there are walls.”
If they decide to excavate, the team will require permission. “I believe that this is still part of the St James’ church authority. We would obviously go and ask the Rector and the clergy. They may have to put the question up higher in the church hierarchy. We don’t know at the moment,” he said.
Just around the corner from Bury Litton, SAVED volunteers have made some interesting discoveries after excavating on private property around the Bimport, St John’s Hill and Castle Gardens areas. “We’ve been doing test pits, which are meter-square holes in the ground, in gardens and the allotments, to try and find out a bit more about what was there in Saxon and medieval times,” said Pete. “We found a piece of pottery that was clearly identified by one of our professional archaeologist colleagues as Saxon. We’ve also found some silver coins that they believe are definitely Saxon. They’ve gone away for analysis now.”
The work is part of investigations into the original site of Shaftesbury. “We have been focusing on this area because it’s going to lead us to find out more about where we believe the Saxon town was. And you’ll recall from Asser’s book on the life of Alfred that he said the Abbey was found next to the east gate of the town,” said Pete. “Now, whether that’s inside the gate, or outside the gate, Asser doesn’t say. If we can find out more about the Saxon town and how that developed, then that will lead us to how the Abbey was part of the town of Shaftesbury. And that’s going to help us all with telling the story of the Abbey and its people. And that’s the strapline for the SAVED project – ‘People in the Abbey’.”
Some of the items uncovered will be shown during a presentation by Pete and archaeologist Julian Richards when the Abbey opens for the 2019 season, on Saturday at 12noon. This project is half way through but Pete is keen to manage expectations over how much the team will know by this time next year. “By March 2020, the end of the SAVED project, we hope to have enough evidence to be able to answer some of the questions,” he said. “We might also have enough evidence to ask more questions, ones that we hadn’t even thought of yet. I can see this kind of research and investigation going on for a lot longer than just the two years of this project.”