There’s a chance we could learn something new about Shaftesbury’s Saxon and Medieval history over the next few weeks. “We might have the first inkling of where Alfred’s defences are,” enthused Julian Richards, the lead archaeologist of Shaftesbury Abbey’s SAVED project.
The Abbey team has secured grant funding to explore what lies beneath the surface in Shaftesbury’s most historic areas using 3D radar.
Julian says the location of King Alfred’s defences is something that he has “speculated about for years.” Shaftesbury lies on a promontory. There are steep slopes on three sides of the headland. It’s thought that the Saxons would have created a barrier blocking approaches from the flatter, eastern side in order to stave off invading Danes.
“It would have been a great ditch with a bank and a wooden fence on top. It’s going to be big. We hope we find it,” said Julian.
Julian’s team is also hoping that the survey equipment will identify the site of the Abbey Church and the church connected to the Bury Litton churchyard.
Standing on Castle Hill, Julian considers what could be found beneath the grass. “This is described as a late Saxon, urban area. We don’t know the layout, whether it had smaller streets or houses,” Julian says.
A team of Austrian archaeologists has travelled from Vienna to undertake the survey. Their bright yellow equipment has attracted some interest. “People thought we were mowing the grass because it leaves stripes like a lawnmower,” laughs Julian. “It sends radar pulses down into the ground. There’s a GPS system at the front that tells the machine where it is. The radar gives you a three-dimensional picture, so you have a depth and time element.
It creates ‘slices’ in the soil down to 3m so you can ‘peel back’ the layers to reveal what’s really low down,” he explained. It’s the first time such an extensive survey has been undertaken in Shaftesbury using this state-of-the-art technology.
As Park Walk and Castle Hill remain undeveloped and open spaces, the radar survey work is more straightforward. But the equipment is powerful. In towns, there’s often metal and materials contained within the soil. That can create “a messy picture” when using other survey methods, Julian says, “but radar can filter that out.”
It will take some time for the visiting experts to check their data but Julian is optimistic that he’ll have some interesting discoveries to share. “We won’t rewrite the history of Shaftesbury but we should be able to throw some light on the town’s early years. It was extraordinarily important in Saxon times,” he adds.
For centuries, archaeologists have speculated on the layout of Alfred’s Shaftesbury. It seems that we might just have to wait a few more weeks before we learn the facts.