Volunteer archaeologists working on the SAVED project have made an exciting discovery, three days before the end of their six-week Shaftesbury Abbey excavations.
The head of a 14th-century statue of a royal was uncovered in time for today’s BBC TV film crew visit. Alfred’s Keri Jones reports.
Despite the national weather warnings, Friday started dry in Shaftesbury. That allowed volunteers to make some final excavations of the test pits cut into the lawns as the team finished their dig, designed to reveal the secrets of our Saxon town and Abbey.
The rain held off for the BBC cameras capturing Dr Naoise McSweeney’s first visit to Shaftesbury. The Associate Professor of Ancient History at the University of Leicester has been hired by the BBC to report on the Abbey project for BBC4’s ‘Digging The Past’.
“I knew absolutely nothing about Shaftesbury, but coming in this morning and driving in through these beautiful winding streets of fabulous architecture I just thought it was fabulous,” Naoise told Alfred in a break from filming.
She is excited about sharing the story of part of the SAVED project on national television. “I’m most interested in the last chapter of English history, which I feel I know very little about myself. It’s the female side of the religious orders in the Saxon period. I think we know a lot more about men’s worship and monasteries. But this is a nunnery, it’s quite unusual. I’m excited to learn more.”
Shaftesbury will feature as part of one of the four separate hour-long programmes, likely to air in 2020. Naoise’s timing was perfect. On Tuesday, Abbey volunteers made the sort of discovery they had dreamed about when the project began. “This is the ‘find of the dig’. Nothing else is going to surpass this,” said Lead Archaeologist Julian Richards, as he held up the heavy, yellow limestone statue head that was unearthed towards the centre of the Abbey grounds.
“At the time of the dissolution, they had obviously ripped all the decent stone work out and just left lots of rubble lying around. We were having a look at one patch of this destruction-period rubble,” said Julian, who reckons some of the rubble dates from the 1540s.
One of the SAVED team members, Alan Dedden, called Julian to announce that he had found a human bone. “There are lots of bits of human bone lying around here, where burials have been disturbed. We had a look at it and determined that it couldn’t be part of what we call an ‘articulated burial’, because it was in the wrong position,” Julian said.
An ‘articulated burial’ is where you bury somebody, and all their bones stay in the same place. “You’re going to find a skull at the west end and the feet at the east end. They are always laid facing the same way. Every little bone is going to be in place, including all the bones of the hands and feet. This is just a long bone with some other small bones next to it. They’ve clearly been disturbed,” he said.
While the team was inspecting the bone, another curious item caught their attention. “We suddenly noticed that there was something poking out the rubble that had a very delicate sort of flowing curve on it,” said Julian. It was the head of the statue.
“It looked like more of the very white, chalky mortar that we’ve found all over the place,” Alan recalled. “The walls must have previously been plastered with this white chalky mixture. It is everywhere across the site. We looked a bit closer. We saw that it wasn’t white chalk. It was actually the wavy hair on the top side that was coming through the surface. We exposed more of it and it became more and more amazing,” said Alan. The atmosphere quickly became electric and volunteers downed trowels and came over to look at what had been unearthed.
Alan experienced a range of emotions. “I was shocked and elated. It’s an amazing find. We hadn’t seen anything like it across the rest of the site. We’ve seen lots of fragments of tiles. We’ve seen one or two bits of work stone from the walls, but nothing like this. The good stone was sold at the time of dissolution or it was robbed and used elsewhere. We weren’t expecting interesting statue pieces. They just destroyed all those things. They couldn’t use them in building, and they couldn’t sell them off. Later, under other excavations, all those sorts of things would have been taken out, so to find one remaining was a bit of a shock,” said Alan.
“The more we cleaned it up, the more excited we got,” added Julian, as he held the head. “You can even see the eyelids. It’s slightly battered around the face, as if it’s been deliberately defaced.”
One of the goals of this SAVED project has been to understand the Abbey’s layout and appearance. This statue provides new food for thought. “There aren’t any other statues like this. This is a vertical, standing statue. There aren’t any fragments of any of those in the museum at the moment from any previous excavations. This is introducing a new idea as to how the interior might have looked. It’s very significant, both archaeologically and a wonderful piece of carving,” said Julian.
Now the volunteers are puzzled about the identity of the statue’s subject. “The significant thing is it is wearing a crown. This is a royal figure, a statue of a king or queen. Jonathan Foyle, our architectural historian, has seen it and says it’s definitely 14th century. It might be Edward II, we’re not certain. More research is needed,” said Julian, who added, “The quality of the carving is just absolutely stunning.”
The fact that the head has been damaged presents even more questions for the SAVED team. “Somebody has taken a sledgehammer and smashed this up because it’s broken across the neck. Or maybe they just pushed it over, it fell and the nose got broken. We’ll have to look carefully at what sort of damage has happened to it, to see if we can tell the story of that,” said Julian.
Alan says once the volunteers realised what they had found, there was a real buzz in the Abbey grounds. “People coming in could sense that there was something going on. All of a sudden, we were energised, after six weeks of quite intensive work. It was an interesting change of atmosphere,” said Alan.
Julian agrees. “We’ve been working really hard here, all the volunteers have been doing a fantastic job, but we’re all tired. It’s brilliant. It is a wonderful find. It really lifted the whole atmosphere, two days before the end, Julian said.
Now, he wonders what else has been lost and what clues might still lie undiscovered beneath the grass. “It’s just a sad reminder of what was here and what was smashed up. There may have been an entire gallery of kings and queens at this particular point in the church.”
The find was made at the point where the nuns-only area met the section that was open to townspeople. “It’s the point at which you’d have screens with all of these figures on. We’re looking around wondering what else is buried underneath here. We can’t dig up the rest of the Abbey on the assumption that we might find some little bits of this statue,” said Julian.
The head will now be sent off for conservation and careful cleaning. “The temptation is to shove it in a bucket of water and wash it, but there may be fragments of paint and decoration adhering to it. Jonathan Foyle says that the gems on the crown would have been painted to look like rubies and emeralds. There might be fragments of paint still left in crevices. It has to be cleaned by specialists so that we’re not losing any information. After that, it will be on display in a private place in the revised museum,” said Julian.
Alan is delighted with his discovery, especially since he’s a relative newcomer to archaeology. He’s immersed himself in heritage projects since his retirement approximately five years ago. “My working career was in aircraft electronics control systems. I’m not a trained archaeologist. I just got involved in all sorts of different projects, including other ones with Julian. I owe him a great deal for what he’s taught me, shown me and got me involved in. It’s been a fascinating time. I just hope to continue,” said Alan.
Alan says that his involvement with the SAVED project has been highly rewarding. “It’s always enriching to find out more about what’s around you, the history of the place.”
That’s the sort of experience Naoise wants volunteers to enjoy. She says that encouraging people to engage with archaeology is why she is passionate about the forthcoming TV series. “It’s vital. It’s part of our entire heritage, part of all of our past. We need more than ever to really understand where it is we’re coming from, and to root our local communities and ourselves. And archaeology is a really powerful way of doing that,” she said.
Alan remains modest about his find. He feels that it was the result of a team effort. “There are lots of us here who’ve been involved in it. I was just a lucky one who was handling the trowel at the time,” he said.
I asked him if he had bought a lottery ticket after his lucky discovery. “No,” Alan laughed. “Perhaps I should have done. It’s not a rollover this week is it?”
Shaftesbury Abbey has an open day on Saturday 10th August. There is free entry from 10am to 5pm. Julian Richards will be giving a talk at 11am and 2.30pm, and there are craft activities for all the family.