Shaftesbury Abbey wants to do more to encourage the town’s new residents to learn about our Saxon heritage. ThisIsAlfred attended the 2019 season opening and heard how locals of all ages have a chance to view some of the recent archaeological finds dug up during the museum’s SAVED project.
Shaftesbury Abbey, normally a peaceful place, wasn’t so tranquil on Saturday lunchtime. First, Town Crier Cliff Skey announced that the museum was about to open for the 2019 season. And he can be rather loud!
Then Shaftesbury’s Mayor spoke of how ‘poignant’ it is this place of solitude and reflection stands just minutes away from the busy commercial heart of the town. At times Piers Brown had to speak up, just to be heard above aircraft circling overhead, waiting to land at Compton Abbas airfield. It did get a bit quieter for the readings and short service.
Henry VIII dissolved the Abbey but it remains consecrated ground. Reverend Dr Helen Dawes led a blessing and her words followed one of the themes for today’s event on this, the site of a nunnery. Helen referred to the role of the Abbey women in society.
“For women like Aethelgifu, who became the first abbess of this Abbey, religious life gave a kind of freedom which could not be found any other way in the culture they lived in. Becoming a nun meant a woman could avoid becoming a husband’s property. The women who ran the Abbey were powerful and unusual. They controlled wealth,” Helen said,
The Abbey’s Claire Ryley continued to consider how woman are treated, during her reading. “As we remember how religious life freed women from the control of others, we pray for an end to violence against women and girls, as a weapon of war or an act of control,” Claire read.
The second key message today was that this museum – a place where the past is celebrated – needs to consider its future by involving children and families. “Children, particularly on the fringes of the town, don’t get many opportunities to interact with the centre of the town,” Claire told the crowd. “We think if we get those children involved and they have a wonderful time, an interesting time, they will spread that to their families. We are really keen to get the families who have moved recently into Shaftesbury involved.”
Claire later explained how each of the Shaftesbury area schools, whether state-run or fee-paying, had been invited to come to the Abbey for workshops. “May and June are going to be very, very busy. And in July, each school is invited to send a group of thirty pupils for a half-day slot. They will have a chance to undertake some archaeological activities and to do some trowelling,” said Claire.
Two schools have already visited this year. “We go into schools initially and we have a replica dig that we can do indoors. It follows all of the processes of a proper dig. It’s an hour of discovery. First they see nothing and then they see more and more. They have to try and work out what they are looking at and, with a bit of luck, they will realise that it is part of a building with a grave in it,” said Claire.
“Then they come here for a three-hour session on mediaeval activities. They all make tiles and we want every child, all 500 of them, to make a tile that we can put into Shaftesbury Abbey’s ‘21st-century floor’. We will take a photograph of it and then return the tiles to each child, so they can have a souvenir of their involvement.”
Claire announced that when the museum is closed, from the end of October, new displays will be prepared for the 2020 season. They will be more about stories than the stonework and, again, the presentation will emphasise how the Abbey was a women-run enterprise.
“We really want to make the museum tell the story of the people that lived here,” she said. “We are going to put in some kind of timeline so people can understand what happened in the different centuries up to the dissolution. We’re going to have a special area, which will be curated by women because this was a nunnery. It’s going to have a bed, a cross and a lectern in it and activities that nuns would have engaged in. It’s going to be a replica nun’s cell,” said Claire
Claire says it’s important that children are consulted so that the display content interests younger visitors. “We are trying to work with young adults because we don’t want the ‘so what?’ response when they come in. We want them to say ‘actually, we find that really interesting’,” Claire said. That’s for next year and Claire appealed for community ideas for the interpretative displays, which will be created next winter.
The 2-year SAVED project has been the focus of the Abbey’s recent activity and its interim findings were a hot topic on Saturday. The exercise has funded a radar survey, assessing the extent of the original Saxon settlement by identifying what lies beneath the ground surface.
Ten test pits have been sunk in gardens around Bimport and Castle Hill and from today, any Abbey visitor can view what’s been uncovered. It’s worth calling in again later in the season. Archaeologist Julian Richards guided me around the small wooden room in the grounds. On one side of the room, there were displays of fragments of tiles and pottery.
“This is in what we used to call the studio. We’ve taken it over as our temporary exhibition. We want to be able to show people the finds of the project as the project evolves,” said Julian. “We don’t want to wait until the end and have an exhibition. As soon as something comes out of the ground and has been cleaned and conserved we can put it on display.”
The exhibition gives visitors a clear understanding of the amount of material that has been uncovered during each of the controlled digs. And the exhibits are arranged in the order of discovery, from the surface downwards.
“You can see this progression in what people would recognise as Victorian blue and white china. And then we’re starting to get more of the 18th-century products, like locally produced Verwood wares. Then it’s mediaeval pottery. That’s the sequence that we are consistently finding, going back to the 11th century, but we found nothing that we could definitely say was Saxon until we found the first sherd. We are in a Saxon town and you’d hope that we would find Saxon pottery, but it is quite rare,” said Julian.
At the far end of the glass cabinets an item was labelled as ‘The Star Find From the 10th Century’. It looked a bit like a mussel shell in size and shape but was lighter and almost honey coloured.
“There are examples like this in Saxon Southampton, at Hamwic, the port down there. They are almost identical to that. There have been a couple of sherds like this come up in Shaftesbury before, but not within the burgh, they’ve been more towards the Barton Hill area,” said Julian, as he explained that these pieces had not been uncovered on the hilltop around the Abbey.
“It’s quite difficult to distinguish the pottery sometimes because there’s a lot of fragments of stone in the soil, which all look very flat. And when they are covered in mud, it is not easy to tell, but most of the volunteers have adopted a technique where they have a bowl of water at the side of the test pit and when something gets handed out, it gets dunked for a quick wash and that generally tells you whether it is stone or pottery,” said Julian. “If you look carefully you’ll see there is a rectangular, stamped pattern. The Saxon piece had sixteen square impressions on it – four rows of four. It’s obviously been stamped in at intervals, every inch. That’s what tells us it is Saxon.”
A Roman tile has also been found. It’s curious, because people haven’t spoken of a Roman settlement here previously. Julian is cautious. “I don’t think we need to make too much of that. It was just an interesting oddity. These scoring marks show me that it was a piece of Roman box flue tile, the central heating tiles that went up into the wall. I’ve had a quick look at a lot of the pottery that’s been coming up and I haven’t seen anything else that is Roman. It might be the first hint of more on the top of the hill here that we haven’t discovered yet.”
And the digging has unearthed even older artefacts. “I’ve done some work near St James Church, where we found very nice flint blades from the Mesolithic, the late, hunter-gatherer period,” said Julian. “That doesn’t surprise me because you are down at the bottom of the hills and there are springs, which would attract animals and hunters would come there.”
But he had not expected to find prehistoric material in a test pit dug around Bimport. “We found some lumps of flints onto which blades have been worked. It surprised me and we have only found them in one test pit. It was very close to the brow, where Bimport starts to dive off down St John’s Hill. Perhaps 8,000 years ago, there were people doing things on the top of this hill, which is really interesting. It was a very different landscape, heavily wooded with bears and wolves wandering around. Not something we would think of today,” he said.
There were Saxon mints in Shaftesbury but coins were not produced here during the mediaeval period. Julian has been surprised to uncover silver coins in close proximity. They are on display, too.
“We have two coins here – one a whole penny and one a halfpenny. They came from the same test pit. It implies that the people in Shaftesbury were a little bit careless. Losing a penny at that time was quite a significant event. It also shows what a dishonest lot people were in Shaftesbury too, because it has been clipped. People used cut off the edge of coins to ‘nick’ a bit of the Silver. That’s been heavily clipped,” Julian said.
“On the window of the exhibition are X-rays of the coins. There is a long cross on one. When a coin was divided up into halfpenny or a quarter penny it was just cut down those lines. There is a monarch’s head on it but it’s not easy to make out,” said Julian. He isn’t sure which king is depicted but he thinks the coins are from the 12th or early 13th century.
It’ll be interesting to see what is added to the rolling exhibition as more items are dug up from the town’s test pits. And it will be fascinating to learn how next year’s new displays will bring the long lost Abbey, which was said to match Westminster Abbey in size and stature, back to life for a new generation.
If you have ideas and suggestions for the new 2020 displays, you can email firstname.lastname@example.org. Shaftesbury Abbey is now open daily, 10am to 5pm, until 31st October.