Radar Search For Saxon Shaftesbury Reveals Settlement

Archaeologists working on Shaftesbury Abbey’s SAVED project have uncovered what could be the town’s original Saxon settlement.

In May, Austrian experts surveyed areas around the Abbey and Castle Green using kit that sent radar pulses down into the ground. Their radar produced a three-dimensional picture, revealing the depth and time period of patterns beneath the surface.

SAVED’s Lead Archaeologist Julian Richards said they’ve found extensive signs of old settlement under Castle Green. “It’s over pretty much the whole of it but there are two focal points, close to the Queen Mother’s Garden and another concentration towards the castle end.”

Lead Archaeologist Julian Richards

Julian said that these are traces of very old buildings, but added that more work needs to be done before the team knows whether the settlement is Saxon or medieval. “You might think it is very obvious, but there’s not a lot of evidence about the layout of buildings in Anglo-Saxon towns of the 8th, 9th and 10th century in this part of the country,” explained Julian. “There’s far more information from the east of England. We’re looking at these results and trying to understand them. There are standard units of Saxon measurement that you might expect to occur. We’re seeing whether these measurements fit so we can be certain these are Saxon buildings.”

Julian believes that this discovery is very promising. “In some ways this may be the first glimpse of the Saxon town of Shaftesbury.”

Julian has specialised in pre-history until now, but he said that he has found his Saxon period research fascinating. “What I found surprising when reading major publications about the buildings of Anglo-Saxon England is that Shaftesbury, a Saxon burgh with an Abbey, gets two throwaway mentions in a 500 page book. There is something wrong about this and this is what we hope to remedy.”

Castle Green

There needs to be additional survey work and that will probably involve digging. “We may decide that we want to do a small sample excavation. You see something on the radar survey and you interpret it. But unless you can have a look at it physically then there’s always going to be a degree of uncertainty. But there’s a lot of work and form filling to do before we get to that stage,” Julian said.

Julian says the radar technology is an incredibly useful tool for the Abbey’s archaeology team. “What the radar is doing is looking down through the soil for changes and identifying solid objects. If you have a stone building then it will show it very clearly. The radar will reflect off solid blocks of stone and give you an outline. If buildings were made of beam slots, where timbers are set into the ground, then there will be a shallow trench filled with slightly different soil. If it’s a ‘post-built’ building you should see the individual posts. Some Saxon buildings have got sunken floors. There are some hints from the radar that there might be some buildings with sunken floors here. That’s very intriguing.”

So what is Julian seeing on the radar survey results which is exciting him? “There are traces of rectangular structures, dividing fence lines and possibly a road line running through the middle of it,” he said. “There’s a sense of organisation, which is what you’d expect. It’s not just a random collection of buildings on top of a hill. But it’s not a planned settlement. It is not a beautiful and regular grid of streets like you would expect to find in the Roman town or a more structured mediaeval settlement like Salisbury.

Julian is continuing to work closely with Lisa Aldrian from the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute to assess what the radar actually reveals. Whilst their Austrian team is hugely experienced in archaeological surveys, Julian says the Saxon settlements of the Westcountry are a rather specific topic, so he’s collaborating by sharing his own Saxon research.

He says we can be thankful that Castle Green has not been built on over the centuries. “What is so fantastic about Shaftesbury is that we have this great, big open area. You can see modern pipes running across it very clearly on the radar survey but it is largely undisturbed. Everywhere else – if you go to the other side of the spur – it’s all been built on. This is where we’re starting to dig test pits in people’s gardens.”

Around a dozen homeowners have given consent for the project team to dig on their property and the group has already started taking samples from gardens in Bimport.“We have found very deep accumulations of soil. That’s odd. We are going down nearly a meter before we get anything remotely mediaeval. Whatever is down there should be well preserved. It’s not been messed around by modern construction, ploughing or gardening,” said Julian.

The summertime radar survey work extended to the Bury Litton churchyard where archaeologists had hoped to find the site of the former St John’s Church. They didn’t. “There was nothing that indicated a church building. It’s the burial ground, because there are lots of graves. So where is the church? It’s another puzzle – another of Shaftesbury’s churches has gone missing,” said Julian.

It seems odd that there are no records of the precise location of a church, which seemingly disappeared as recently as the 17th century. But Julian says buildings were not mapped in the way that we would record their siting today. “They do move around a bit. The Victorian church in St James is not sitting on top of the site of the mediaeval church. St John’s church is probably close to Bury Litton, but we’re not exactly sure where.”

Abbey Garden

The radar work also investigated whether the surface arrangement of stones in the Abbey Garden offers an accurate representation of what lies below the ground. “The plan is broadly as we see it. There are solid walls, which are not represented by what is on the surface. There is nothing underneath the stone heaps. There are a lot more stone sarcophagi at the western end of the gardens, buried in the area of the nave,” said Julian. He added that none of the Abbey survey results have challenged previous thinking about the site but there will likely be further excavation of the grounds, originally explored last century.

Julian is uncertain when the archaeologists can make a definitive statement about the age of the settlement discovered by the radar survey. His team wants to be certain before they say the traces are definitely Saxon. In the meantime the research and analysis continues. “We’re breaking new ground here because there’s not been this type of research carried out in this part of the country. It’s new and exciting,” said Julian.