Archaeologists excavating Shaftesbury’s Abbey grounds are hopeful that clues, which could reveal the Abbey’s layout, still lie undisturbed beneath the gardens.
The current archaeological investigations suggest that previous, extensive excavation might not have destroyed vital evidence. “I suppose the key thing is that they maybe haven’t disturbed as much we thought,” said lead archaeologist Julian Richards.
Over the last fortnight, pupils from eleven Shaftesbury-area schools have helped the SAVED project volunteers methodically dig and inspect soil in the Abbey grounds. It is the first site excavation for over fifty years.
Julian says the project’s aim is to learn what the Abbey looked like, so the building can be brought to life for future visitors. “This is a vast, soaring building, sitting here on the top of the hill. It’s difficult to imagine, even for us working on it, what the scale of it was and what it would have looked like. It was a stunning building and sadly, it’s all gone.”
Any pictures or drawings that you might have seen of the Abbey are artist impressions. If there were any structural plans of the Abbey drawn up, they haven’t survived over the centuries. “Some of it is informed guesswork. We have reconstructions here in the Abbey. I think we’ll probably be revising most of those in the light of what we discover. They will always our best guess,” Julian said, adding, “I want to see a little bit of the medieval Abbey and say that I’m confident that this is a medieval structure, and this is what was built, 800 years ago.”
When the Abbey team began this project, they were concerned that the former Abbey owners, the Wilson Claridge brothers, had not been careful or systematic in their approach to excavations during the1930s. “The Abbey had a rather unfortunate excavation history, which is sad for something as important as this,” said Julian.
The brothers did not follow the cautious and considered approach of archaeological experts of the period, such as Pitt-Rivers, founder of Rushmore estate. The men stripped back the surface across the Abbey grounds. “It was more of a clearance job really, that’s the problem,” said Julian.
The Abbey would have extended further than the current Abbey Gardens and Julian believes that a comparison with the lie-of-the-land at an adjacent property is useful. “If you look at the garden level next door in Abbey House, there is a retaining wall. There is a metre-and-a-half of soil there. All of that was stripped off.”
Whilst the brothers’ brutal approach to digging is questionable, their data recording also left a lot to be desired. “It wasn’t done to the archaeological standards that you would have expected of that time. People like Pitt-Rivers had actually demonstrated how you do things, record and publish things, in great detail. They didn’t seem to be that bothered about human bones that were found. It fills me with a certain amount of horror when I look back at what happened here,” added Julian.
The stones that visitors see on the surface of the Abbey Garden give the impression of the Abbey’s layout, but they might just be another example of guesswork. “We don’t have that level of detail of recording for this site, which is why we always had slight concerns about whether elements of the layout actually work,” said Julian.
With the latest excavation underway, the scene in the Abbey Gardens is reminiscent of TV’s ‘Midsomer Murders’. An open-sided white marquee stands over the shallow excavation trenches. The white and red plastic tape keeps people away from areas where digging has removed metre-deep strips of topsoil and grass.
“This trench is about 15 meters long, and two meters wide,” said Julian. “It’s all divided up – you can see the strings – into one-metre squares. It’s a way of knowing exactly where we find everything.” He pointed over towards a second gazebo. “That’s where they wash and process finds. It’s all extremely controlled.”
Julian showed me how the volunteers’ efforts had revealed clues to what might lie beneath the surface. “We’re standing in the cloisters. That is supposedly the cloister wall marked by a rather rough pile of stones,” he said, as he drew my attention to the difference in colour of the earth in the excavated trench. “What we can see on either side of it is dark soil. We think that is where they’ve dug a trench along either side of the wall. It’s what the Victorians did. It’s called wall-chasing. You dig down until you find something solid, and you just simply follow it. It’s not the best way of doing things. We think that’s what they’ve done here.”
Julian’s team hopes this could indicate that men behind the 1930s excavations might not have dug down far when they gouged out the topsoil. There could be interesting items in the earth below, that have laid untouched for centuries. “Those layers don’t look like 1930s backfill layers. They look like layers that accumulated in the centuries after the dissolution, maybe. And so hopefully, they might be medieval layers that haven’t been disturbed,” said Julian.
“If we go over the south wall of the church, you can see that there are lines of quite nicely faced blocks. That’s not a medieval wall. Those stones are just set in soil. It looks as if they’ve just got some blocks and plopped them in a line. What I’d quite like to see is something more solid. We will be removing all of those and what’s in the centre of it might be the core of a medieval wall.”
We walked along some of the freshly dug trenches and across the grass lawn to reach a tiled surface. “The tiles are set in the middle of the nave, which is supposed to be where the floor level is. It is not. There’s no sign of a medieval floor here yet. So we’re going to have to go down a fair bit deeper,” said Julian. “If those tiles, which are supposedly at floor level, were at floor level, I would have expected to remove the turf and come down onto a flat area of mortar. Even if they had taken all the tiles away, the mortar floor, with the impression of the tiles, should be there. There’s nothing like that here, so far. These are all later, post Abbey- destruction deposits.”
During the excavations, the volunteers have catalogued interesting items. “They have been really intriguing. Lots of decorated tile fragments, some patterns that might be new ones, medieval pottery and fragments of lead from the destruction of stained-glass windows,” said Julian.
We may never have a complete picture of the size and scale of Shaftesbury’s Abbey, which Henry VIII razed to the ground, but Julian says his team is determined to offer the most accurate impression of what this landmark would have been like. “We have this evidence from the radar (survey), and we have these architectural fragments, so we’re now going to try and put it all together,” he said.
Next month, visitors will have a chance to learn more about this forensic research and see the latest finds. “On 10th August we’ve got a big open day here and the trenches will still be open. Some of the finds will be on display. It’ll be a really good date for people to come and see exactly what’s come out,” said Julian.