Archaeological dig project at Anglesey Abbey
Archaeologists from the National Trust and Oxford Archaeology East carried out a dig to investigate the medieval history of Anglesey Abbey. Delve deeper into the project and what was found.
Archaeological survey and excavation
We carried out a targeted programme of archaeological survey and excavation in March 2020. A series of small ‘test pits’ were dug by hand on the lawn, in front of the south face of the house.
The project began on 16 March and unfortunately coincided with the global coronavirus pandemic. As a result, we reduced the number of trenches we opened, managing to hand excavate two of those originally planned, and cancelled the programme of visitor tours, talks and activities.
We worked together with Oxford Archaeology East to react quickly to the changing situation and ensure the safety and wellbeing of staff, volunteers and visitors. The dig was stopped earlier than planned on the 24 March.
Purpose of the project
The aim of the investigation was to better understand the early development of the site as a medieval hospital and Augustinian Priory. Geophysical survey and parch marks identified from aerial photographs had revealed the outline of buildings which appear to be the priory church and cloister, believed to have been built in the 13th century.
Along with information from documentary records and prior geophysical and earthwork surveys, this new evidence will be used to inform our understanding and future interpretation of Anglesey Abbey’s origins and development.
The first trench
The first trench was situated to investigate the possible chantry chapel at the east end of the church. The eastern wall of the chapel was found at a shallow depth and appears to have been supported by a large buttress at its south end.
Several pieces of stained-glass window were found, suggesting that there was a decorated window at the east end of the church. Other medieval finds included small fragments of moulded clunch, possibly part of the window tracery, and fragments of lead and iron nails, also possibly associated with the windows.
The chapel wall, thought to date to the 13th century, was sealed beneath the foundations of an 18th century garden wall and beside this was the complete skeleton of a dog. The dog burial post-dates the wall and is likely to have been a pet laid to the rest in the garden in recent centuries.
However, at the south end of the church, the medieval wall appeared to stop. Did it turn? Was there an entrance way suggesting the east end had been extended or altered? Or was a huge section of the wall simply completely removed in later years?
The second trench
In the second trench, we found evidence for what may be the cloister walkway and the north wall of the church. However, as we had only just started to expose the remains in the second trench, there are more questions! If the curved section is in fact a stair, is it leading to the cloister walk or are we still inside the church?
More stained glass, and a piece of decorated floor tile, were found in this trench. The discovery of a large pillar base which may have been the support for a rising stone staircase, hints that the night stairs, leading from the dormitory to the church transept, were also located here.
There was also evidence for the 17th and 18th century occupation of the house, with wall remnants associated with a garden as well as a padlock, possible Delftware pottery, Champagne bottle fragments and the remains of a set of 18th century scales, presumably thrown out from the kitchens when the gardens and house were remodelled.
More to discover
It’s clear the medieval remains beneath the lawn are more complex than we’d previously thought and survive in relatively good condition. We also suspect there’s a huge amount more to learn just in these two small trenches.
For example, in the east end wall trench, we’d just started to expose an earlier layer of demolition material on the internal side of the wall, which could indicate that medieval floor surfaces survive beneath this. But for now, these artefacts and the church walls remain safely hidden in the ground, waiting for the day that we can investigate the site further.
All the exposed building remains have been recorded and left in-situ, and the trenches have now been back-filled and the front lawn restored.
This project has given a fascinating insight into the layout and appearance of the priory church, as well as the later use and remodelling of the private residence and gardens of Anglesey Abbey. This information will inform future interpretation, storytelling and research. We look forward to exploring options to continue this research in the future.
A huge thank you to everyone who supported the dig and adapted to the changing circumstances to ensure we could all stay safe and well. We’d originally planned to work with volunteers from Operation Nightingale, but the situation meant they were needed elsewhere.
We were able to draw on last minute support from local amateur archaeologists through Jigsaw Cambridgeshire and when this was no longer possible the team here at Anglesey Abbey stepped in to dig, shift soil, and push wheelbarrows. Every person involved brought their enthusiasm to the excavation and for many it was a moment of fascinating escape in very strange times.
Oxford Archaeology East
Oxford Archaeology East, based just outside Cambridge, carries out commercial archaeological fieldwork in advance of development as well as research and community projects. OA East have worked on various projects at Wimpole for over 30 years, including the excavation at Lamps Hill in 2018.
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