Shaftesbury Abbey: A Voyage of Exploration and Discovery (SAVED) Project:
An exciting community project to rediscover the Abbey’s story through archaeological investigations and historical research to bring to life Shaftesbury Abbey.
The SAVED community project, supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund and other local donors, investigated not only Shaftesbury’s Abbey, which became one of the richest and most powerful in the country, but its place in Alfred the Great’s Saxon hilltop town.
During the summer of 2019 trained project volunteers and children from eleven local schools explored what lies under the ruins in the Abbey gardens, led by Shaftesbury archaeologist Julian Richards. The extensive excavations in the Abbey itself revealed clues into the previously unknown layout of the Abbey church, along with extensive finds of medieval floor tiles, bone fragments and other objects now on display. Our most exciting find was the stone head of a statue discovered in the corner of the final test pit. It was sent off for cleaning and analysis but is believed to date from the 14th Century and bears a possible resemblance to Edward II. It is now on display in the museum.
These were the first excavations here for over 50 years and answered questions about the structure and size of the Abbey church, destroyed in the 16th century.
Images from the radar surveys that were carried out in 2018 were analysed. The images show hard features at different levels under the ground which bounce-back the radar beams. Some features are of a size and shape that indicate they are probably graves, others appear to be areas of flooring (perhaps tiled), and yet others are circular so may be fonts or the foundations of spiral stairs.
Also, we had the first tantalising glimpses of what may be Alfred the Great’s Saxon town in an area where test-pits are dug by our archaeologically trained volunteers.
Shaftesbury’s Saxon Burh, the hilltop defences created by Alfred as part of his campaign against the invading Danish Vikings in the late 9th century, is a bit of an unknown quantity. So, we began to explore what is going on within its defences.
During the SAVED project our volunteers, who all took part in a programme of practical archaeological training, have completed the excavation of 16 test pits. These have been located, with the kind permission of householders and allotment gardeners, in open spaces away from houses and trees, in some cases digging up very smart lawns. Needless to say, these have all been tidily restored after the completion of the excavation! Each test pit was 1m square and most have revealed far deeper soils that might have been expected, often well over 1m deep and producing a fascinating array of finds. These range from the clay pipes and industrially produced pottery of the last three centuries down to rare sherds of late Saxon pottery and even worked flints from the Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age) period about 7000 years ago. But by far the most common find has been pottery of medieval date from the 11th to the 16th century which, when precisely dated and plotted, will provide us with our first idea of how this part of the town was used at the time that the Abbey was of such importance.
These pits provided small windows into Shaftesbury’s fascinating past. Some have produced tantalising glimpses of medieval structures, a floor here and a posthole there and one even came down onto a pit of 10th century date, the soils from which may provide insight into the economy of the late Saxon period. There have also been some notable individual finds: three medieval silver pennies, a medieval iron knife and a wonderful small decorated bronze fragment which may be of Saxon date.
Some of these finds are already on display in the museum and will be added to as and when we process and record our finds.
Volunteer teams of historical researchers unearthed fascinating documents in far flung record offices and archives, documents which are starting to shed light on some of the characters whose lives were entwined with the Abbey. This is what we were hoping to find, the evidence that will help us to put people back into the Abbey, breathing life into the ancient stones.
Abbey Stones Quest: But there is still a lot missing – so where has the rest of the great Abbey, the thousands of tons of finely worked stone, actually gone? After a request to the community to let us know if they think have some of it built into house, garden wall, or rockery, lots of local people have come forward and invited us to visit, measure, and photograph their stones. A comprehensive database of all recorded stones has been created. If you think you might have some of our missing Abbey we would love to hear from you. Rest assured we will not try to reclaim stones to rebuild the Abbey!
The Ludwig Boltzmann Institute from Austria with Julian Richards and their survey equipment
Volunteer archaeologist Stuart Edwards finds the first medieval pottery in a test pit
Julian and Dr Jonathan Foyle examine the find
Julian Richards and Alan Dedden with the stone head excavated in the Abbey Grounds