Historic Excavations at Glastonbury Abbey:
The Archaeological Archive Project

Report of a talk by Dr Cheryl Green on 13 May 2014

This fascinating talk carried a double message. On the one hand it emphasised the importance of post excavation work and the writing of reports. On the other it demonstrated the value of archives and the amount of information that they can yield even after a hundred years.

Cheryl Green is a major contributor to the Glastonbury Abbey Project - a detailed investigation into the historic excavations at the Abbey which took place between 1904 and 1979. The project is funded by the AHRC (Arts and Humanities Research Council) and is a collaboration between Reading University,and the Trustees of Glastonbury Abbey.

Glastonbury has a rich archaeological and historical environment, with man ancient features. as well as the Abbey Cheryl cited the Chalice Well, the Tor, Ponter's Ball (an ancient linear work) and the Chapel at Beekery, which has pre-Norman origins.

Yet there was no archaeological evidence for anything earlier than the eighth Century AD at the Abbey. The myths and legends relating Joseph of Arimathea and King Arthur to Glastonbury are now considered to be money-spinning creations of the Abbey authorities from the twelfth century onwards.

Glastonbury Abbey is a much-excavated site but regrettably publication of the findings by successive directors has not kept up with the pace of digging. There was little but interim reports and annual accounts. None of the directors from Bligh Bond, who claimed to have been guided by the spirit of a medieval monk to Arthur Wedlake who last worked in 1979 had published a full report. Fortunately, however the notes of many of the excavators were still in existence and, in particular, those of Ralegh Radford who had excavated the site in the 1960s and died in 1999.

An assessment of the remaining archives revealed that there was sufficient material to warrant a full investigation and this was supported by the fact that many of the finds in the Museum were well labeled and could be readily cross-checked against the notes. The aims of the investigation were then defined as reassessing the records from 1904 to l979, creating a publicly accessible digital archive and obtaining a frame of dating. In addition a major new geophysical survey was carried out in order to verify the accuracy of the original excavations.
As a result the project workers were able to demonstrate that the site had certainly been occupied before the eighth century. Indeed finds of Mesolithic date had been made although the remains were not found in context. Iron Age pottery was found including some large sherds of domestic wares and there was also Roman pottery of sufficient quality and quantity to suggest that there had probably been a Roman Villa close to the site.

One of the legendary features of the Abbey was the maintenance of the site of the 'Vetusta ecclesia" or old church, supposedly built of wood and reeds by the original founders and.burned down in the great:fire that devastated the Abbey in 1184. Then new survey revealed evidence of four postholes sealed beneath the Nave of the rebuilt church and further linked them with pottery of the,type found in Tintagel,and belonging to the fifth or sixth centuries. Interestingly Radford's notebooks revealed that he had,realised the significance of this evidence but his failure to publish meant that the information,had not become public.

Other findings included the attribution of a date of 680 AD to some window glass, which corresponded with a possible date for the building of a Saxon church. There also appeared to be some evidence of a glass furnace used for re-melting Roman cullet. A suggestion made by the late Philip Rahtz that certain features indicated an early cloister on the site was probably incorrect. Rahtz had suggested that this could be associated with St Dunstan, who had built such a structure at Canterbury.
The geophysical survey produced a new plan of the excavations which suggested that some of the earlier interpretations of the site had not been very accurate It also revealed a number of features for the first time and provided evidence for historical features that had been previously unidentified, such as the Abbot's Hall.

Publication of the report is due later this year by the Society of Antiquaries.
If you would like to see an introduction to the project by Cheryl (and others) there is an excellent short video on YouTube called 'Glastonbury Revealed' by ahrcpress.

Peter Johnson