A scaled-down investigation of the remains of the Medieval priory at the National Trust’s property in Cambridgeshire took place in April 2020.

OA East were invited by the National Trust to undertake a targeted programme of archaeological excavation in the grounds of Anglesey Abbey, where geophysical survey has identified the remains of the church and cloister of a Medieval priory under the front lawn of the house. The priory was converted into a private residence and gardens in the seventeenth century and these were remodelled again in subsequent centuries.

Curtailed Public Engagement

The project unfortunately coincided with the dramatic escalation in coronavirus cases and measures to combat the pandemic, which curtailed the extent of the exercise and the public engagement originally planned. Despite this setback, two trenches were hand excavated over the course of nine days. OA East and the National Trust have worked together to react quickly to the rapidly changing situation and ensure the safety and wellbeing of staff, participants and members of the public.

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. The wall was made up of dressed clunch blocks, and one of these had a maker’s mark in the shape of a cross. Several pieces of stained-glass window were found in this trench, suggesting that there was a decorated window at the east end of the church.

Fragments of painted Medieval glass

The Chapel appears

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. In the second trench, we have found evidence for what may be the cloister walkway and the north wall of 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 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 padlock, possible Delft ware pottery and the remains of a set of 18th century scales, presumably thrown out from the kitchens when the gardens and house were remodelled.

A small number of volunteers (none of whom were in COVID-19 at-risk or extremely vulnerable groups) took part in the excavation during the first week, with additional controls for social distancing and regular hand washing. Members of the public were able to view the excavations at a distance until the grounds were closed by the National Trust. All of the exposed building remains have been recorded and left in-situ, and the trenches have now been back-filled and new turf laid down to restore the front lawn.

The ‘Unearthing Our Past‘ 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 and research at the property for the benefit of future visitors.

Excavation of the dog skeleton beside the 18th century garden wall

Shannon Hogan, Archaeologist for the National Trust in the East of England, said: “Despite the project being cut short due to the coronavirus outbreak, the excavation has given us a really tantalising glimpse into the survival and complexity of the medieval church remains at Anglesey Abbey.
“We’ve come away with more knowledge and information about the site and exciting plans to develop archaeological research in the future. I am privileged to be working with such a great team from Anglesey and Oxford Archaeology and bringing archaeology to the foreground at one of my favourite places in the Trust. And I look forward to welcoming more people to experience the site as and when we are able to continue the work there.”

Aileen Connor, Senior Project Manager with Oxford Archaeology East, added: “Like thousands of other visitors, I feel a special connection with Anglesey Abbey, it is right on my doorstep and I have visited countless times with friends, relatives or on my own. I was absolutely thrilled that the National Trust chose to work with Oxford Archaeology to investigate the archaeology of the medieval hospital and priory and try to find out more about how it was turned into the place that we all love today. The coronavirus crisis of course impacted on our work but National Trust and Oxford Archaeology staff worked hard together with the result that we now have more fascinating insights and questions that I hope we will be able to look at together in future.”

More information about the ‘Unearthing Our Past’ project and its discoveries can be found on the Anglesey Abbey website here: https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/anglesey-abbey-gardens-and-lode-mill/projects/unearthing-our-past

Source: Oxford Archaeology