Digging through the dirt to uncover the history of St Albans Cathedral

PUBLISHED: 15:45 27 October 2017 | UPDATED: 15:45 27 October 2017

Aerial view of the dig at St Albans Cathedral.

Aerial view of the dig at St Albans Cathedral.


Walk anywhere in St Albans, and your footsteps echo back through centuries of history, with untold secrets hidden below the veneer of contemporary life.

Ross Lane talking to school children at the St Albans Cathedral dig.Ross Lane talking to school children at the St Albans Cathedral dig.

Occasionally we are given an opportunity to explore what lurks beneath, to dig through the accumulated layers of 2,000 years, and find out more about the lives of previous inhabitants of this great city.

One such chance came with the beginning of the major new development at St Albans Cathedral, which will include the construction of a new Welcome Centre in Sumpter Yard.

The project - Alban, Britain’s First Saint - prompted the archaeological excavation of the monk’s graveyard where the new facilities will be located, in a bid to find out more about the site before it is built over.

From the Dissolution of the Abbey in 1539 until around 1852, this area of the site served as the parish graveyard. One exciting aspect of the current dig is the uncovering of original Norman apse ended chapels on the site which were demolished in the 13th century and replaced by a large rectangular building up until the Dissolution of the Abbey.

Aerial view of the dig at St Albans Cathedral.Aerial view of the dig at St Albans Cathedral.

Armed with trowls and brushes, a team from Canterbury Archaeological Trust have been painstakingly peeling back the past, and have already uncovered some interesting relics of the cathedral’s history.

As part of their work, they have also been interacting with local schools and other visitors to offer a fascinating insight at these discoveries.

Ross Lane from the trust explained the processes behind the work: “We discover new burials almost daily, which requires digging with hand tools, spades and trowels. We then photograph and number everything we find before we can finally lift the finds out of the ground.”

He said in terms of what the archaeologists have been unearthing, the collection of artefacts has been extensive.

An archaeologist working on the dig at St Albans Cathedral.An archaeologist working on the dig at St Albans Cathedral.

“Not only are the burials themselves an interesting assemblage, with skeletons dating between 1750 and 1850, showing various diseases, but the coffins that contain the skeletons are very ornate.

“We have also uncovered a number of artefacts associated with the grave diggers themselves, for example a really lovely clay pipe, which is quite intact, and a selection of coins.”

The dig on the Cathedral grounds is unique for those working on it since it is such a concentrated graveyard which requires careful work to uncover and remove the finds.

The Alban, Britain’s First Saint project is about telling the story not just of the martyr, but also of the cathedral itself through the ages.

Ross Lane talking to school children at the St Albans Cathedral dig.Ross Lane talking to school children at the St Albans Cathedral dig.

Ross added: “We hope to add to the story of how the Cathedral was conceived, altered and ultimately used during its life to date as a place of pilgrimage and worship.”

The Cathedral has launched a blog to keep everyone up to date with the project at albanbritainsfirstsaint.wordpress.com

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