Unearthing 1,000 years of life and death during major St Albans Cathedral excavation work

PUBLISHED: 16:00 19 February 2018 | UPDATED: 10:17 20 February 2018

An aerial view of the St Albans Abbey archaeological dig. Picture: Danny Loo

An aerial view of the St Albans Abbey archaeological dig. Picture: Danny Loo

Danny Loo Photography 2018

Archaelologists dug back through a millennium of history in just a metre of earth during six months of excavations at St Albans Cathedral.

Members of Canterbury Archaeological Trust (CAT) have painstakingly peeled back layers of the past to explore the rich tapestry surrounding the Abbey’s place in the local community.

Following an initial dig in December 2016, cathedral archaeologist, Professor Martin Biddle, explained what he hoped the team would uncover as part of this excavation.

An aerial view of the St Albans Abbey archaeological dig. Picture: Danny Loo An aerial view of the St Albans Abbey archaeological dig. Picture: Danny Loo

“We had a pretty good idea that there were originally two apses which were demolished perhaps in the 13th century. These were replaced by a large rectangular building… we know nothing about this building [of the late 13th or 14th century], but we hope to find out. There was also a series of chapels against the south side of the presbytery and we know a little about these because some traces of them can be seen in the south wall. We also know that these buildings between the south transept and the presbytery were all removed after the Dissolution of the Abbey in 1539 and that for the next three centuries, the area served as a parish graveyard.”

Following this preparatory dig the archaeologists left the Cathedral with a relatively clear idea of what they might expect to find on their return to the site.

An aerial view of the St Albans Abbey archaeological dig. Picture: Danny Loo An aerial view of the St Albans Abbey archaeological dig. Picture: Danny Loo

In many ways, Professor Biddle’s main expectations were met as the remains of the massive apse-ended chapels - intrinsic to the original design of the Norman Abbey - were uncovered. In excavating the area surrounding the apse, archaeologists revealed up to 20 burials related to the Norman Abbey’s foundation in the 11th century. It is thought that these burials belong to some of the earliest benefactors of the Abbey, some of which were placed in substantial tombs.

Likewise, during their most intense phase of excavation, new burials were uncovered on a daily basis, each one requiring careful photographing, recording and removal of remains interred between 1750 and 1850 – when the area was in use as a parish graveyard. In total, the team from CAT uncovered around 130 post-medieval burials, which reflect a wide demographic of the local population. As the archaeologists worked their way down through the layers of human settlement, their finds included clay pipes, glass beads coffin plaques and belt buckles.

An aerial view of the St Albans Abbey archaeological dig. Picture: Danny Loo An aerial view of the St Albans Abbey archaeological dig. Picture: Danny Loo

The highlight of the CAT project was unquestionably the discovery of the long-lost Abbot Wheathampstead, whose burial site had become lost in the centuries following his death in 1465.

The abbot was buried with a collection of seals issued by Pope Martin VI (1417-1431) which confirmed his identity.

An aerial view of the St Albans Abbey archaeological dig. Picture: Danny Loo An aerial view of the St Albans Abbey archaeological dig. Picture: Danny Loo

It was a hugely significant discovery, one which could not have been predicted and what has proved to be perhaps the most significant find of the entire excavation.

The archaeologists initially uncovered the remains of a large 15th century structure, thought to have been at least two storeys high. Housed within this structure was a brick-lined tomb in which lay the remains of an aged male together with the three papal bullae, granted to St Albans Abbey by Pope Martin V in November 1423.

An aerial view of the St Albans Abbey archaeological dig showing the lost grave of Abbot Wheathampstead. Picture: Danny Loo An aerial view of the St Albans Abbey archaeological dig showing the lost grave of Abbot Wheathampstead. Picture: Danny Loo

The presence of these bullae – which Martin Biddle claims is a “unique discovery in archaeology” - together with documentary records and academic scholarship all pointed to this being the tomb of Abbot John of Wheathampstead.

The archaeologists also found what appears to be a substantial north-south aligned boundary ditch, likely to date to the Anglo-Saxon or early Norman period, though the archaeologists add that given the history of St Albans, its origins being Roman cannot be fully ruled out.

An aerial view of the St Albans Abbey archaeological dig showing the lost grave of Abbot Wheathampstead. Picture: Danny Loo An aerial view of the St Albans Abbey archaeological dig showing the lost grave of Abbot Wheathampstead. Picture: Danny Loo

On completing the excavation phase of the work on the Monk’s Graveyard at St Albans Cathedral, Ross Lane from CAT said: “Despite the difficulties involved in the excavation and recording of human remains, the team were encouraged by the positive interest and support given by the people of St Albans. This has been a fantastic excavation set beneath the ancient tower of St Albans Cathedral and it has been a privilege to uncover part of the story of over a thousand years of worship, life and death at such a unique place.”

The excavations are taking place in advance of the construction of a new Welcome Centre, supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, and part of the Alban, Britain’s First Saint project.

An aerial view of the St Albans Abbey archaeological dig. Picture: Danny Loo An aerial view of the St Albans Abbey archaeological dig. Picture: Danny Loo

This scheme also includes the development of a new centre for schoolchildren and adult learners, improved access and facilities throughout and an extensive programme of events and activities for all ages.

An aerial view of the St Albans Abbey archaeological dig. Picture: Danny Loo An aerial view of the St Albans Abbey archaeological dig. Picture: Danny Loo

The Canterbury Archaeological Trust team work on the St Albans Abbey dig. Picture: Danny Loo The Canterbury Archaeological Trust team work on the St Albans Abbey dig. Picture: Danny Loo

The Canterbury Archaeological Trust team work on the St Albans Abbey dig. Picture: Danny Loo The Canterbury Archaeological Trust team work on the St Albans Abbey dig. Picture: Danny Loo

The Canterbury Archaeological Trust team work on the St Albans Abbey dig. Picture: Danny Loo The Canterbury Archaeological Trust team work on the St Albans Abbey dig. Picture: Danny Loo

The Canterbury Archaeological Trust team work on the St Albans Abbey dig. Picture: Danny Loo The Canterbury Archaeological Trust team work on the St Albans Abbey dig. Picture: Danny Loo

The Canterbury Archaeological Trust team work on the St Albans Abbey dig. Picture: Danny Loo The Canterbury Archaeological Trust team work on the St Albans Abbey dig. Picture: Danny Loo

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