Glastonbury Abbey Symposium 9 June 2011 Abbey Shield

Excavation Archive Project (2009-2012)

Background to the Project

Ralegh Radford at Glastonbury Abbey

Ralegh Radford at
Glastonbury Abbey

The current Glastonbury Abbey Excavation Archive Project is studying and analysing the records of archaeological excavations on the site since 1904 and will provide new information about the Abbey. The project is an exciting collaboration between the Abbey and the Archaeology Department at the University of Reading, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. The research is being undertaken by Professor Roberta Gilchrist and Dr Cheryl Allum (Reading University) working closely with Janet Bell (Curator, Glastonbury Abbey) and John Allan (Consultant Archaeologist to Glastonbury Abbey).

1957 excavations showing glass furnace (centre)

1957 excavations showing
glass furnace (centre)

Excavations at Glastonbury Abbey began soon after the site was purchased for the Church of England in 1907, although a series of trenches had been dug by St John Hope three years earlier.

Since then, the 34 seasons of excavations up to 1979 exposed most of the plan of the medieval church and evidence of earlier phases of the monastery.

Despite significant archaeological discoveries and the great importance of Glastonbury Abbey in understanding British monasticism, very little of this evidence has been published. In 1981, Ralegh Radford (Director of excavations 1951 - 1964) published an interim report suggesting a series of churches, a Saxon enclosure ditch, potentially the earliest cloister in Britain, and craft-working activities including unique glass furnaces. Several attempts at full publication were never completed and consequently details of these discoveries remain unavailable.

Excavation of west cloister walk in 1954

Excavation of west cloister walk in 1954.
Ralegh Radford and Linda Witherill (seated)
feature. © Linda Witherill

Following Radford's death in 1999, his excavation archive was retrieved and deposited with the National Monuments Record at Swindon, making the publication of a full report a feasible proposition.

In 2007, a one-year pilot project, funded by the British Academy, demonstrated the enormous potential of the excavation material, in particular the Radford archive which was found to be almost complete. One season of Radford's excavations, the chapter house, were selected for detailed analysis, and a geophysical survey of the Abbey Site was undertaken by the University of Reading. An interim report on the chapter house was published as a Fieldwork Highlight in Medieval Britain and Ireland 2007, Medieval Archaeology 52.

The current project involves full analysis of the excavation records, the results of which are now being entered into an Integrated Archaeological Database.

Ralegh and Peter Poyntz-Wright - 1962

Ralegh and Peter Poyntz-Wright - 1962;
'Arthur's Grave' from the South
© Peter Poyntz-Wright

A geophysical survey of accessible areas of the Abbey precinct and cloister has been carried out. The finds are being analysed by a prestigious team of specialists.

The results of the project will be published by the Society of Antiquaries with a generous donation from Linda Witherill, who took part in Radford's excavations at the Abbey. The database will be archived with the Archaeology Data Service as an interactive online resource.

Abbey volunteers have also made an invaluable contribution to the project: Peter Poyntz-Wright, a member of the excavation team in the 1950s and 60s, has been transcribing the original site notebooks, Doug Forbes is scanning photos and drawings, Lindsay Beach has audited and sorted finds ready for specialist study and a team have gallantly marked thousands of tile fragments and pottery sherds.

In addition to publication of the results, two one-day symposiums will also be held, one at Glastonbury Abbey in June 2011, and one in London in November 2012.

Click here for more information on the programme for the Glastonbury Abbey Symposium.