Saturday 24 March 2018

The Post-Roman origins of Glastonbury

Archaeology at the Abbey
Archaeology has revealed the remains of the succession of churches which have stood on the Glastonbury Abbey site since the Anglo-Saxon period when in the 7th Century the ancient county of Somerset came under the rule of King Ine of Wessex who granted lands and promoted the status of the Abbey. It was during this period that the first stone church was constructed on the site.

Hence, Philip Rahtz concluded that the Abbey site was a secondary development to the monastic sites at Glastonbury Tor and Beckery where he unearthed evidence of early religious activity during excavations in the 1960s.

The first Christian community at Glastonbury
Yet the Glastonbury monks had claimed a much earlier origin of the Abbey. The Glastonbury legend claims that Joseph of Arimathea had established the first Christian community in Britain here shortly after the crucifixion. Then in the 5th century St Patrick re-discovered the site, and then a British church was established on the site.

In the 10th century Dunstan became Abbot and extended Ine's church while establishing the Benedictine Rule. In the early 12th century Abbot Henry of Blois invited William of Malmesbury to write the history of the Abbey. In 1125 William completed “De Antiquitate Glastonie Ecclesie” and pronounced it was indeed the oldest church he knew and repeated the Glastonbury claim that the first church on the site was established by missionaries in AD 166, or possibly even earlier, dating back to the time of Christ’s apostles, although he seemed to doubt this assertion himself and did not mention Joseph of Arimathea.

The Old Church
In 1184 a disastrous great fire at the abbey destroyed many buildings including the Old Church. The Lady Chapel was built on the site of the Old Church and shortly after in 1191 the monks claimed to have discovered the tombs of King Arthur and Guinevere found in the cemetery. The period of rebuilding the Abbey continued to the east of the older church and away from the ancient cemetery, through the Norman period producing the largest Abbey church  in England.

In the 14th century the Joseph of Arimathea legend was promoted through the work of John of Glastonbury, then, around 1500, under the Abbacy of Richard Beere, St Joseph's Chapel was created below the Lady Chapel destroying any archaeological evidence of the first church on the site.

In 1539 the Abbey was closed during the Dissolution of the Monasteries and the last Abbot Richard Whiting was hanged on Glastonbury Tor. The Abbey became derelict over the centuries and in a ruinous state when it was purchased for the Church of England in 1908.

Minor archaeological excavations had been carried out at the Abbey during the 19th century but formal investigations started with the appointment of Frederick Bligh Bond. But after revealing that he had used occult practices to guide his excavations Bond was dismissed by the Church of England in 1922. Further excavations were carried out by Peers, Clapham & Horne in the late 1920s and 1930s.

From 1951-63 Dr CA Ralegh Radford was Director of Excavations at the Abbey. Radford was known for his special interest in the early Christianity of Britain, and particularly attracted to sites connected with the Arthurian legends of his native West Country, such as Castle Dore, Cadbury Castle and Tintagel which he (incorrectly) identified as an early Christian monastic site. Subsequently, his personal agenda at Glastonbury was to continue Bond's work and locate the site of King Arthur's tomb. Indeed, in 1963 Radford discovered a pit in the cemetery which he believed to be evidence of where the monks had exhumed the remains of Arthur and Guinevere in the 12th century.

Plan of Glastonbury Abbey from the Gate of Remembrance, by Frederick Bligh Bond

A Post-Roman Celtic Monastery?
Rhatz interpretation that Glastonbury Abbey was a secondary development to the monastic sites at Glastonbury Tor and Beckery endured until until recent re-examination of the Glastonbury archaeological archive.

Following thirty-six seasons of archaeological excavations from 1904–79, we have no definite information on the origins of the Abbey, with little in the way of archaeological reports produced by the 20th century excavators. For example, in 1981Radford released his interim findings for the Saxon and Anglo-Norman phases but virtually nothing since. When Radford died in 1999 his archive passed to Historic England making it available for analysis.

For the last ten years Roberta Gilchrist from the University of Reading has led the Glastonbury Abbey Archaeological Archive Project to conduct a comprehensive study of the archaeological archives and artefact collections of Glastonbury Abbey, and carry out a new geophysical survey of the site in an effort to separate archaeological fact from the rich mythology surrounding the Abbey.

Gilchrist set out to answer the key question of the date of the earliest settlement on the Glastonbury Abbey site. Reassessment of the archive and associated finds has revealed new evidence for earlier occupation on the Abbey site.

Sherds of pottery were noted indicating the presence of amphorae imported from the eastern Mediterranean, essentially storage jars that would have contained wine and oil. This small assemblage of Late Roman Amphora 1 (LRA1) has been dated from finds elsewhere in the southwest of Britain to around 450 – 550 AD.

Plan of the post Roman timber structure and associated late Roman amphorae [Liz Gardner]

Fourteen of these sherds of LRA1were associated with a roughly trodden floor and post-pits (recorded beneath the medieval west cloister walk) connected with timber structures situated in the early cemetery in the Abbey precinct. Their condition suggesting that this floor represents an undisturbed Post-Roman context, possibly associated with one or more timber halls, although Radford failed to recognise it as such. One of the post-pits returned a radiocarbon date suggesting a destruction date for the timber structure of the 8th or 9th centuries, indicating that the hall may have been in use for several centuries.

This confirms that long before the first monastic foundation was documented in 7th century Anglo Saxon charters there was high-status Post-Roman occupation at Glastonbury in the 5th or 6th centuries, refuting earlier claims that the development at Glastonbury Abbey was secondary to the monastic sites at Glastonbury Tor and Beckery.

Significantly, recent excavations at the royal monastery of Lyminge in Kent have also revealed a high-status hall complex as the precursor to the Anglo-Saxon monastery.

However, the presence of LRA1 pottery and timber structures at the Glastonbury Abbey site raises further questions on whether this early occupation was secular or religious; perhaps indicating the existence of a ‘Celtic monastery’ prior to the foundation of the Saxon monastery.

The Glastonbury Abbey Archaeological Archive Project
Digital Glastonbury Abbey - University of Reading
Roberta Gilchrist & Cheryl Green, Glastonbury Abbey: Archaeological Investigations 1904–79, Society of Antiquaries of London, 2015.

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