New evidence reveals more than 1,000 years of Christian worship at Bath Abbey

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Recent archaeological finds at Bath Abbey, including Saxon charcoal burials believed to date from the 8th or 9th century, shed new light on how the site was used for Christian worship.

Image courtesy of Wessex Archeology

Charcoal burials and a beautifully carved medieval angel’s head from the early 15th century reveal how the site was developed and used for Christian worship from the Anglo-Saxon era to the present day.

Before the abbey church was built in the early 1500s, it was home to both a famous Anglo-Saxon monastery and one of the largest cathedrals in medieval England.

Archaeologists from leading archaeological and heritage practices at Wessex Archeology have deployed a range of state-of-the-art scientific recording techniques, including 3D modeling, during their investigations for the Bath Abbey Footprint Project.

The award-winning Heritage Lottery Fund project will repair the abbey’s collapsing floor, install a new eco-friendly heating system using Bath’s hot springs, and provide new and improved spaces and facilities to ensure the Abbey is more durable, hospitable and usable for local residents, devotees and visitors.

The newly discovered beautifully sculpted medieval angel’s head | Image courtesy of Wessex Archeology

During the work of Wessex archeology in the vaults below street level, Saxon burials have been encountered, including rare ‘charcoal burials’. This unusual funeral rite involved placing the body or casket on or under a layer of charcoal, or in some cases both.

Kirsten Egging Dinwiddy, Senior Osteoarchaeologist at Wessex Archeology, explained: “During this time, cleanliness of body and mind were powerful religious concerns. surroundings, but also to protect the “clean” remains of the “impure” soil of the cemetery.

“Charcoal, like ash, was also symbolic of purity and penance, in these cases perhaps related to the mourners as much as to the deceased.”

The original Anglo-Saxon monastery of Bath is believed to have been established in 675 AD. The Church of St. Peter’s Monastery was famous for the coronation of King Edgar as the first King of England in 973 AD. Part of the cemetery of the Saxon monastery is located to the south of the current abbey.

The last Norman cathedral was built between the years 1080 and 1160 and was one of the largest in England, measuring over 100 meters in length.

Excavations have revealed that much of the foundation material for 16th-century Bath Abbey is salvaged Norman masonry.

In some cases, the walls rest directly on the structural remains of the cathedral. Other Norman architectural fragments have been recovered, such as an unusual head carved from Bath stone, which archaeologists suspect to be a portrait of one of the masons who worked on the building.

The remains were recorded using a technique known as photogrammetry, which will be used to create a highly detailed 3D model of space.

The Middle Ages brought renewal and repair to the abbey, with excavations revealing a remarkably well-preserved tiled floor with its vibrant color still intact.

The tiles are known to have been made at Nash Hill in Lacock, Wiltshire, and depict royal heraldry and images of griffins, birds, lilies and an ‘abbey’.

Cai Mason, Senior Project Manager at Wessex Archeology, said: “For the archaeologists involved, this was likely a unique find. After doing more research, we know that Bishop Drokensford organized repairs to the cathedral in the 1320s, which is a perfect match for when we know these tiles were in production.

Other medieval remains have been discovered in the vaults under the abbey rooms. A beautifully carved ‘angel’ head was recovered from demolition rubble in the area of ​​the former cathedral cloister promenade.

Cai Mason explained, “After consulting with architectural historians, the consensus is that the head is a late 15th or early 16th century ‘stop label’, and this is quite unusual in that it is in the style of Italian Renaissance naturalism, which is rarely seen in England.

“We know that the nearby prior’s lodgings and dormitory were rebuilt in the 1480s and demolished around the time the rubble containing the head was thrown away. It is possible that the sculptor was an itinerant artisan from the continent.

At the end of the 15th century, the cathedral was in a semi-ruined state and was demolished and replaced by the current abbey in what was then a new and distinctive style.

Reverend Evelyn Lee-Barber, Associate Priest at Bath Abbey, said: “It has been a pleasure working with Wessex Archeology as they dig through the different layers of history beneath the Abbey soil. for our Footprint project.

“We were both surprised and delighted with the discoveries made and it was amazing to see finds from Saxon burials and fragments of the normal cathedral that once stood on the site of the abbey.

“Some of the finds were expected, as we know that there has been a Christian place of worship on this site for over a thousand years, however, one of the most impressive finds for us was the medieval tiling.

“Raising the benches and repairing the ground is a unique opportunity; it will mean that we can maintain and make improvements to this magnificent building, and change the way it can be used to better serve the city, visitors and future generations by making known Jesus Christ and the faith of the church.

“However, a huge bonus is that it allowed us to discover important parts of the building’s heritage; things like these beautiful tiles that have been seen for the first time in centuries.

“Without the work done for the Footprint project, we would have no idea they were there.

Some of Bath Abbey’s spectacular finds will be featured on the BBC Four’s Digging for Britain, which airs tonight, Wednesday, December 5, at 9 p.m. ET.


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