Glastonbury Abbey: the archaeological story

Glastonbury Abbey in Somerset holds a special place in popular culture. It was renowned in the middle ages as the reputed burial place of the legendary King Arthur and the site of the earliest Church in Britain, thought to have been founded by Joseph of Arimathea. These stories have been connected with Glastonbury for nearly a thousand years and have popular appeal and spiritual value to groups including the Church of England, the Catholic Church and Glastonbury's New Age 'Community of Avalon'.

The Abbey was subject to 36 seasons oGlastonbury Abbeyf archaeological excavations from 1904 to 1979 under 8 different directors. The results of these important excavations have remained unpublished, except for an interim report published by Dr Courtenay Arthur Ralegh Radford in 1981. This focused on the evidence for the earlier Saxon monastery but neglected the archaeology of the later Abbey that held such a central place in the spiritual life of medieval England and beyond. Our understanding of the Saxon and medieval Abbey will soon be transformed.

The Glastonbury Abbey Archaeological Archive Project

The full archive of antiquarian excavations has been analysed and published by a joint project between the department of Archaeology at the University of Reading and the Trustees of Glastonbury Abbey. The project was led by Professor Roberta Gilchrist and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, with additional funding by the British Academy, Linda Witherill, the Society for Medieval Archaeology and the Somerset Archaeology and Natural History Society. A major new publication assesses the scholarly significance of the excavations and provides a new historical source of evidence for understanding the site.

Glastonbury Abbey: archaeological investigations 1904-79 is a 500 page, full-colour monograph published by the Society of Antiquaries of London, reporting on the analysis of the archaeological archives. Finds from the excavations were examined by a team of 31 specialists using modern scientific techniques and a new geophysical survey was undertaken of the Abbey precinct. These modern methods have been invaluable in interpreting the complexities of the evidence and in aiding the project to finish what the antiquarian excavators started over a hundred years ago.

The complete dataset is publicly available through a digital archive hosted by the Archaeology Data Service.

The main aim of the Glastonbury Abbey Archaeological Archive Project was to set aside previous assumptions based on the myths and legends and to provide a rigorous reassessment of the excavation archive. Research revealed that some of the best known archaeological 'facts' about Glastonbury are themselves myths perpetuated by the Abbey's excavators. The key findings are:

  • New evidence for previously unknown prehistoric, Roman and Saxon occupation on the site of the Abbey, pre-dating the earliest documented Saxon monastery at Glastonbury.
  • A craft-working complex of 5 glass furnaces representing the earliest and most substantial evidence for glass-working in Saxon England. It has been radiocarbon dated to c. AD 700.
  • Several details of Radford's interpretation of the early medieval monastery are challenged, including the existence of a pre-Christian 'British' cemetery, the discovery of Arthur's grave, and the alleged Saxon cloister, supposedly the first in England.
  • Re-examination of the records has confirmed evidence for the Norman and later medieval monastic ranges and revealed the exceptional scale of the abbot's lodging, a luxurious palatial complex to the southwest of the cloister.
  • There are many conservative or retrospective elements evident in the architecture of Glastonbury Abbey; this tendency seems to have been deliberate and strategic, aimed at demonstrating the antiquity of Glastonbury and its pre-eminent place in monastic history.
  • The distinctive layout and development of the Abbey was influenced by its origin legends; the religious and cult focus of the site was to the west of the Abbey church, centred on the Lady Chapel that occupied the site of the legendary early church that was destroyed by fire in 1184.

A film made by the AHRC examines new evidence unearthed by the project and how researchers have worked with the Abbey Museum, conservators and the public to explore the history of this rich and extraordinary site.

The Next Step…

The results of the archive project will reach new audiences through a Follow-on project funded by the AHRC (1 Oct 2015- 30 Sept 2016). Professor Roberta Gilchrist and Dr Rhi Smith will work with the Trustees of Glastonbury Abbey to implement a new interpretation strategy that will connect the archaeology more directly to the spiritual and legendary significance of the abbey.

Glastonbury Abbey: archaeology, legend and public engagement aims to improve visitors' understanding of spatial layout, chronological development and archaeological evidence, while also exploring the Arthur and Arimathea legendary connections. Digital reconstructions and an interactive map will be developed with the Centre for Christianity and Culture, University of York. The research will also be disseminated through a new visitor guide book and popular publications, through social media and educational resources for schools that will be made available online for teachers to download. Workshops will also be conducted to evaluate the impact of research on local visitors, schools and spiritual groups, and to inform future interpretation and development at Glastonbury Abbey.

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