Apparently I quite enjoy digging holes in the ground, almost as much as I enjoy peering into holes that other people have dug. Occasionally I find things in these holes; sometimes it just turns out to be a piece of flower pot, other times it's a medieval Abbey.
I was digging holes in the back-gardens of numerous variably startled relatives from the age of three. My grandparents owned an eighteenth century farmhouse and I was always wandering over flowerbeds picking out the odd things that had been disturbed by the spade.
Aged six or seven, I started taking more of an interest in what I'd found rather than just enjoying finding odd things in the mud, and started asking questions about what things were. When I reached nine I joined a local archaeology society, apparently the youngest member in its history, and every club night I'd be brought along by my Dad carrying a bag load of curious things I'd found that week that I wanted information about. It means that as an adult I've inherited a vast quantity of broken teapots and rusty nails from my younger self.
I started digging on my first professional site when I was ten and found my first ever medieval coin a year later. The dig director let me climb over the spoil heaps and keep anything that the archaeologists had missed (more pottery for my future self to inherit) - that was until I found the corner of a Norman font that had been taken out by a digger.
This is was where I started 'proper' archaeology - my first site - and still perhaps to this day the best site that I have ever dug on. The team was a community group that grew as the years went on, many of whom were retired archaeologists, surveyors, builders, and all kinds of other professions that gave my an extra view into the medieval world. I also very quickly learnt feet and inches, which to this day gives me an odd higgledy-piggledy range of imperial and metric measurements in my head.
In the first few seasons we uncovered, initially from a single wall line, a maze of medieval foundations - largely laid with tiles in a perculiar herringbone style. We identified what appeared to be rooms with lodgings above, built hastilly over a yard that had itself been built over a pit - all of which that building was sinking merrily into. There were hearths still sat in the centre of rooms, built out of on edge tiles and, thanks to carbon dating, we measured the last time they were fired to within only a few years of the dissolution - when the buildings must have been pulled down.
Then there appeared a more exciting structure in another trench away from these buildings; a brick clamp. This had been put up during one of the abbey's many phases of constructions, and among the baked clay rubble we even found an old medieval knife that had probably been used to shape the very bricks as they were made.
The final seasons were the most tantalising though, as the abbey revealed secrets about the end of its life. In one ditch we found the hands of a statue clasped together in prayer, knocked off of their owner by one of Cromwell's iconoclastic crew. Then there emerged something even more exciting - the kitchen of the complex was being excavated, so named for the great brick fireplace at one end, and mysterious shiney black sheets began appearing across the floor. We had found a complete dump of window glass, a great pile a meter or more wide, and half a meter high - painted glass taken from the abbey church and broken up for the lead. Against one side of the kitchen we found two beautifully molded plaster panels, about a a meter high and half a meter wide - perhaps the remains of panels once mounted on a rood screen or some other structure that had rotted from around them.
It was a sad site to leave, with so many questions unanswered - but at least some amazing things had been uncovered, and a little more of the Abbey's story told.
All that stands today of Bicknacre Priory (a place that even in its medieval heyday was seen as poor and dilapidated) is a single arch of the crossing like some formidable grand doorway to the past. The priory itself had survived into the early 19th century still with medieval wall paintings covering the inside of what had by then become a farmhouse. In about 1808 it sadly burnt down, the ruins being robbed away to build local roads until a farmer finally stepped in to save the final remains in about 1850.
We were called in by developers who were turning the once empty grassland around it into a housing estate - most of it was a scheduled ancient monument that they couldn't touch, but one side of the site - the east end - just entered the developer's land and it needed to be looked at. The geophysiscs of the entire site were amazing, the dig was not so exciting. All we found were some scraggy layers of gravel that were probably the floor of the barn that had stood on the site a hundred years earlier. We did at least spark of a new interest in the site and there's a nice notice board there now all about it. Only took three years' work.
Ulting is a sleepy little village with a beautiful church, that a few locals rumoured was founded by Saint Cedd. We were hunting for a pilgrim's chapel founded at the church in 1477 and geophysics in the graveyard suggested wall remains running beyond the west end. Amazingly, having somehow missed every grave wth our trenches, we did indeed find medieval walls - but dating to at least a century earlier; who knows what we found, but it wasn't the chapel we were looking for!
Written, designed, and not printed by M. J. Steel Esq. of Waterloo, London.
Copyright Anno Salutis MMXVI.