Shaftesbury Abbey: A Voyage of Exploration and Discovery (SAVED) Project: An exciting new community project to rediscover the Abbey’s story through archaeological investigations and historical research to bring to life Shaftesbury Abbey.

The SAVED community project, supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund and other local donors, is investigating not only Shaftesbury’s Abbey, which became one of the richest and most powerful in the country, but its place in Alfred the Great’s Saxon hilltop town.

Trained project volunteers and children from eleven local schools have explored what lies under the ruins in the Abbey gardens, led by Shaftesbury archaeologist Julian Richards. The extensive excavations in the Abbey itself revealed clues into the previously unknown layout of the Abbey church, along with extensive finds of medieval floor tiles, bone fragments and other objects now on display . Our most exciting find was the stone head of a statue discovered in the corner of the final test pit. It has been sent off for cleaning and analysis but is believed to date from the 14th Century and bears a possible resemblance to Edward II.

The Open Day in August was attended by hundreds of people keen to learn what had been found so far and to enjoy the display of floor tiles made by local schoolchildren.

The first days’ digging
Replica ceramic floor tiles made by local school children

These are the first excavations here for over 50 years and will answer questions about the structure and size of the Abbey church, destroyed in the 16th century.

Still on the archaeology front, the first images from the radar surveys that were carried out last summer are still being analysed. The images show hard features at different levels under the ground which bounce-back the radar beams. Some features are of a size and shape that indicate they are probably graves, others appear to be areas of flooring (perhaps tiled), and yet others are circular so may be fonts or the foundations of spiral stairs.

The Ludwig Boltzmann Institute from Austria with Julian Richards and their survey equipment
Volunteer archaeologist Stuart Edwards finds the first medieval pottery in a test pit

Also, we may have the first tantalising glimpses of what may be Alfred the Great’s Saxon town in an area where test-pits are dug by our archaeologically trained volunteers.

Shaftesbury’s Saxon Burh, the hilltop defences created by Alfred as part of his campaign against the invading Danish Vikings in the late 9th century, is a bit of an unknown quantity. So, we have started to explore what is going on within its defences.  

Over the last six months our volunteers, who all took part in a programme of practical archaeological training, have completed the excavation of 16 test pits. These have been located, with the kind permission of householders and allotment gardeners, in open spaces away from houses and trees, in some cases digging up very smart lawns. Needless to say, these have all been tidily restored after the completion of the excavation! Each test pit is 1m square and most have revealed far deeper soils that might have been expected, often well over 1m deep and producing a fascinating array of finds. These range from the clay pipes and industrially produced pottery of the last three centuries down to rare sherds of late Saxon pottery and even worked flints from the Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age) period about 7000 years ago. But by far the most common find has been pottery of medieval date from the 11th to the 16th century which, when precisely dated and plotted, will provide us with our first idea of how this part of the town was used at the time that the Abbey was of such importance.

These pits, which we continue to excavate as and when permissions are gained, are providing small windows into Shaftesbury’s fascinating past. Some have produced tantalising glimpses of medieval structures, a floor here and a posthole there and one even came down onto a pit of 10th century date, the soils from which may provide insight into the economy of the late Saxon period.  There have also been some notable individual finds: three medieval silver pennies, a medieval iron knife and a wonderful small decorated bronze fragment which may be of Saxon date.

Some of these finds are already on display in the ‘studio’ at the Abbey gardens and will be added to as and when we process our more recent finds.  The exploration continues!

Volunteer teams of historical researchers continue to unearth fascinating documents in far flung record offices and archives, documents which are starting to shed light on some of the characters whose lives were entwined with the Abbey. This is what we were hoping to find, the evidence that will help us to put people back into the Abbey, breathing life into the ancient stones. The team are planning to have replicas on display in the revamped Abbey Museum of a Saxon glass bowl originally found at Shaftesbury, of the will of a Saxon lady who left some of her worldly goods to the Abbey, and of the Deed of Surrender of the Abbey to Henry VIII’s commissioners in 1539.

Our schools programme, which is involving 11 schools in the area, from primary to secondary and both state and private, is now well underway. Most schools have had a first visit in which we introduce the idea of archaeology by means of a ‘rot or not rot’ session which is followed by our new indoor dig. This, which fortunately all fits into the back of a car, explains the idea of digging in layers and the ways in which finds can be used as clues to create a story of the past. It has been fascinating to see the way that pupils of all ages and abilities have engaged with our ‘dig’ and the amazingly imaginative explanations that have been offered as to what it represents. The second session is based at the Abbey where pupils first explore the Saxon town, try out some ancient crafts, some quite messy and even get to talk to a medieval nun.  Their third and final session will be when, after all this archaeological training, they get involved in the excavations which started in July.         

School children making herbal medicines from the Abbey herb garden

Abbey Stones Quest: more help needed!

But there is still a lot missing – so where has the rest of the great Abbey, the thousands of tons of finely worked stone, actually gone?  After our initial call before Christmas for people to let us know if they think have some of it built into house, garden wall, or rockery, lots of people have come forward and invited us to visit, measure, and photograph their stones.  If you think you might have some of our “missing Abbey” we would love to hear from you so please contact . Rest assured we will not try to reclaim them to rebuild the Abbey!

Dr Peter Stanier and Dr Jonathan Foyle examine Abbey stones