Glastonbury Abbey: Archaeological Excavations 1904 - 1979

University of Reading, Trustees of Glastonbury Abbey, 2015

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Prof Roberta Gilchrist
Department of Archaeology
University of Reading
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University of Reading, Trustees of Glastonbury Abbey (2015) Glastonbury Abbey: Archaeological Excavations 1904 - 1979 [data-set]. York: Archaeology Data Service [distributor]

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Glastonbury Abbey was renowned in the middle ages as the reputed burial place of the legendary King Arthur and the site of the earliest Christian church in Britain, believed to have been founded by Joseph of Arimathea in the first century. The ancient wooden church, vetusta ecclesia, was destroyed by fire in 1184 and the medieval Lady Chapel was rapidly erected on the same site, becoming an associative relic of the ancient community of saints. The famous Glastonbury origins story was first recounted by William of Malmesbury (c 1129-30). The myth was embellished by subsequent generations (including the addition of the Arthurian connection in 1191) with the aim of establishing Glastonbury's pre-eminence among English monasteries and attracting pilgrims and funds. The monks successfully crafted the Glastonbury legends and by the close of the middle ages the abbey was the second richest monastery in England. Glastonbury's myths continued to evolve in the centuries following the Dissolution of the monastery in 1539. Today the site of the abbey ruins draws a large range of visitors including heritage tourists, students of history and spiritual seekers of diverse beliefs.

Antiquarian excavations

The site of Glastonbury Abbey was purchased in 1907 on behalf of the Church of England and thirty-six seasons of archaeological excavation took place up to 1979, in association with the Somerset Archaeological and Natural History Society (SANHS) and the Society of Antiquaries of London. The first excavations were carried out by Sir William St John Hope in 1904. From 1908, there were seven different directors, including some iconic figures in the history of monastic archaeology: Sir Charles Peers, Sir Alfred Clapham and Dr Courtenay Arthur Ralegh Radford. The abbey's first director of excavations, Frederick Bligh Bond, employed psychic experiments and dowsing in his archaeological methods and is regarded as a pioneering figure of the New Age movement, with which Glastonbury remains associated today.

The results of the antiquarian excavations were never reported in full: only interim statements were published as yearly reports or summaries. The most significant excavations were those undertaken by Ralegh Radford in the 1950s and '60s and summarized in an interim publication in 1981. Radford only reported evidence dating to the early phases of the site, including:

  • a 'British' cemetery of cist burials which he believed pre-dated the monastery;
  • a series of early churches and a boundary ditch dating to the middle Saxon period;
  • a pre-Conquest cloister and glass furnaces which he dated to the tenth-century and linked to the rebuilding of the monastery by St Dunstan;
  • the grave of Arthur and Guinevere which was allegedly exhumed by the monks in 1191.

The Glastonbury Abbey Archaeological Archive Project

The archive project was a collaborative venture between the University of Reading and the Trustees of Glastonbury Abbey, funded principally by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. It spanned seven years from planning to completion and drew upon the records of archaeological excavations which took place at the abbey over seventy-five years (1904-79). The project has reassessed and reinterpreted all known archaeological records from the excavations. The scope of the project has included the full analysis of the archaeological collections by thirty-one leading specialists, including chemical and compositional analysis of glass, metal and pottery, and a comprehensive geophysical survey conducted by GSB Prospection Ltd. For the first time, it has been possible to achieve a framework of independent dating based on reassessment of the finds and radiocarbon dating of surviving organic material from the 1950s excavations. The principal aim of the Glastonbury Abbey Archaeological Archive Project was to set aside previous assumptions based on the historical framework and legendary traditions and to provide a rigorous reassessment of the archive of antiquarian excavations. This research has revealed that some of the best known archaeological 'facts' about Glastonbury are themselves myths perpetuated by the abbey's excavators.

The antiquarian excavation archive is stored principally at Glastonbury Abbey and at the English Heritage Archive, Swindon, with a small number of records held at the Somerset Heritage Centre, the SANHS Library and the Society of Antiquaries, London. The completeness of the records from the different campaigns of excavation varies considerably, as does the survival of the finds assemblages and contextual information for the artefacts. The Radford archive was the most complete and formed the main focus of the project, providing the opportunity for detailed analysis. The archives from the other excavators were less complete and generally had not been subject to the same detailed recording as employed by Radford. Nevertheless, reassessment of this material has facilitated re-analysis of previously held interpretations and fresh insights, particularly with the benefit of evidence from subsequent excavations and the new geophysical survey.

The complete dataset from the archive project is accessible within this digital archive. This comprises archive project records, database records, geophysical survey, specialist reports and accompanying data, Radford's original excavation records and selected records from other excavators. The corresponding monograph is:

Gilchrist, R. and Green, C. 2015. Glastonbury Abbey: Archaeological Excavations 1904 - 1979. Society of Antiquaries of London Monograph.

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