Glastonbury Abbey: the archaeological story

5 mins read

Excavators were repeatedly drawn to Glastonbury Abbey during the 20th century, but the fruits of their labours rarely made it into print. Roberta Gilchrist is spearheading a major project to separate archaeological fact from the rich mythology the abbey attracts.

The Lady Chapel in its contemporary setting. (Photo: The Centre for the Study of Christianity & Culture, University of York, 2016)


The site of Glastonbury Abbey in Somerset is inscribed with legends that are at the heart of English cultural identity: it is popularly regarded as the burial place of King Arthur and the cradle of English Christianity, where Joseph of Arimathea reputedly founded the earliest Christian church in Britain, in the 1st century AD. These stories influenced the architectural style and layout of the abbey’s medieval buildings, particularly the Lady Chapel, which was constructed on the site of the ancient church.

Just as the history and legends of Glastonbury Abbey influenced national narratives, so too did the attracted the attention of archaeologists throughout the 20th century.

Unfinished business
Between 1904 and 1979, 36 seasons of excavations were undertaken at Glastonbury Abbey, funded by the Society of Antiquaries of London and the Somerset Archaeological and Natural History Society. There were eight different directors, some of whom searched for the grave of Arthur and even the mythical Holy Grail; others uncovered important evidence for the Anglo-Saxon and medieval monastic buildings and material culture.

Isometric annotated sketch of Saxon church excavations, ‘drawn on the spot’ and signed ‘Theodore Fyfe’ (March 1927). (Image: Glastonbury Abbey).
Isometric annotated sketch of Saxon church excavations, ‘drawn on the spot’ and signed ‘Theodore Fyfe’ (March 1927). (Image: Glastonbury Abbey).

Despite their various agendas, all the excavators of Glastonbury Abbey had one thing in common – they failed to analyse and publish the results of their excavations. For the last decade, I have led the Glastonbury Abbey Archaeological Archive Project, which is dedicated to analysing and publishing the archive of all 36 excavation seasons. This is a collaboration between Glastonbury Abbey and the University of Reading, funded principally by the Arts & Humanities Research Council. It has drawn on the expertise of a large team of more than 30 archaeologists from across the UK and yielded a wealth of new evidence that is now available in a monograph published by the Society of Antiquaries of London, with the full data and archive reports freely accessible through the Archaeology Data Service.

Abbey archaeologists
The archaeological excavations began in the early 20th century, around the same time that Glastonbury emerged as a beacon for spiritual, creative, and occult movements in England. The first director of excavations is also regarded as a founding figure of the town’s New Age community: Frederick Bligh Bond (1864-1945) was an ecclesiastical architect who undertook excavations at Glastonbury Abbey from 1908 to 1921. His credibility was questioned after he revealed his commitment to spiritualism – a belief that the spirits of the dead can communicate with the living.

In a book published in 1918, Bond revealed that his excavations at the abbey had been an extended experiment in psychical research: The Gate of Remembrance: The Story of the Psychological Experiment which resulted in the Discovery of the Edgar Chapel at Glastonbury. Automatic writing suggested to Bond that the Edgar Chapel that was built at the east end of the great church c.1500 had an apsed termination, but this feature was not confirmed by his excavations. Despite the absence of archaeological evidence, Bond showed an apsed chapel on his published plans of the Edgar Chapel and reconstructed it in the layout of the ruins on site. His use of spiritualism as an archaeological method at Glastonbury became a national controversy. The Edgar Chapel was even discussed in Parliament, leading to Bond’s dismissal from the abbey.

Rahtz and Radford holding a fragment of an Anglo-Saxon stone cross found at Glastonbury c.1966. (Photo: Historic England)

The archaeologist most closely associated with Glastonbury Abbey is Courtenay Arthur Ralegh Radford (1900-1999), who excavated at the abbey from 1951 to 1964. He was highly respected for his ecclesiastical scholarship and known for his particular focus on Celtic monasticism. Radford was attracted to sites connected with the Arthurian legends of his native West Country, such as Glastonbury, Tintagel, Castle Dore, and Cadbury Castle. He conducted extensive excavations at the abbey and also carried out a search for the grave of Arthur and Guinevere, guided by descriptions in medieval sources. In 1963, he announced to the press (optimistically) that he had discovered the site of Arthur’s grave, allegedly exhumed by the monks in 1191.

Philip Rahtz (1921-2011), the excavator of the early monastic site on Glastonbury Tor, and numerous other sites in and around Glastonbury, was highly sceptical of using archaeology to investigate mythical characters such as Arthur, describing the practice as ‘historically misleading and trivial’. Rahtz was also critical of Radford’s emphasis on ‘Early Christian’ archaeology, arguing that it leads to ‘an undue emphasis on the ideological, specifically Christian, aspects of the period, influencing the choice of sites to be dug and the interpretation of the evidence recorded’. My own interest in Glastonbury was sparked by Philip Rahtz, who was my undergraduate professor at the University of York. Philip sometimes claimed a belief in destiny, and he suggested that it was fate that brought us both to Glastonbury, albeit 50 years apart.

‘Dark Age’ precursor
One of the key research questions surrounding Glastonbury Abbey is the date of the earliest settlement on the site. The monks of Glastonbury claimed that their ‘old church’ was the oldest in the land. In 1130, the renowned historian William of Malmesbury described an ancient ‘brushwood’ church at Glastonbury. He suggested that it had been founded by missionaries in AD 166, or possibly even earlier, perhaps dating back to the time of Christ’s apostles. Recent study of Glastonbury’s Anglo-Saxon charters by Susan Kelly, a freelance historian, suggests that the earliest monastic foundation was in the last decades of the 7th century. The medieval monks, though, believed they had descended from an earlier Celtic community. This view was shared by Radford, even though his own excavations recorded nothing earlier than the 8th century.

Archive photograph of open-plan excavations in the 1920s revealing remains of the Anglo-Saxon churches, looking west. (Photo: Glastonbury Abbey)
Archive photograph of open-plan excavations in the 1920s revealing remains of the Anglo-Saxon churches, looking west. (Photo: Glastonbury Abbey)

Reassessment of the archive and associated finds has revealed new evidence for earlier occupation on the site of Glastonbury Abbey. Among the most exciting discoveries was a small assemblage of Late Roman Amphora (LRA1; previously known as Bii ware). These sherds of pottery indicate the presence of amphorae imported from the eastern Mediterranean that would have contained wine and oil. The date range of LRA1 elsewhere in the southwest of Britain has been confirmed by radiocarbon dates as around AD 450–550. Fourteen sherds of LRA1 from Glastonbury were associated with a roughly trodden floor and post-pits connected with timber structures located within the bounds of an early cemetery. The condition of the sherds suggests that the floor represents an undisturbed post-Roman context, possibly associated with one or more timber halls. A radiocarbon date from a post-pit suggests a destruction date in the 8th or 9th centuries, indicating that the hall may have been in use for several centuries.

This important new evidence confirms that there was high-status occupation at Glastonbury in the 5th or 6th centuries, long before the first monastic foundation was documented. This refutes the prevailing view that Glastonbury Abbey was a secondary development to the monasteries on Glastonbury Tor and at nearby Beckery, where Philip Rahtz excavated early graves and sherds of LRA1. The new evidence emerging from Glastonbury fits with the latest research at other early monasteries: for example, recent excavations by the University of Reading at the royal monastery of Lyminge in Kent revealed that a high-status hall complex was the precursor to the Anglo-Saxon monastery (CA 284).

This is an extract from a feature published in CA 320. Click here to subscribe

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