Anglo-Saxon buildings beneath Bath Abbey

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Two buildings found during excavations at Bath Abbey are the first Anglo-Saxon stone structures to be identified within the city, and may belong to the monastery where Edgar was crowned as first King of England, new analysis suggests.

Stone apse with scale
One of the stone apses discovered during excavations at Bath Abbey, dated to the late Saxon period. [Image: Wessex Archaeology]

The apsidal (semi-circular) structures were uncovered by Wessex Archaeology to the south of the current Abbey church, below street level, during archaeological work undertaken as part of Bath Abbey’s Footprint project (see CA 348). It has long been known that there was once an Anglo-Saxon monastery in this area, but no remains exist above ground today; these structures may represent some of the first real evidence to come to light.

Radiocarbon dating was carried out on two samples of internal plaster render from the southern structure, which contained fragments of charcoal. They demonstrate that the plaster must have been applied between AD 780 and 970, offering several possible contexts for the buildings’ construction. The earlier end of this date range coincides with the reign of Offa of Mercia, who acquired the monastery in 781 and is credited with building the famous Church of St Peter and carrying out extensive building works on the site, to such a degree that his successor, Ecgfrith, is reported to have had the infrastructure in place to hold court at the monastery in 796.

However, this is not the only option, as Alfred (‘the Great’) of Wessex may have commissioned improvements to the monastery after he annexed Bath from Mercia in 878. Alternatively, his successors Æthelstan and Edmund could also have carried out construction work prior to Edgar’s coronation in 973. It is likely that the two buildings represent different phases of construction.

The structures were found below the location where the cloisters of the 12th-century cathedral would have stood, and overlying Romano-British deposits, supporting the radiocarbon dates. In a post-Roman context like this it is most common to find such apsidal structures at the east end of an ecclesiastical building like a church or chapel. Furthermore, the late Saxon stonework found at the Abbey and the presence of late Saxon burials in the area near the stone structures reinforce the likelihood that they were indeed part of Bath’s lost Anglo-Saxon monastery.

This news article appears in issue 361 of Current Archaeology. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.

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