Roberta Gilchrist

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We are publishing an open letter in response to a Guardian Comment is Free blog by Simon Jenkins (former Chairman of The National Trust and Editor of The Times) – which critiques the research project Professor Roberta Gilchrist has been leading at Glastonbury Abbey, in Somerset.

Roberta has had widespread national press and broadcast coverage this week for the work – including The Guardian, The Times, The Independent, Daily Mail Online, Daily Telegraph Online, BBC News Online, BBC Radio 4, BBC 5Live – as well as international interest and regional and local outlets.

The project reassesses and reinterprets unpublished records from excavations at the Abbey between 1904 and 1979, which show that the site’s best known archaeological ‘facts’ are themselves myths – many of these perpetuated by excavators influenced by legends that the Abbey was the reputed burial place of the legendary King Arthur and earliest Church in Britain, thought to have been founded by Joseph of Arimathea.

The project, conducted with partners Trustees of Glastonbury Abbey and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, involved a team of 31 specialists.

 

“Dear Simon

We are responding to your opinion piece yesterday, which mentioned the four-year project on the archaeology of Glastonbury Abbey.

The news headlines this week have focused on how the monks spun the Glastonbury legends, something that historians have understood for many decades, but has clearly come as news to journalists.  The research project was actually focused on the archaeological excavations that have taken place at Glastonbury.  It challenged some of the archaeological ‘myths’ spun by 20th-century excavators, as the full story on our website highlights.

We understand that you used the research to make a broader point about religious ‘mythmaking’ in the Middle Ages right up to modern-day extremist beliefs; however, the tone in relation to the project was disappointing.

The research was a detailed, comprehensive analysis, assessment and interpretation of all known archaeological records from 36 separate excavations at the Abbey between 1904 and 1979, none of which have ever been published. We brought modern scientific approaches to bear on antiquarian excavations.  We revealed important new evidence – including ‘Dark Age’ occupation, Saxon churches and glass-working and the extensive rebuilding of the abbey in the middle ages.  Highlights can be found on the project website.

The work is part of a 10-year partnership between Glastonbury Abbey and the University of Reading, involving colleagues from numerous universities, museums and archaeological units.   We are continuing to work together to bring our new findings to visitors to Glastonbury Abbey and to enrich their experience through digital reconstructions, a new guidebook and education packs.

We are happy to send you a copy of the 500 page monograph, which was published last month.

We would also be delighted to host you at the Abbey itself. Given your former role as Chair of The National Trust, we have a shared interest in understanding and enhancing the nation’s heritage.

 

Professor Roberta Gilchrist FBA, University of Reading

Janet Bell, Director of Glastonbury Abbey”

 

 

 

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Congratulations to Professor Roberta Gilchrist on the publication of her new book, Glastonbury Abbey Archaeological Excavations 1904 – 1979!

 

Glasto cover 2a

This volume, co-authored with Dr Cheryl Green (an alumni of our department 1992-95), reports on the results of the Glastonbury Abbey Archaeological Archive Project, a collaboration between the University of Reading and the Trustees of Glastonbury Abbey. The project has reassessed and reinterpreted all known archaeological records from the 1908–79 excavations and made the complete dataset available to the public through a digital archive hosted by the Archaeology Data Service.

The scope of the project has included the full analysis of the archaeological collections of Glastonbury Abbey by thirty-one leading specialists, including chemical and compositional analysis of glass and metal and petrological analysis of pottery and tile, 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 Project was to set aside previous assumptions based on the historical 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.

Reassessment of the archive of excavations has identified a number of new questions for future research. The presence of LRA1 pottery confirms occupation at Glastonbury in the fifth or sixth century, but there is no evidence yet to suggest whether this was a religious community or a high status secular settlement engaged in long-distance trade.  The relationship of the monastery to earlier settlement patterns deserves further consideration; for example, it is possible that the monastic vallum incorporates a defensive bank and ditch pre-dating the monastery. A striking feature of the finds assemblage is the lack of evidence for metal objects dating to the Middle and Late Saxon periods.  The paucity of evidence dating from the seventh to the ninth centuries prompts the question of whether the early monastic core has actually been located.  It is feasible that the main domestic buildings of the Middle Saxon monastery were situated to the north of the church, in an area yet to be examined.  Fresh excavations will be required to fully understand the character, form and dating of the Ango-Saxon monastery at Glastonbury.

 

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Fig 3_6Glastonbury Abbey is world-renowned, an ancient location tied to British myth and legend. The site of various archaeological investigations for 75 years, the Abbey’s prominent reputation and long history have served to maintain the public’s fascination for years. A new book from Professor Roberta Gilchrist and Dr Cheryl Green gathers all the archaeological evidence over the past century and reinterprets it to discover the truth behind the mythology, including the suggestions of a deliberate strategy of antiquated architectural choices, challenging the discovery of King Arthur’s grave, and finding evidence of occupation of the site long before the earliest Christian settlements.

 

Glastonbury Abbey was renowned in the middle ages as the reputed burial place of the legendary King Arthur and  is the site of the earliest Church in Britain thought to have been founded by Joseph of Arimathea. The aim of these legends was to establish Glastonbury as the pre-eminent monastery in England and attract thousands of pilgrims and wealth to the abbey. This strategy proved successful; Glastonbury became a major pilgrimage centre and was the second richest monastery in England at the Dissolution.

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The Abbey has undergone no less than 36 seasons of excavation from 1904 to 1979 under 8 different directors. The most significant excavations were carried out by Dr Courtenay Arthur Ralegh Radford in the 1950’s and 1960’s; he was interested in finding evidence for Arimathea’s early church and also claimed to have found the shared grave of Arthur and Guinevere. Glastonbury’s central importance to archaeological scholarship stems from the interim report published by Radford in 1981. Due to his findings, Glastonbury has become a ‘type’ site against which the evidence of all early monasteries is appraised. However, none of the results of these important excavations have been published in their entirety. That is, however, until now!

 

A new 500- page, colour monograph, Glastonbury Abbey: archaeological investigations 1904-79, co-authored by Prof. Roberta Gilchrist and Dr. Cheryl Green and published by the Society of Antiquaries, lays out the results of the re-examination of the antiquarian excavation archive and the archaeological collections. The monograph harnesses modern scientific methods, such as radiocarbon dating, chemical analysis of glass and digital analysis of plans, to bring the archaeology of this important medieval monastic site into the public domain. The complete dataset is also available to the public through a digital archive hosted by the Archaeology Data Service.

Blue lias carving fragments

Blue lias carving fragments

The main aim of the monograph was to set aside previous assumptions based on the myths and legends and to provide a rigorous reassessment of the excavation archive. Research revealed that some of the best known archaeological ‘facts’ about Glastonbury are themselves myths perpetuated by the abbey’s excavators.

The key findings were:

  • Evidence was discovered for prehistoric and Roman occupation pre-dating the earliest Christian settlement at Glastonbury.
  • New evidence for occupation on the site of the Abbey in the 5th to 6th centuries, pre-dating the earliest documented Saxon monastery at Glastonbury.
  • Excavations in the 1920s revealed three phases of a Saxon stone church with detached burial crypt to the east.
  • An excavated complex of five glass furnaces represents amongst the earliest and most substantial evidence for glass-working in Saxon England. It was radiocarbon dated to the late seventh or early eighth centuries, refuting Radford’s earlier conclusions that it dated to the tenth century.
  • Several details of Radford’s interpretation of the early monastery are challenged, including the existence of a pre-Christian ‘British’ cemetery and the discovery of Arthur’s grave.
  • Re-examination of the records has confirmed evidence for the Norman and later medieval monastic ranges and revealed the sequence for the replacement of the Saxon and Norman buildings.
  • Evidence for the Dissolution includes iconoclasm targeted on sculpted images, salvage activities and possible evidence associated with a short-lived community of Protestant refugees, who occupied the site of the former abbey in 1552
  • The monastic character of the medieval finds assemblage is evidenced especially in objects linked with music and literacy, such as bone tuning pegs, book binding tools and styli, and the large number of items for personal devotion that were owned by monks or secular guests and pilgrims.
  • The chemical analysis of clay used to make 7000 ceramic tiles showed that the majority were made at kilns close to Glastonbury.
  • The assemblage of over 2000 fragments of medieval stained glass includes durable blue glass. It is likely to date from the twelfth century and confirms that Glastonbury’s early glazing schemes were of the highest quality.
  • Study of the worked-stone assemblage reveals the lavish cloister constructed by Abbot Henry of Blois, c 1150: the fifty-one fragments of blue lias carving are amongst the finest examples of Romanesque sculpture produced in England.
  • There are many conservative or retrospective elements evident in the architecture of Glastonbury Abbey; this tendency seems to have been deliberate and strategic, aimed at demonstrating the antiquity of Glastonbury and its pre-eminent place in monastic history.

The Project Continues…

The results of the archive project will reach new audiences through a follow-on project funded by the AHRC (1 Oct 2015- 30 Sept 2016). Roberta Gilchrist and Dr. Rhi Smith will work with the Trustees of Glastonbury Abbey to implement a reinterpretation strategy aimed at visitors to the Abbey, the local community of Glastonbury and the wider public. Partnership between the University of Reading and the Trustees of Glastonbury Abbey will enable the charity to improve the quality of site interpretation and education offered to visitors. Interpretation of the ruins and museum collections will be informed by new academic research and presented in more creative and accessible formats including digital reconstructions and an interactive map developed with the Centre for Christianity and Culture, University of York. It will also explore the local legends of King Arthur and Joseph of Arimathea, as well as improve understanding of spatial layout, chronological development and archaeological evidence.

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Tune in to BBC Radio 3 tonight at 10:45pm to hear Professor Roberta Gilchrist feature as part of ‘The Essay: The Fall and Rise of the British Castle’ series.

Roberta will explore how women played a significant role in the history of British castles alongside the men who inhabited these spaces. Very often the visitor to a medieval castle in Britain is confronted with a mass of information and interpretation about the military activities of the men who inhabited these spaces, but very little about the women. Roberta argues that traditional interpretations of castles ignore the gendered spaces – the gardens, the apartments, the kitchens where female servants cooked, or indeed the adjoining parklands where aristocratic women occasionally hunted.

More details on the programme here: http://bbc.in/1uxmBkyRobertaGilchrist_3283-e (1)

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Professor Roberta Gilchrist has published a new article on ‘Monastic and Church Archaeology’, commissioned for Annual Review of Anthropology Vol. 43: 235-250.
“This article calls for a more holistic approach to the archaeology of medieval Christian belief, one which moves beyond the focus on institutions and monuments that has characterized monastic and church archaeology and extends archaeological study to include the performative rituals of Christian life and death in the Middle Ages.”
Click here to read the article.

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A film launched today by the AHRC features research on Glastonbury Abbey led by Professor Roberta Gilchrist of the University of Reading and funded by the AHRC.  The research has re-evaluated the archaeology of Glastonbury Abbey and disentangled the rich but not always accurate myth from historical reality. Among the findings are: fresh evidence to confirm that the abbey site was indeed occupied in the 5th or 6th century, before the foundation of the Saxon monastery; identification of an early timber building with large post pits associated with fragments of imported Roman amphorae, dated c AD 450-550, and often associated with very high status secular (ie royal) settlement; analysis of glass and metal fragments suggesting that the glass-working furnaces at Glastonbury represent the earliest evidence for significant glass production in Saxon England; and a great deal more.

The project has worked closely with local groups and the general public and outreach activities have been crucial to its work and its findings.

This film examines the new evidence unearthed by the project and how researchers have worked with the Abbey Museum, conservators and the public to explore the history of this rich and extraordinary site. To watch the film please click here.