Medieval Life

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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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I’ve recently returned from Tübingen University in SW Germany: I had an invitation to visit from Professor Jörn Staecker, whom I’d last met when we were both giving lectures in Korkyt Ata Kyzylorda State University in Kazahkstan. Tübingen has a strong commitment to archaeology, with a research centre in medieval archaeology and I was also visiting because Reading has recently established a strategic partnership with the university to develop academic contacts. Last year Tübingen gained a prestigious government grant to run a multi-disciplinary research project on resources, their perception and exploitation. The project has many themes and some deal specifically with the medieval period: they involve the analysis of past landscapes in the area of the south Black Forest and the  impact of resource use and management by monasteries and castles in the area around the Bodensee (Lake Constance), on the border between Germany, Austria and Switzerland.

Tübingen Castle, the home of the university’s archaeology department

Tübingen Castle, the home of the university’s archaeology department

It was only in the 1180s that there was a general intensification of resource use and this could be related to the development of specific identities for both the urban workers and the peasantry which gave both the towns and countryside a different character.

I also had individual meetings with post-doctoral fellows and PhD students researching aspects of medieval landscapes and also workshops with other postgrad students working on the medieval aspects  of the resources project.

I also visited and discussed sites which I had long wanted to see, such as the great Cistercian monastery of Bebenhausen, where I was shown around by Christina Vossler who had written up the recent excavations for her PhD. We also visited the Benedictine monastery of Hirsau, famous for its pioneering  role in the spreading of the Cluniac reform in southern Germany. The monastery was founded in the early eleventh century and parts of that monastic church survive. However, by the end of the same century Hirsau had become such an important pilgrimage centre that a new monastery was built less than a kilometre away, a very unusual development. I was also shown Lichtenstein, the site of a medieval castle (surviving as a set of earthworks and some standing masonry) in a stunning and defensive position overlooking a steep-sided river valley. Close by there is a Gothick castle built in the 1840s by the Dukes of Würtemberg.

Bebenhausen: the abbey church

Bebenhausen: the abbey church

Archaeology (Palaeolithic, late prehistory, classical and medieval) is located in the castle of Tübingen , which probably originated in the eleventh century but was converted into a palace in the seventeenth century. It overlooks the historic town of Tübingen, which has a medieval market and collegiate church at its core and its streets are lined with large timber-framed town houses of the sixteenth century: in all, a remarkable survival of a late medieval town.

The nineteenth-century castle of Lichtenstein

The nineteenth-century castle of Lichtenstein

There will be further exchanges between the departments: Aleks Pluskowski and Alex Brown for example will go to Tübingen in January to talk about the Baltic Crusades project and Jörn Staecker will come to Reading for the first Medieval Social Archaeology Research Group workshop on religious transformations. Future exchanges for postgraduates were discussed as well as combined  undergraduate fieldtrips.

 

 

About today’s blogger

GrenvilleAstil_w Professor Grenville Astill specialises in monasticism, industry, urban and rural settlement in medieval North Western Europe. He leads one of the longest running and most extensive research projects on a medieval monastery at Bordesley Abbey (http://www.reading.ac.uk/bordesley/) alongside a reconsideration of the process of medieval urbanisation. He has also conducted a research project in Brittany which tracks change in the countryside from the later Bronze Age to the 1920s using a combination of archaeological, documentary and building evidence.

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I’ve just attended a conference that marked the end of a two-year project which investigated why the viking-age trading town of Hedeby on the south side of the Schlei fjord (on the boundary between Germany and Denmark) was deserted in favour of a town on the north of the fjord, Schleswig in the eleventh century. The picture shows the abandoned site of Hedeby in the foreground, enclosed by a great semicircular bank, with the medieval and modern town of Schleswig in the background.

The town of Hedeby in the foreground and Schleswig in the background

The town of Hedeby in the foreground and Schleswig in the background

The research was funded by the German Volkswagen Foundation and much effort by the Schleswig-Holstein Landesmuseum went into making the excavations of the waterfronts and quays at Schleswig publicly available and also organised the scientific analysis of the metal and glass finds from both Schleswig and Hedeby.

The entire area of Hedeby is now owned by the Landesmuseum and the staff arranged a new metaldetecting survey of the intramural area in order to gain material from the latest time when the town was occupied. The latest levels had been disturbed by past ploughing and so the extent of eleventh-century occupation had previously been underestimated. A great quantity of metalwork was recovered and  it now possible to say that Hedeby was abandoned after AD1020. Previously it was thought that the town declined in the 980s and that the move to Schleswig was more gradual.

The conference took place in the Landesmuseums’s headquarters in the Schloss Gottorf, a place which started as a moated medieval manor house of a bishop and was then turned into a huge mansion in the late seventeenth century. The space is vast for the display of exhibits (including a separate building for the Nydam boat, found in a nearby bog in the 1830s)

PhD students and staff from the museum and universities presented the impressive results from the project and there were also visiting lecturers who reported on current work on eleventh-century towns in Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Belgium, Germany, Poland, Russia and the UK. I was asked to provide an overview on the state of early medieval town studies in England.

Schloss Gottorf, Schleswig, headquarters of the Schleswig-Holstein Landesmuseum

Schloss Gottorf, Schleswig, headquarters of the Schleswig-Holstein Landesmuseum

The scientific analysis of the finds was particularly interesting and contributed much to our knowledge of trade through northern Europe, as shown for example by the changing sources of raw materials such as silver and lead. In the eleventh century most of the metals came from the Rhenish massif and emphasised the relations of Hedeby with the German kingdom.

While there was some similarities in the metalwork and glass from Hedeby and Schleswig, there were also significant differences: Hedeby’s copper alloys were more tin-rich than Schleswig’s which had more lead; while Hedeby’s glass contained a variety of constituents, that at Schleswig was all lead glass. And while there is much evidence for the casting of bronze at Hedeby, most of that material in Schleswig was in sheet form and must have been beaten into shape. All this has immense importance for our knowledge of medieval technologies, but the anomalies might also be explained by different people producing metalwork in the two places and could help explain why the town moved.

The most interesting ideas for the abandonment of Hedeby focussed on its highly congested and polluted condition, not only in the town itself but also in the harbour which had become choked with wrecks. But it is also possible that the idea of what a town should be like was changing. In the early eleventh century many towns were founded or redeveloped in the region – places such as Ribe, Roskilde (Denmark) and Lund (Sweden) – and of course Schleswig. These were founded by kings and bishops as their centres, and these had a different character and purpose from Hedeby.

I learned a lot from the presentations and the prolonged discussions and disagreements. And I was not the only one to benefit because in the following week I was including this new information in my lectures.

About today’s blogger:

GrenvilleAstil_wProfessor Grenville Astill specialises in monasticism, industry, urban and rural settlement in medieval North Western Europe. He leads one of the longest running and most extensive research projects on a medieval monastery at Bordesley Abbey (http://www.reading.ac.uk/bordesley/) alongside a reconsideration of the process of medieval urbanisation. He has also conducted a research project in Brittany which tracks change in the countryside from the later Bronze Age to the 1920s using a combination of archaeological, documentary and building evidence.

 

 

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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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James Billson, currently studying for his MA in the Archaeology of Medieval Europe, spent time this summer working at the excavations at Montfort. Read on for his report!

“During 2014 I was a part of the excavations conducted at the Teutonic castle of Montfort, in Northern Galilee. Montfort is a Mountain spur castle which takes advantage of the local topography; it is flanked by Nahal Kziv to the north and Khalet Khzam to the south.

This castle was occupied from roughly 1220 to 1271; it saw two Muslim sieges, one in 1266 which it survived, and another in 1271, falling to Baybars. Chronical tell us that this spur castle served as the headquarters for the order in the holy land, occasionally being used as the residence of the Hochmeister (the grand master of the order).

Montfort1

Figure 1: Sole standing wall of the ‘hall’. Note the staircase leading to the doorway, formerly a window which is thought to have been converted by the knights for this use. Also note the central pillar, as an indicator of the scale of this room, for more of an indicator see figure 2.

Previous excavations were conducted at this site in 1877 by Horatio H. Kitchener and in 1926 by Bashford Dean (the curator for the arms and armour department of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York), he was hoping to recover a suit of armour. In 1994 limited excavations were conducted in the hall prior to restoration work commencing; the castle is in a state of ruin, much as it was left by Baybars following its fall.

Montfort2

Figure 2. (See figure 1 description)

Excavation work commenced in 2011 following five years of surveying. I was fortunate enough to get a place on this excavation, which for the 2014 season focused on the area immediately behind the ‘gatehouse’ to the castle, on the slopes of the mountain. This area was thought to have been the stables for the garrisons mounts, and certainly finds including a horseshoe suggest this.

I was a part of this excavation for two weeks during which time I was able to see the transformation of the site from tree stumps and slumping, to the revealing of the paved medieval floor surface, and it being reduced to its original high.

Montfort3

Figure 3: Half removed level, when I arrived.

Montfort4

Figure 4: Nearly fully reduced level, with ashlar blocks, parts of the collapsed archways. (Note: not in original positions, moved during excavations for ease of access).

This was a fantastic opportunity for me to expand my experience within field archaeology; not only that but to increase the variety of experience that I possess, and increasing my adaptability. It is rare to find a site in England where you need to trek across low mountains in high heat! I was also able to apply lessons taught during my time at the Silchester field school with regards to taking levels!

I would like to thank the SAGES bursary for providing me with a bursary for this trip which in many ways made it possible for me to go. I would also like to thank Dr Alexs Pluskowski for putting me in touch with Dr Adrian Boas who ran the excavation (a thank you to him as well!) and finally to all those who took part in the excavation alongside me – without them I doubt it would have been so much fun!”

– James Billson

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Follow the story of William Westoby, a 14 year old apprentice in the city of York, in this brilliant new video!

A cartoon has been made to illustrate the life of a medieval teenager based on the research findings of Dr Mary Lewis’ project “Adolescence, Migration and Health in Medieval England“.

You can view the video on our Youtube channel here.