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Archaeological ​Findings at Bath Abbey: Standing on Top of History

Bath Abbey is a place where history always has one on you; it is an archaeological paradise, and the crib of recent discoveries that add yet another layer of depth to the great history of this city. A Heritage Lottery Fund project aimed to repair the Abbey’s collapsing floor and install a naturally-propelled, hot-spring powered heating system, whilst also improving its use and environmental impact. This project led a team of archaeologists to unusual and exciting discoveries.

Everybody knows everything about little cities. The history, the legends, the famous people that once walked the streets we walk today. Bath, in that respect, seems to be a little, obscure gem that nobody could ever claim to know everything about. Behind the UNESCO heritage banner and the peaceful Georgian architecture in the city centre, Bath holds multiple histories, with so much to discover that Dan Brown could easily write a book about it. Bath is a place that has been driven forward by the astonishment of those that had the chance to live into it (bar Jane Austen, who hated it with all of her heart).

It was the presence of the spring waters that drove first Druid communities, then the Romans, to establish themselves in the land. It was the discovery of the Roman complex that drove the Georgians to build the vibrant cultural centre in the 18th century. The Saxon cathedral that used to exist there was three times the size of the current Abbey. Bath was of such importance that the first King of Britons, Edgar, was crowned there by the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Of particular interest among the recent findings were Saxon charcoal burials, thought to date from the 8th or 9th century. Charcoal burials, rare burial rites, entail putting the body, or the coffin, on, under, or inside a layer of charcoal. Kirsten Egging Dinwiddy, an Osteoarchaeologist at Wessex Archeology, tells us that “during this period, cleanliness of the body and the spirit had religious concerns: charcoal might well have been chosen for its absorptive powers. Charcoal, like ash, was also symbolic of purity and penitence, in these instances perhaps relating to the mourners as much as the deceased”.

The history of the Abbey is already filled with many facts, and much drama. The very facade of today’s Abbey, envisaged by Bishop Oliver King, is inspired by a dream he had, in which he saw angels climbing up ladders towards heaven. If you look closely, you will be able to see a couple of angels climbing downwards: that caused a lot of trouble for Bishop King, as the angel facing down was a representation of the devil. The findings by the archeological team add yet another layer to its tumultuous and quirky history.

The excavations showed a Medieval tiled floor dating to the 1320s, when a reparation of the Abbey was ordered, with the vibrant colours still intact. Cai Mason, Senior Project Officer, called the discovery “a once-in-a-lifetime find”.

An angel head was also recovered, dating from the late-15th or the 16th century. Mason explained that the style of the head resembled Renaissance Italian naturalism, rarely found in this area. It has been theorised the craftsman might have been a sculptor from mainland Europe. Just think: tens thousands of today’s worshippers have walked on such precious heritage for centuries.

Next time you’re walking around Bath, look at your feet. Who knows what you might be standing on. Chances are, you’re standing on top of history.

Francesco Masala

Francesco Masala is a final year Politics and International Relations Student. He is the Bath Time Web Editor. He can be contacted at su-bathtime-online@bath.ac.uk

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