Making History

by Gerry Lynch last modified 12 Sep, 2016 11:58 AM

Significant Saxon archaeological find at West Wilts church

Making History

The dig in progress. Photo credit: Wessex Archaeology.

A historic West Wiltshire church has discovered evidence of Christian burial going back as much as 1200 years.

Archaeologists have uncovered more than 70 skeletons at the site, with the oldest from at least the 9th Century and possibly as early as 770.

It has long been known the site of Holy Trinity in Bradford on Avon has been a place of Christian worship since ancient times. The church dates from the 13th Century, and sits next to St Laurence’s, now managed by an ecumenical trust, which is one of the few Saxon churches to survived largely intact to the present anywhere in England. The great Norman historian, William of Malmesbury, recorded that St Aldhelm founded a church on the site in 705.

The discovery was made by Wessex Archaeology during a four-year, £2 million, project to make the church a community-friendly space, securing its place at the heart of life in the town for generations to come. Works are so extensive that, for most of 2016, the church has been worshipping at the neighbouring parish of Christ Church.

During the archaeological investigation of the site, some very old remains were found among more recent burials. Project manager for Wessex Archaeology, Bruce Eaton, was reported in the Wiltshire Times as saying, “Our team instantly knew that this individual pre-dated Holy Trinity and must be associated with an earlier church building on this site.

“The question was how much earlier the burial was? Might this be evidence for the site of Aldhelm’s minster church, around which the town developed?”

The early remains include men, women and children and were well-nourished, and fit and healthy. The find is of such significance that Historic England has authorised a grant allowing work to continue as the archaeology budget of the building project has already been exhausted.

After being analysed, the remains will be given a proper Christian reburial, and the Revd Joanna Abecassis, Rector of Holy Trinity, is exploring the appropriate liturgical context with Salisbury Cathedral.

Joanna said, “Wessex Archaeology has identified finds of regional significance, providing evidence for a likely late 7th-9th Century minster church on the site of the present 12th century Holy Trinity. These represent some of the earliest Christian burials in Wiltshire, placing Bradford on Avon at the forefront of the spread of Christianity in Wessex.

“It’s very humbling to think that we are now responsible for worship in this place, where Christians have worshipped in many different ways since, possibly, the 8th Century. That’s closer to the time that Christ walked the earth than it is to our time.

“It’s also a privilege to be present here, and seeing these human remains makes that history seem all the more real, and easier to imagine what life must have been like. It’s also special that the town seems to have started in what’s now our churchyward.”

Professor David Hinton of Southampton University, who has carried out extensive studies of the Saxon Church, has written, “The ‘minster’ complex is one of the most important in our region, but archaeological evidence from before the acquisition of the estate by Shaftesbury Abbey in 1001 has until now been limited to the survival of the later seventh-/eighth-century carving now in the chapel [of St Laurence], but found in Holy Trinity. The discovery of largely undisturbed early burials is therefore more significant than could reasonably have been anticipated, and more information about them and their dates is needed to substantiate the provisional results.”

Bottom photo: volunteers from the ocal community and Bradford on Avon Museum helping to record the findings.

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