Blythburgh Priory, Blythburgh, Suffolk
Blythburgh Priory, Blythburgh, Suffolk
2008 - Time Team

Whilst we had already commenced our relationship-building in 2006 with English Heritage and had carried out some gently, gently stripping back of the undergrowth, ivy and brambles it was not going to be until early 2010 until partially grant funded work started at the ruins.

However, in the meantime, a chance meeting and visit to the site by a friend of a friend, Laurence Vulliamy, TV producer and director, prompted interest from the TV programme ‘Time Team’. Whilst probably not English Heritage’s first choice of archaeological sortie to the site, it provided an opportunity for ‘free’ archaeology and my relationship was sufficiently comfortable with EH, they consented to the filming and reluctantly got involved with the prospect of filming a ‘3 day dig’. To be fair, in hindsight, I can understand the concerns of EH as 3 days is a very short amount of time in terms of archaeology and what can be achieved, but that is the format of the programme and their charge is to make a TV programme.

The site had never before been the subject of a systematic archaeological dig but some important finds had been made. Before 1902 a leaf from an eighth-century writing tablet was discovered; it is now in the British Museum. In the 1970s the discovery of medieval floor tiles displaying arms borne by the Ufford family from the thirteenth century was reported.

The Programme, Series 16, Episode 13 is entitled ‘Skeletons in the Shed’, which rather continues with the skeleton theme which is probably an inevitability when living on and around an extensive religious site and burial ground.

‘Time Team’ are, of course, a mix of skilled archaeologists and specialists in various fields and are duty bound to produce a full report of their findings, which was completed and posted on the Archaeology Data Service website - see Wessex Archaeology Report Ref. 68742 Sept. 2009.

According to good old Wikipedia ‘archaeology’ is the study of human activity in the past, primarily through the recovery and analysis of the material culture and environmental data that they have left behind, which includes artefacts, architecture, biofacts (also known as eco-facts) and cultural landscapes (the archaeological record)

But of course, it is much more complex than this and one of primary things I have learned about archaeology is the value of patience within archaeology. Of, course, we want to know everything, but sometimes that is not possible for many reasons, so leave it and come back to it when you can, and if that is a hundred years or so, providing the archaeology is still intact it simply doesn’t matter. Technology might have moved on to make assessment easier and ‘holding the line’ for future generations is, of course, very much of what English Heritage is all about.

Time Team findings

It must be said ‘Time Team’ were very unlucky during their dig and missed a key piece of evidence by 200mm; not their fault, but the trench had been marked and the trench was dug and had that trench been 200mm to the south, it is very likely the course of the dig and the programme would have changed. It would also be fair to say an incorrectly examined trench would have conclusively confirmed the location of the north cloister, rather than allowing this to be concluded by looking at similar Priory layouts.

The plan of the Priory church remained elusive of facts, and the bones of King Anna, whilst possible at the site 1300 years ago were nowhere to be found [not surprisingly]. In general terms the ‘Time Team’ shoot was a success, although it did leave us with more questions than answers, it certainly did start the ball rolling.

Amongst the most important discoveries of the ‘Time Team’ dig were two burials, which pre-dated the Priory complex. These were radiocarbon dated to AD 670-780 and AD 890-1020 respectively. The two early graves had been disturbed by the construction of the nave of the priory church, probably in the 11th or 12th century, and by the extension to the single-celled church by the addition of a crossing-tower and extended chancel. This added more evidence of the existence of a religious site predating the Priory of the Blessed Virgin Mary, established at Blythburgh by the Black or Austin Canons in or around 1125 and a deeper history reaching back to the time of King Anna.

What it also did though was to put Blythburgh Priory as a real monument back on the map; it caused much local interest, especially on the ‘Time Team’ open afternoon on Day 3. This interest and speculation still continues.

Once the dust had settled from the ‘Time Team’ dig, it was very much down to the serious business of developing a strategy for the ruins.