On 4th October, Cathedral Guide Laura Bloom talked to Ross Lane, one of the Archaeologists working on the dig taking place outside the Cathedral.
The dig the archaeologists are currently undertaking, is exploring the foundations of the new Welcome Centre, being built as part of St Albans Cathedral’s Alban, Britain’s First Saint Project.
Ross has worked for the Canterbury Archaeological Trust for over 10 years, having studied Archaeology at the University of Southampton and later moved back to Canterbury, where he grew up. He has worked with the trust on various projects, from medieval urban centres to rural landscapes.
LB How has this dig been different from some of the other locations you have worked at?
RL This dig is unique because we’re doing a very concentrated graveyard. There are 100 or more skeletons to reveal, dig carefully around and remove. I haven’t worked with that concentration of skeletons before.
LB Can you describe a typical day here on this site?
RL We arrive and start working at 8am. Immediately, we find new burials and dig backfill (excavated earth put to one side, which is later used to refill the excavation) to reveal the coffins and skeletons within. This requires digging with hand tools, spades and trowels. We then record the finds using photography. Everything we dig up is given a unique number and a record to go with it before it is finally lifted out of the ground. Soon, we hope to reach the layers associated with medieval St Albans Cathedral and to find other artefacts.
LB How many archaeologists are on site working?
RL There are currently three, but for the majority of the project there are six professional archaeologists working alongside Thomas Sinden, the principle contractor.
LB When we spoke to Professor Martin Biddle back in December, he told us a lot about the burials and the parish cemetery that were on the site. Can you tell us a bit about what else you’ve discovered, other than the burials?
RL The burials themselves are actually a very interesting assemblage. We’ve already noticed that the skeletons, which date from 1750-1850, display a lot of pathology, so you can see the various diseases that affect the bones and are present in this population. The age of the population is varied – from infants to more elderly people. That holds a lot of data for us, so further study will be important. We haven’t found many artefacts to go with them, as it is a Christian cemetery, but the skeletons are buried in coffins, some of which are very ornate. We have one coffin in particular which has two plates on top. They’re degraded but one of them depicts the legs of what we think is Christ on the cross. Further down the body we also found a plate which would have displayed the name of the individual and when they died. Unfortunately, that had degraded as well.
LB Are those things you would expect to find on a site like this?
RL Yes. There are lots of examples of Victorian and slightly earlier coffins that have been uncovered across England, so the dig in St Albans adds to that quite nicely. We’ve also found artefacts associated with the grave diggers themselves, for example, a really lovely decorated clay pipe, quite intact, and some coins.
LB What do you do with those artefacts when you find them?
RL We catalogue and record all the objects that we find and send them back to the office for specialist assessment. Many of the objects we find can be dated stylistically and we hope to have a full assemblage dating back to at least the Norman period when the Church of St Alban was first constructed.
We’ve been using some of the more interesting artefacts as educational objects during visits from several local schools. We have been able to show the pupils some of these artefacts and tell them the stories of the gravediggers and the people they were burying. We hope that other artefacts will come to light and, as we go past the burials into the medieval layers, we hope to find more pottery and coins associated with those people.
LB What are the differences between the dig you’re doing now, and the one you did in the same place in December?
RL We’ve opened up the entire site now and it’s great to see it all in context. Some of the graves are cutting through earlier material so we have been able to identify the foundations of a large, thirteenth century structure that was built against the Transept and Presbytery walls. We think the structure was probably part of the Abbot’s Quarter and may have contained chapels entered from the Presbytery and a Sacristy and Treasury entered from the Transept. We’ve also got glimpses of part of the massive foundations of one of the Norman, apse ended chapels that were originally included within the Abbey Church of St Alban. We are hoping to reveal more in the coming weeks.
LB What do you hope to have achieved or learnt by the end of this dig, about the site itself?
RL As we’re going through, we hope to add to the story of how the Cathedral was conceived, altered and ultimately used during its life to date as it fulfilled its purpose as a place of pilgrimage and worship. We hope to have evidence of some of the earliest Roman graves in order to prove just how extensive the beginning of the Christian cemetery was across the hill top (Holywell Hill). All the artefacts we recover will help bring us closer to the people who made and used them and we hope to have material from the Roman through to the most recent events to have taken place at the Cathedral.
LB Like you said, anything you find is adding to the great story that we have here at the Cathedral so it’s a very exciting time to be in St Albans. Thank you very much for talking to us today.
RL You’re welcome. Thank you.