Following the archaeological excavation undertaken by Canterbury Archaeological Trust[1]  in advance of the new Visitor’s Centre between July 2016 and February 2017, work on the findings is now taking place.

One of the major discoveries of the excavation was the tomb of Abbot John Wheathampstead (c 1390-1465), whose well-preserved skeleton was accompanied by three lead papal bullae. John was Abbot of St Albans twice, from 1420-1440 and then again from 1451 until his death in 1465.

The bones of the abbot, so carefully recorded and removed during the excavation, are presently being studied by Dr Emma Pomeroy at John Moores University, Liverpool.[2]

Plate 1 - Osteological analysis of JW
Osteological analysis of John of Wheathampstead

Her work has demonstrated that the skeleton is that of an aged male, and she has detected ossification of cartilage particularly apparent around the ribs and tendons. The abbot had lost many of his teeth during life, perhaps not unusual for an individual of such advanced years. We hope that a digital reconstruction of the Abbot’s face will be possible, but this awaits further analysis.

Historic documents, previously examined by Prof. James Clark of The University of Exeter[3], indicates that the bullae which accompanied his body were granted to St Albans Abbey by Pope Martin V in 1423, at the Council of Siena-Pavia.  The documents suggest that these may be replicas, commissioned at the same time by Abbot John himself for personal use. This may explain why the bullae accompanied him to the grave, instead of remaining in the Abbey archives with the documents to which they were attached. Further study of associated documents later in the project may be able to tell us more about the history of these artefacts.

As excavated, the bullae were covered with soil and corrosion, but the objects have now been carefully cleaned and stabilised by conservator Dana Goodburn-Brown.

The cleaning process has revealed the inscription Martinus V (Martin V) PP Pastor Pastorum – ‘Shepherd of Shepherds’.

Plate 5 - Cleaned bullae 1.jpg
Cleaned bullae

On the reverse are the letters SPESPA, an abbreviation of Sanctus Petrus (St Peter) and Sanctus Paulus (St Paul).  The head of St Peter (left) and of St Paul (right) can now be clearly seen facing each other on the bullae.

Plate 6 - Cleaned bullae 2.jpg
Cleaned bullae

Further information on the archaeological investigations will be posted as post-excavation work progresses.

[1] http://www.canterburytrust.co.uk/

[2] https://www.ljmu.ac.uk/about-us/faculties/faculty-of-science/school-of-natural-sciences-and-psychology

[3] https://humanities.exeter.ac.uk/history/

With thanks to James Holman, Project Manager, and the team at Canterbury Archaeological Trust.

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