WAHS DIG REPORT
Excavations in Abbey Mead, Waltham Abbey, July 2008.
By Peter Huggins.
The monastic infirmary, where the aged and infirm
Augustinian canons ended their days, was a timber-framed building
(marked A on the plan) lying north-south in Abbey Mead. It was first
excavated in 1972 by Tony Musty for the Department of the Environment; more was
learnt in 2003, and the identification was made, when the Society carried out
salvage recording during the renewal of picnic tables. The building was
predicted to be of five main bays, with slightly shorter end bays. The aisles
and part of the nave were known to be divided up into little rooms, each with a
place for a bed and a fireplace; at least 20 canons could have been so
In 1978 excavations were carried out just to the
south; these were by Patricia Wilkinson and Pamela Greenwood, both of Passmore
Edwards Museum, Stratford. The excavators discovered an apsidal-ended building,
which they rightly interpreted as part of a chapel (marked B).
To us, today, what they found, is likely to be the central vessel of the
infirmary chapel dedicated to God, the Virgin Mary, and the most blessed martyr
and bishop Thomas Becket; this dedication was by the bishop of Hereford in 1188.
To the excavators it had to pre-date the earliest church they then knew; this
must have been the present Norman building, so the chapel was given a Saxo-Norman
date. In discussion with Dr Coppack, another line of ephemeral foundations are
now interpreted as representing a southern aisle to the central vessel, also
probably with an apsidal east end.
Since the 1978 excavations were never written up, it
has fallen to the Society to try to undertake this. There were no section
drawings of the earlier work, so that much of the stratigraphy of the 278
features recorded, is now uncertain. Some 94 of these features were given the
Saxo-Norman date, including deposits of iron slag, which were said to represent
iron working on site. It is now known that much of the site was a wet land,
probably until the Cornmill Stream was built at the beginning of the Augustinian
period, which began in 1177, and the land was reclaimed. The iron working debris
was clearly deposited as waste material from the monastic forge, some 150 m to
the east, to help build up the ground level; it clearly did not represent iron
working on site.
Only the main features of the 1978 work can now be
understood. There is the central vessel of the chapel, and there is the supposed
narrower south aisle. There were two domestic buildings with a back yard wall
actually meeting the projecting central apse. This suggests that they were
successive houses of the canon in charge, the infimarian. He would then have had
a private door from his house into the chapel.
Another prominent feature is a roadway or track
running from the south east to the north west across the site; this should be
for bringing in materials from the pound lock known to exist at the corner of
the Cornmill Stream, perhaps for building the Abbey House, where the Denny family
came to live, or for taking materials away after the Dissolution of 1540, or
after the end of the Abbey House c.1770. Part of this
roadway has now been seen and identified with the drawing made in 1978.
From parallels with other monasteries, the infirmary
and its chapel should meet. In the case of Waltham, if the infirmary was one bay
longer to the south, and if there was a northern aisle to the chapel, such could
have been the case. So excavations were planned to check these points. Scheduled
Monument Consent was granted, and work began on 12 July, 2008, at the beginning
of National Archaeology Week. Work continued for the week and at other days
until 30 July; the weather was so hot and the deposits so compacted, that it was
then decided to continue in September.
So far the expectations expressed above have not
been substantiated. The south wall of the infirmary proper seems to have been in
the previously predicted place. Also the supposed northern aisle, to mirror the
postulated southern one has not been found. Rather there is a much wider
'northern element' to the chapel, even wider than the central vessel. Also,
joining the end of the infirmary and this 'northern element', there seems to be
what might be called an extension or a 'connecting compartment'
between the infirmary and the chapel.
The south-east corner of the infirmary had been
re-constructed following fire. The original ground wall of mortared stone and
chalk had been re-built in the characteristic Waltham Great Bricks, as seen in
many places in the standing walls in the Abbey Gardens.
So quite a lot remains to be done. The west end of
the chapel needs to be found. The form of the east end of the new 'northern
element' of the chapel needs to be determined. The purpose of the roadway
remains to be established. It is hoped that the work can be continued
in September, 2008.
Dig Review & photos
The Abbey Gardens
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