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Part 1: Setting the scene

Waltham Abbey Historical Society has now concluded the main phase of its archaeological dig at the Abbey Gardens, under the leadership of our member Peter Huggins. We worked from July 12th to 20th, as part of National Archaeology Week. Excavation then continued on odd days until 30th July, but the hot weather defeated us, so we will resume work in September. What follows below is, therefore, only an interim report, as we have so far only partially been able to fulfill the tasks we set out to complete.

Part of a WAHS survey of the abbey complex. Our work was in the green area - note the incomplete building outlines here, reflecting limited current knowledge.

Our dig took place in the Abbey Mead, to the north of the church by the Ancestor statue. A surprisingly high number of members turned out to help during the week; we also had invaluable help from two members of Enfield Archaeological Society - as they were conducting their own archaeological dig as part of National Archaeology Week, their time was greatly appreciated. A report of their own work is available online.

The Abbey Mead is one of the least explored parts of the Abbey Gardens, and understanding how it fitted in to the monastic complex overall would be very valuable. We knew that the abbey infirmary was here, and a chapel was recently discovered next to it, but so far we have only very sketchy ideas of how both were laid out.

As Peter explains in his Report, the infirmary was first excavated in 1972. In 2003, whilst two new picnic tables were being installed, workmen reported hitting stonework in their trenches, and WAHS was called in to undertake a salvage excavation. All these digs are shown in mid-blue on this plan.

What was discovered by these two exercises were the remains of a timber-framed infirmary, running north-south as shown in light blue on this plan (marked A), consisting of a central aisle with side aisles, and a roof supported on two rows of pillars, each with its own stone foundation (shown as squares; one is also clearly visible in this photo of Trench A in 2003). The aisles and part of the nave were found to be divided up to form small rooms, each with its own fireplace and space for a bed.

In 1978, another dig was carried out just to the south of the infirmary (at the lower end of the plan). An apsidal-ended chapel (marked B on the plan) was discovered. We know from old records that it was dedicated in 1188, which helps to date the infirmary to the initial phase of the abbey's construction.

But, as often seems the case, these excavations have left us with more questions than answers, and part of our aim this year was to try to answer some of those questions, in the trenches coloured deep blue. Needless to say, we have ended up once again with yet more questions, and precious few answers!

One of our main aims this year was to find out whether the infirmary directly connected with the chapel, as is normal at other monastic sites. For this to be so, the infirmary would have to be one bay longer than expected, and the chapel would have to have a northern aisle next to its central area. The plan shows this theoretical north aisle, mirroring a southern aisle which had been broadly identified from a "line of ephemeral foundations" in the 1978 dig.


Read the official report by Peter Huggins...

Go to Part 2...


Some Links:

National Archaeology Week

Enfield Archaeological Society, NAW dig report

The Abbey Gardens

For More Information please Contact WAHS





Copyright Waltham Abbey Historical Society, 2007.