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Unravelling Radford - The 1951 to 1964 excavations at Glastonbury Abbey, by Dr Cheryl Allum

Archaeology Department, University of Reading

The presentation unravelled aspects of the Glastonbury Abbey excavations directed by Dr Courtnay Arthur Ralegh Radford between 1951 and 1964. Following his death in 1998 the records were deposited with the National Monument Record (NMR) in Swindon. This ultimately led to the current research project (University of Reading) which encompasses all surviving records and finds from the historic excavations at Glastonbury Abbey (1908 -1979), plus a new geophysical survey of the precinct.

The paper focused on three aspects of Radford's excavations:

1. Radford's relationship with the abbey and publication record

Radford's lifetime association with Glastonbury Abbey was traced from childhood visitor to Bligh Bond's excavations (1908-1922), his appointment as director of excavations in 1951, through to his attempted excavation write-up while in his 90's. Although Radford was a knowledgeable and prestigious excavation director, this was not reflected in the disappointing publication record. In particular, the inadequate illustrative material in the short accounts (Somerset and Dorset Notes and Queries and Antiquity) and the 1981 interim report (Medieval Art and Architecture at Wells) were highlighted.

2. Radford's archaeological objectives and methodologies together with an overview of his archive

The overall objectives of Radford's excavations, which were to search for evidence pre-dating the devastating fire of 1184, were considered in relation to earlier discoveries. An overview of Radford's methodology was illustrated through the archive material; for example, favouring narrow excavation trenches. Radford's hands-on approach, in contrast to his excavations at Tintagel, was also demonstrated. Although of good quality, the sixty official excavation photographs do not constitute a consistent photographic programme. Similarly, finds were kept either because they were deemed important or for their usefulness as a dating tool. Overall, the Glastonbury archive is predominantly complete and although the recording techniques fall short of ideal modern standards a substantial body of evidence is emerging from the on-going analysis.

A pioneering approach to the excavations was demonstrated through Radford's pursuance of new scientific techniques such as radiocarbon dating and a marked improvement in the level of recording was noted from 1954 onwards. Also, the appointment of Professor Donald Harden from the Ashmolean Museum for the excavation of the significant Saxon glass furnaces shows a high level of professionalism.

3. Some preliminary results of the Research Project

A new trench plan of Radford's excavations was presented based upon original plans and incorporating evidence from the new geophysical survey, sketch plans and notes. A much more extensive and complicated pattern of trenches is evident than from the plan published in 1977 by Mick Aston and Roger Leach when the primary records were unavailable.

Radford's north transept excavations were selected to illustrate the scope of the archive analysis. Radford had claimed to have found evidence for the two pre-fire (i.e. pre-1184) Romanesque churches within the north transept and had published plans of both Turstin's (late 11th century) and Herlewin's (1100-1118) churches in the 1981 interim report. The major criticism of these published plans is that they appeared to be based on very little evidence and that the locations of these churches remained unknown. New plans were shown relating Radford's published plans to the excavation trenches and standing remains. Secondly, evidence from the north transept trenches, including internal walls and floor horizons not shown on the published plans, was used to assess Radford's phasing. With the Saxon church located further westward it is logical to accept that Radford had indeed found the two Romanesque phases.


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