Over the past week and a half, you may have noticed some changes taking place in Sumpter Yard, next to the Slype entrance of the Cathedral. This archaeological dig, in what is known as the ‘Monk’s Graveyard’, is the first step of our exciting Heritage Lottery Funded project, Alban, Britain’s First Saint which will transform the Cathedral’s visitor welcome over the next few years.

The first of these changes was the removal of a self-seeded Yew tree, which had been growing unchecked next to the Cathedral. Importantly, the removal of the self-seeded tree created the space needed to excavate what is known as ‘The Monk’s Graveyard’.

The Canterbury Archaeological Trust have sent three of their archaeologists to perform a dig on the site, the purpose of which is to discover as much as possible about what lies there, so that we can ensure that the archaeology is not damaged or disturbed by the building of the new Welcome Centre, and that the new building will have solid foundations.

Cathedral Archaeologist, Professor Martin Biddle, has been overseeing the work which is taking place. Professor Biddle also oversaw the excavations that took place in the 1980s, in preparation for the then ‘new’ Chapter House, so has a long history with the Cathedral and its archaeology. He explains in detail the purpose of the dig and what we hope to find:

Our long awaited Welcome Centre starts now! First the yew tree has been cut down, but only to the ground because the next step is archaeology. The bole and roots of the tree will reach deep into the ground and into the archaeological layers. If we were just to grub out the roots, the archaeology would be damaged – sight unseen.

The Canterbury Archaeological Trust have dug a series of trenches very carefully designed to tell us as much as possible about what lies there, while disturbing the ancient remains as little as possible.  We have a pretty good idea that there were originally two apses projecting from the east side of the south transept (and from the east side of the north transept too (3)).  The apses were all demolished perhaps in the 13th century and those against the south transept were replaced by a large rectangular building in the angle between the transept and the presbytery. We know nothing about this building of the later 13th or 14th century. What was it for? We hope to find out.

There was also a series of chapels against the south side of the presbytery.  We know a little about those because some traces of them can be seen in the south wall of the presbytery. Again, we hope to find out more.

These buildings in the angle between the south transept and the presbytery were all removed after the Dissolution of the abbey in 1539. For the next three centuries, until 1852 or so, the area served as the parish graveyard – some of the grave slabs can still be seen.  The graves will be disturbed as little as possible. Even the service trenches for the water needed for the new Welcome Centre will, as far as possible, be sited to reuse the trenches dug over the last century or so for the existing services.  Re-opening these trenches will allow us to see something of the medieval buildings which once stood and where the Welcome Centre will stand. In opening these older trenches we hope to learn a lot more about the architecture of the lost buildings.

This is a very exciting first step in our Alban, Britain’s First Saint project. We’ll be posting any updates and exciting finds on the Blog so keep an eye out! In the meantime, visitors are very welcome to drop by and see the work in process.