Return to the Priest’s House, Muchelney

Heading south-west out of Wiltshire, along the floor of the Deverill valley. . and at Kingston, climbing out of the greensand, up, up onto the high curvaceous chalkland. The icy gloom giving way to bright skies with a first chance to see the potential of the developing day.

Not until the road came to the brink of the escarpment was it possible to appreciate what was unfolding. Over the brow of the downs, the land dropped away and as far as the eye could see… were flat-lands overlain by undulating mists. Networks of hedgerows were translucently visible but the isolated, conical Duncliffe Hill broke out of the fading milkiness high into the blueing sky.

Below lay the border town of Mere and beyond lay Dorset and….


At Lytes Cary we took the road to Huish Episcopi.

I remembered to turn left at the church tower and onto  the level, hedge-lined road which led across the flats to Muchelney.

The winter of 92-3 was wet and my car had struggled here. The road was flooded. The builders had told me not to wait too long, the water was rising and the village was becoming an island again.  I did the archaeology and thankfully made it back to the mainland that night.


The Priest’s House in January 2018

Returning after a quarter of a century to this little hill with its church and ruined abbey, it seemed hardly to have changed. A few scattered cottages and there was the Priest’s House. Everything silvered grey with frost..the sun here still only a glowing orb above the mist.

The National Trust has owned this place since 1911. Rescued by the Society of the Protection of Ancient Buildings with work carried out by Ernest Barnsley, a master builder of the Arts and Crafts Movement.

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The Priest’s House after work was completed in April 1993

At the end, I had left it with its fresh yellow thatch ..but knew it in my time mostly as a scaffolded canopy, the skeleton of medieval timbers exposed for repair.

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The medieval common rafters of the hall after removal of thatch. Looking through these you can see the horizontal timber known as the purlin which supports them and below and attached to the purlin can be seen the curving wind braces which demonstrate that the hall was open to the roof in medieval times as does the truss with its principal rafters which the purlin is supported on. This truss has an arch braced collar which was built to be seen as a decorative feature from the ground floor.

This was the early 14th century vicar’s house. The priest was a paid staff member of Muchelney Abbey and took the services in the parish church, serving the village community.

Quite a lowly cleric and the size of his house reflects his status… but he and his home survived Henry VIII’s religious upheavals of 1538-40. At that time most of the Abbey was demolished and the monks were pensioned off. The great Abbey church is just a pattern of stone footings now.


Muchelney parish church seen across the footings of the once much larger Abbey church. The Priest’s House lies just beyond. 

This priest’s house is too far from Ham Hill. This is the edge of blue lias country, the walls are of this grey slatey stone, only the windows and doors are of golden Ham stone.. though it has fenestration way above its pay-scale. I suppose, once the great Abbey had been pulled down there were plenty of opportunities to upgrade from the ruins.

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One of the large windows of the hall. Rather grand for such a small building.

One day the builders showed me 12th-13th century chunks of carved and painted stone they had found during the repairs. This was more re-cycled Abbey, reused as rubble to infill a redundant flight of stairs  up to the first floor.

The Priest’s House had been built with a cross-passage with opposing front and back doors.

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The medieval wattle and daub screen to the guest room under repair. This Tudor doorway was inserted into it when the the first floor was created over the hall.

Through the front door, on the right was a timber screen and beyond it the hall was  open to the roof  decorated with curving wind braces. Beyond the hall was the parlour with its moulded timber ceiling, a stair led to the solar or private room of the priest. Later, the hall was roofed to create a first floor above and a huge decorated stone fireplace was hauled into the room. Evidence of more of the Abbey salvaged from the ruins.

To the left of the cross-passage were the store rooms, the pantry for food and the buttery for drink and the now blocked stair which once led to a guest room above. The kitchen would have been a separate building. In medieval times it was thought sensible to keep the cooking fire from the main building in case of accident. In the builders’ trenches, I never saw evidence for this kitchen though it could have been a timber framed building which left little trace.

Examples of these medieval kitchens still stand at nearby NT places …Stoke Sub Hamdon Priory (‘Prayer for the Future’) and Treasurer’s House Martock (‘The Treasure beneath the Limewash’)… Their residents were grander than Muchelney’s vicar and could afford something more substantial.


Frosty Muchelney Abbey last week looking across the demolished cloisters towards the Abbot’s hall.

But it was now time to leave Muchelney. There were other places to visit.

We climbed back in the car and continued our journey south between melting frost-spangled fields and sleeping winter-bare orchards …deeper and deeper into cider country….Kingsbury Episcopi, Martock, Stoke Sub Hamdon..Montacute.


Space ….

Phillips House, Dinton, Wiltshire, my new work room!

The morning was sunny and frosty, the Black Redstart on his winter migration had appeared in the garden and as I drove to work, large flocks of Woodpigeon flew up from the fields with small groups of winter thrushes, as a Red Kite slowly glided across the valley.
I was on my way to continue setting up my new work space at Dinton, ten minutes further towards Salisbury from the office. I have new tables, heaters and shelving to unpack The boxes of finds needing cleaning, sorting, marking, recording and packing were already there waiting to be opened. I met Rosemary and we headed into the big space with mugs of tea and a mallet! There was shelving to put together as well as the boxes and equipment to sort out.

Lets get it sorted ready to clean the Roman painted plaster

We were getting on great, the heaters seemed to warm the space efficiently, the shelving was going together well with the help of the mallet, when bang my archaeologists back decided it was time to make itself known! Rosemary carried on and finished the shelving, then we had to abandon the day. I always think that an archaeologist just starting out would be a great long term study for a medical student to monitor the wear and tear on the joints!

Room for some more shelving

Mushroom boxes, the ideal finds washing drying racks

So, dear readers, you will have to wait a little longer to see if we find any different designs on the Chedworth roman painted plaster.

Views From Hardy’s Monument

Last week I looked out and back from Hardy Monument consideration of someone pivotal… now gone.


The view south from the Hardy Monument to Weymouth and the Isle of Portland

Hardy’s is high up. The highest point of the vast Bronze Age cemetery of the South Dorset Ridgeway.

Looking distantly down onto a field… now, with dogs gathering sheep… but then, where my caravan was.

A September Sunday afternoon. After the excavation…. ordering the artefacts.

I was leftover. The vibrant dig community gone. A row of bleached grass rectangles. Just the finds supervisor’s tent against the Loscombe Copse.. two fields away.. and the HQ caravan, a little out of sight, beside the barrow …and the lone tree.

HQ was full ..of vegetarian beans, pulses and CND posters ‘do not walk gently…..’ With the blackberries and hazelnuts.. enough to keep me for a while.

From my window, rural Dorset, and just the tinny sound of Terry Wogan leaking from a battered transistor. All that it could manage.

On the table, a plastic bag containing one of the cremations from the barrow.

Each had a gift for the dead. One had a bronze dagger, another a stone archer’s wrist guard. But what of this one? The director had asked me to separate the bone from the charcoal.

That was my job.. on an isolated peaceful Sunday afternoon.

Soon, my survey contract would begin… me and my bicycle, visiting, measuring, researching every Ridgeway barrow… but the winter-let flat and marriage were still 2 weeks away.

So… place the contents carefully on the table and gradually separate the black from the grey-white while listening to the hits of 82.

As the hours passed…the necklace emerged.

The National Trust archaeologists have been to Sutton Hoo. Angus showed us the new visitor access route. How to evoke the wonder of the place from a few low mounds.. ringed with modern distractions? To reveal the very roots of the English…in a nice way.


The NT Archaeologists on the site of the Sutton Hoo ship burial

What a story ! Local skilled archaeologist Basil Brown asked to excavate a mound…. on the utter brink of WWII. Britain’s Tutankhamun, emerging as the tempest clouds of war gathered. A sand long boat. The decayed planks carefully revealed as a beautiful and curving ridged mould, spaced with clinker nails. That long last peaceful summer…it never rained.

Amazing gifts for a king, gathered in Suffolk from across the known world. The find so great that Brown is edged out by the posh academics from the BM. A poignant photo in the cafe as he respectfully watches the experts at work.

We gather in the wood above the riverside. We imagine the 7th century long boat dragged to its final resting place. Was this Raedwald, Bretwalda, king of the Anglo-Saxon kings? His people gathered around him and the gifts and treasure bestowed in honour of his greatness. Memories and stories. The holy men guided the congregation from life to death and a life beyond his passing.

I stand at the stone tower and look back to the caravan… and beside me a large Bronze Age barrow. The highest of the 600 or so scattered along the ridge between Dorchester and Weymouth…from Abbotsbury to Poxwell.


The plundered burial mound beside the Hardy Monument.

Presumably, the tomb of one the greatest Dorset barrow men but truncated and burrowed into long ago. Its contents taken without record. like so many of the barrows at Sutton Hoo… except Mr Brown’s wonderful discovery…

and mine in 1982…the amber and shale.. hidden but then emerging from the charcoal. Lozenges and cones, with holes drilled for the long rotted thread.

As the sun passed to late afternoon, his mini-van bumps across the field to meet me. I wait to show him.

Years before, the newly graduated Weymouth students had followed him to the shores of Poole Harbour and spent the summer easing a Roman pottery workers’ settlement from the stubble. We got food poisoning…the motorbike got a flat. His back gave out… but we tenderly carried him on the finds table to the trench edge. A battle stretcher but with cheesecloth and loons.

On a road to Emmaus, at his requiem mass, we gathered to honour him and remembered.

Look around you.

‘There’s a slow, slow train comin’ up around the bend’

Lifting Flags at Philipp’s House, Dinton

This is our local National Trust mansion. A Neo-Grecian country house built in 1816. Just 20 minutes up the road from the office at Tisbury, Wiltshire. Set within a tree-studded park, a good place to walk at lunch time as the seasons turn.


Philipp’s House set on a south facing slope with the chalk escarpment behind. In the trees at the top of the hill to the left is the Iron Age hillfort Wick Ball Camp. The NT only owns the southern edge of its rampart which is the property boundary. The line of the ha-ha wall and ditch can just be seen as a grey line across the centre of the photo. The whole point of a ha-ha was to create a boundary that kept the stock out of the garden but remained hidden from view and preserve the landscape aesthetic.

It was built to the design of the fashionable architect Jefry Wyatville for the owner William Wyndham. Presumably because he was a little tired of his old fashioned 17th century pile and had some cash to splash.

It was known as Dinton House then because the house and park lie beside the village of Dinton but, in 1916, it was bought from the Wyndham family by Bertram Philipps and he renamed the place after himself.

He gave it to the National Trust in 1943, making sure that it was leased to the YWCA.. and for the next 50 years it was.


The fine sweeping lines of the Wyatville Neo-Grecian staircase in the hall at Philipps House. Flagstones being lifted.

It became empty in 1993, which was the first time I went there during its refurbishment. I watched a service trench being dug across the park. Nothing much came up, just a couple of prehistoric flints and a sherd of medieval pottery.

The present house is lovely and made of finely dressed local Chilmark stone.. but what happened to the old one?

There is a mid 18th century map that shows an avenue of trees leading to the old place, and this seemed to indicate that it lay further west.

Later in the 90s ..I marked the area out with grids and with the help of Simon and Mike, the countryside rangers, did a resistivity survey where I thought the old house might be. A beautiful spring day with the foliage of the copper beech resplendent around us  …but no luck, the computer plot showed the data as random patches of dark and light. More geological than archaeological.

Then they cleared out the sunken ha-ha ditch that fronts the house and took away the revetment stones before rebuilding them. Behind the ha-ha wall, in the buried soil, deep down below the front lawn..was building debris including 17th and 18th century brick.

Then..later.. in the library below the decoration .. reused limewashed bricks there… Tends to be the case that if you are taking down a house to build a new one it would be a shame to waste the old stuff.  You can hide it in the new structure without affecting the shiny modern glow of the new residence.


Below the floorboards of the 1690s Dyrham, a reused Tudor timber presumably salvaged from the old place. One of many hidden in the present house. Here you can see the cut chamfered upper edge of a sill beam two mortise holes to hold posts once fixed by pegs driven into holes drilled into the sides of the mortise sockets and along the top a grove into which the planks were placed between the posts.. to create a division between two rooms,  once part of the old Dyrham House.

Look below the floorboards of Dyrham House near Bath and there’s all sorts of old wood there. Bits of Tudor chamfered joists and beams and last time I looked in January, part of a plank and muntin screen re-used as a girder.

So always worth grabbing new opportunities to see beneath the skin of a place.

A few weeks ago, Emma told us that some of the entrance hall flagstones needed re-setting as they were getting uneven.. so we went over and saw what lay beneath.

Some had been lifted more recently than others and several were sand on top of soil but, at the foot of the great staircase we found stone and brick beneath the paving…beneath the sand.. remains of a wall.


The buried limestone blocks and flanked by brick walls in front of the staircase. Evidence of an earlier structure here.

At first we thought it might be part of the cellar structure but the plans show that the cellars don’t come this far.

Perhaps the old house lies beneath the new, perhaps parts of it were built on the old footings… Then Meg texted me a map dated 1800 she had discovered on the web site of the National Library. Much more accurate than the 18th century one and…. there is the old house just where the 1816 house would be built.

Problem solved. Now we need to find out more about the designed landscape around the mansion.

This new 1800 map shows some interesting details. The park is much bigger now than it was then and there are avenues leading to a structure on a hill beside the house…


The view out into the designed park. The ornamental lake lies top left in this picture. Again, on this photo the ha-ha line is only visible as the tops of fence posts across the centre of the picture.

One of the nice things about being an archaeological curator for the National Trust is to work long-term with staff, volunteers and other researchers to gradually unravel the stories of a place .. we all know.. beyond the scope of history there is only archaeology.

The glass find – first thoughts

The glass when first found

Now we have recovered from the digging and back filling of the trenches at Chedworth Roman Villa, we can start on the post excavation work and find out more about what we found. The star find this year was a small fragment of glass that Pete found in room 27. Having contacted the main specialist on roman glass and sent lots of photographs, an e-mail returned asking for a very detailed description of where it was found, as they had not seen anything exactly like it before in Britain. They needed to see it in the flesh and as luck would have it we were both attending the Roman Finds Groups conference so I took it along. After looking at it from all angles the verdict was that it needed to be shared wider, to roman glass specialists, roman archaeologists and roman finds people beyond Britain. The only possible comparable piece Jennifer had ever seen was from near Iran! The post excavation work is like excavating again, in that you never know what you will find out about the objects you have found, discovering the story never ends. Once again Chedworth villa produces something unusual, watch this space for more updates on this wonderful fragment of glass.

The lovely colourful glass

Windrush and Horton

Yesterday…was an open plan office day.. a core team briefing day followed by meetings and emails. Overnight there had been a storm. Today I headed north into Gloucestershire. Gradually the rain cleared, the clouds faded and the autumn sky transitioned into blue.

On the radio they discussed Constantine the Great and his city.. how would things have been different without him?  Conveniently, the programme ended as I arrived.


I looked out onto the ruins of a WWII airforce base. Three eyebrow hangers reused as farm buildings and a concrete machine gun post beside the watch tower. I was parked on the overgrown runway looking out across a newly ploughed field. I had an hour before the meeting at Horton Court.

The field was full of sharp lines and colours. The trackways and foundations of the RAF buildings. After photos, I took the bucket of tapes out of the boot and paid out the 100m along with two 50ms set at right angles.

A wide-open level farming  landscape. Big skies and just the sound of the breeze. I measured, paced and drew, walking over occasional chucks of brick, broken tarmac and ironwork. Here and there in the harrowed field was a white flash of pottery. A tea-cup handle, part of a plate and a fragment of bowl..conveniently dated 194–(why can’t all pottery be like that?)


Then, an approaching tractor and I walked up to greet the driver and introduce myself. Meeting on the deserted runway.

He said the field had once been arable but had not been ploughed for over 70 years. Not since the base was built. A place to train pilots on Avro Ansons for Mosquito bombers.


‘I wonder what it was like here then? These days, it’s the children of the RAF personnel who come’ he said. ‘They want to know the place their fathers talked about’

I drove back past Windrush hillfort and headed south again through Cirencester and Tetbury to Horton.

Horton Court is a rambling combination of building phases set on the spring-line below the Cotswold escarpment. It has a 12th century hall parallel with the medieval parish church. A later medieval wing was added which was converted into an early 16th-century courtyard house. On top of this are various 18th-20th century extensions.

I found a space in the car park and signed in at the office. James was excavating where a new soakaway was required. He had just found a 13th century jug fragment in a layer of occupation material below the 18th century garden soil.


‘How did the excavation in the stable go’ I asked. We went into the small early 18th century building. It had somehow survived with little disturbance amongst all the changes the various rich owners had lavished upon the place. One small trench was required to support the roof structure but the rest of the flagstone floor would remain.

We had seen it before: so much can go on around an old building but often, their floors act as protective canopies over precious stratigraphy. Here, in this little stable.. medieval Horton survived beneath the floor.

We walked out and looked back at the church and house. The site of the stable occupied higher ground. James had found a 12th-13th century hearth in a service trench where we now stood.

It now seemed likely that this was the site of the old Horton manor house. The Norman hall of the present Horton Court may well have been the old church. Some time in the 14th-15th century, they had built the new church beside the old and included the old church in the new house.


A good theory. The refurbished Horton will be ready for the new tenants in the spring.

I said goodbye and headed back to Wiltshire where there had been a discovery at Lacock.

The Christmas tree hole had just uncovered a herringbone wall diagonal to the Tudor courtyard. Under a black layer of soil full of medieval pottery and animal bone. It ignores the alignment of the 13th century Abbey completely….Roman?

Sunset 8.15pm Chedworth 2017

So the 5 year North Range research agenda is complete.

Chedworth Roman Villa 1 cMike Calnan_ Naitonal Trust

Picture copyright Mike Calnan taken by mini-copter on Thursday. The North Range to the left with the green and blue gazebos in Room 27. You can just see our exterior trenches beyond the walls on the slope top left.

We had started backfilling on the previous day so it seemed unlikely that we would leave late for home on Friday.

Always the optimist. I had arrived at 7am to video the site amongst birdsong.

Carol crossed the corridor, climbed the bank and picked blackberries.

Fay squinted at the rising sun in the valley as I moved the pencil along the staff. Taking levels on the boundary wall.  ‘There’s a breathless hush in the close tonight’. The lull before the storm.
‘Ten to play and a match to win’

Nothing like a bit of imperialist poetry to steel one against the day but who would come to help us? So much recording to do…so many trenches to fill.

Then John kindly arrived despite his birthday, Nick and Nick and Alexander and Harry to join the rest of us stalwarts and we began the long day…

We loaded the last tools as the sun began to set and Amy remained with us until the end. Fabulous! Carol said that the last day on a dig was like childbirth… painful but worth going though again. We were so grateful to everyone for putting the site back together after all our exploration.


Plan from an old guide book to show the numbers of the rooms in the north range 27-30. Our boundary wall and drain trenches were above 30.

What can be said.

On the north side, the boundary bank ran clear across the trench and was easily traced following the contour of the valley above the North Range. A heap of Roman debris lay over it and below the rubble a level stony area suggests a trackway though we did not fully excavate this.


Detail of the Roman wall on the outside face of Room 30. This shows the time when the North Range had a new suite of rooms added to the east. The foundation trench for the old build is stony and has the ranging pole on it. That to the left more soily marked by the trowel. The courses above abutt except for one which cuts into the old build and ties the walls together.

Just below is Rob’s trench against the exterior wall of the kitchen. The beautifully placed 0.33m wide flagstones 0.3m from the wall face. We thought the stones covered a drain. We lifted one and the surface crumbled into hundreds of fragments. Below was only 0.1m of sand and charcoal above the natural clay.

The current story is that the stones were the firm foundation for a timber drain that was built along its surface. The wood had long rotted away but there are stories of iron linking rings being found here.  We still need to track down the source.

No doubt now about the later addition of the suite of rooms 30-32 onto the east end of the North Range. Both in Fay’s trench, within Room 30, and this trench, the abutting joints and change in foundation trench fills were clear.

Our two small trenches in the North Range Corridor showed that there was no mosaic left east of Room 26 but that the narrower and earlier corridor wall could be traced past Room 27. It was not found opposite Room 30 but the ground here has been badly disturbed. Sir Ian Richmond’s 1964 breeze block wall ran deep this far east.


The two trenches in the north range. The one in the foreground had the stones of the narrower and earlier corridor in it.

Peter’s trench in Room 27 had now been backfilled and made  level with replaced turf….. but what had been the point of the deep dressed stone wall against the corridor. Was it an early pre-corridor wall. I am placing a lot of faith in comparative C14 dates from foundation trench fills. The fragments of charcoal have been helpfully plentiful in these but not an ideal dating tool …too crude really for Roman deposits.

We stopped for lunch and the discussions …over leaving cake …turned to mattocks. We admired the prize tool of the dig … the new yellow fibre-handled mattock which Nancy purchased specially. Mattocks are wonderful things… if deftly hefted. We told mattock stories……

We then faced Room 28. I moved forward with parallel tapes and ranging poles, drawing metre by metre and as each space was vacated, the terram, topsoil and turf followed.


The topsoil and terram being placed.

The mosaic survived best in the north… though its gradual deterioration south documented its loss.. Down through the mortar bedding and limestone rubble hardcore. Even the hardcore disappeared in the room’s central zone… becoming a dark soil containing the two hearths and a foundation of rubble between areas of burning. These ragged remains are an exciting discovery. We need to search for comparisons and obtain radiocarbon dates from their organic deposits. I hope for a 5th-6th century date to reveal a time when the villa was still standing.. but had declined from a grand mansion house to a manufacturer’s workshop.

Chedworth Roman Villa 4 cMike Calnan_ National Trust

Copyright Mike Calnan photo of Room 28 on Thursday. Peter’s trench in Room 27 bottom left.

The last trench was Peter and Alexander’s, behind Rooms 25 and 26. Peter had been digging there until the afternoon to understand it better. The trench showed that 25 had been added on but it had once had a different broader plan. This earlier phase had  been part demolished before being rebuilt. The foundation trench along 25’s  north side was clear but to the east the natural bedrock had be dug away deeply and steeply. I jumped down onto a loose mortar surface and slid the trowel under the lowest course of the earliest phase of 25. This cutting continued north-east through the trench section into the slope of the hill. Perhaps a drain or earlier stoke hole… but time was up.


The deep trench cutting natural and the wider foundation under Room 25. Room 26 is on the left. The cutting continues under the section line to the right.

Fay shouted out the levels from the slope and I joined the backfilling.

but the story is not over until the samples are analysed, we have made cross-comparisons and the reports are written. What of our painted glass.. the pottery, the charcoal and other finds?… we will see what they tell us.