University of Leicester Archaeological Services

Thorney Abbey, Cambs

Thorney Abbey, Cambridgeshire
Summer 2001

Photograph of painted glass from Thorney site

Thorney Abbey, Cambridgeshire

Photograph of the site with abbey remains in background

An excavation at Thorney, in the district of Peterborough, was undertaken by ULAS following a trial trench evaluation in the summer of 2001. The work was prompted by plans to redevelop the site, which until recently had been used as an orchard, for residential use. During the Middle Ages an abbey was established at Thorney which, alongside Peterborough, Ely, Croyland and Ramsay, grew to become one of the famous 'Fen Five' monasteries.

Thorney abbey was dissolved in 1539 and following a period of abandonment the stone from the abbey ruins was almost completely removed for reuse within the village and to help construct some of the colleges in Cambridge, mainly Corpus Christi. All that remains now are parts of the 12th century nave, which have been assimilated into the present parish church. Despite the archaeological potential of the village, prior to the work done by ULAS, little had been done. Limited observations during pipe laying had revealed probable medieval burials and stone footings but the site on Church Street has offered the most revealing insight into Thorneys' past so far.

The main discoveries on the site were the remains of several buildings, thought to belong to the former abbey complex. What was originally thought to be part of an outer wall to the Thorney abbey precinct (from the evaluation results) turned out to be the northern side of a large building. A short length of robber trench on the southern edge of the site represents the opposite side of the building, which was some 5m wide. A gravel packed slot and two post footings within the building were aligned at right angles to the outer walls and appeared to form the base of an internal division to the building indicating the remains continued beyond the western edge of the site. The size of the building, and its proximity to the surviving remains of the former abbey, strongly suggest that it once belonged to the abbey complex. As yet the function of the building remains unclear although there was plenty of evidence for activities in the latter stages of its use, all of which apparently reflected demolition and recycling during the Dissolution.

hgjhgThe 'floor' of the building consisted of a thick clay layer although inspection of the sections on the edge of the site indicated several mortar surfaces would have once been in place. Large amounts of lead waste and broken window calme littered the internal area of the building as well as ashy spreads and areas of scorching. Accompanying the window lead several areas of well preserved painted glass were recovered where they had been dumped once the lead surround had been removed. The glass was an unusual find and, stylistically, can be very well dated to the earlier 13th century (the abbeys heyday). Washing of the assemblage is currently underway but already many floral border pieces have been revealed and two joining parts depicting a heraldic lion.

Photograph of a possible font under excavationRoughly central to the building the remains of a stone-faced, brick fireplace were revealed. A small depression cut into some of the bricks was found to contain a lump of lead, further emphasising the lead recycling activities. Another intriguing feature was revealed to the east of the fireplace where a large architectural fragment had been re-used for lead working. The feature was made of a large octagonal limestone block with a c.20cm deep carved bowl in the top. Burning in the bowl and on the upper levels of the block, as well as large amounts of lead waste in the immediate vicinity, provided evidence for its re-use and complements the surrounding evidence for lead working. The earlier use of the stone however remains a mystery. Two possibilities are that it could either be a buried font or a laver (hand basin) both of which seem highly probable given the context of the site.

Remains of two further buildings were also revealed. On the eastern edge of the site were robbed out wall footings and on the western side of the site a gravel and clay packed slot represented footings for a timber-based building. Both of these may have been the result of different phases of the building described above or different buildings altogether. Interestingly however the three sets of footings are all precisely orientated together suggesting some form of continuity. Large amounts of finds were recovered including a wide range of medieval pottery, animal bone and glazed roof tile.

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UPDATED: 26th February 2007
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