[Press & Publications] The Past Beneath Our Feet [Archaeology]

August 2000

No 150

New survey to unearth secrets of Abbey Park

State-of-the-art archaeological techniques are being used by experts at the University of Leicester to uncover the secrets of the past at one of Leicester’s favourite beauty spots.

More than seventy years after the site of Leicester Abbey was excavated, archaeologists are once again investigating the remains of one of the wealthiest Augustinian monastic houses in England.

A team from University of Leicester Archaeological Services, led by Neil Finn and Richard Buckley, is supervising the excavation of a series of trenches by students of the School of Archaeological Studies.

They hope to uncover archaeological remains relating to the complex of abbey buildings – and possibly even the hitherto undiscovered medieval abbey gatehouse.

The abbey was founded in 1139 by the second Earl of Leicester, Robert le Bossu and, in its heyday, boasted a church almost the size of Norwich Cathedral, cloisters, a dormitory, refectory, kitchens, brewhouses and many other buildings.

The abbey was dissolved in 1538 by Henry VIII and so thoroughly demolished shortly afterwards that only the boundary walls, and possibly the gatehouse, escaped destruction. A mansion known as Cavendish House was built on the site in the 16th century and survived until 1645 when it was destroyed by fire. Today, the plan of the abbey is marked out by low walls, whilst the shell of Cavendish House and the boundary walls still stand.

“Many visitors walking around Abbey Park do not realise that just beneath their feet lie the archaeological remains of this important abbey and that there is also much to see above ground, particularly Abbot Penny’s wall of about 1500 and the 16th century mansion, Cavendish House” notes Richard Buckley.

“We have put up two temporary display boards to give people some background information and hope visitors will look in to see what we have discovered so far. The main aims of the work are to uncover the plan of Cavendish House and to discover whether archaeological remains relating to the complex of abbey buildings still survive”.

Neil Finn has been supervising the training of students in archaeological excavation techniques. “In the 1920s, archaeological methods were still in their infancy, and the excavators of the abbey could not recognise the lines of walls which had been robbed of their stone, now known as ‘robber trenches’. One surprise so far, is that there are several large robber trenches that are likely to pre-date the 16th century Cavendish House and may relate to the hitherto undiscovered medieval abbey gatehouse. Within the abbey cloisters, part of a 14th century tiled floor has been uncovered just beneath the turf” he said.

State-of-the-art techniques are being used to reveal the hidden secrets of other parts the site without disturbing the ground. Adrian Butler has been carrying out a geophysical survey which has revealed the outlines of buildings and other structures not identified in the 1920s excavations. It is hoped that the results can be tested with further trial trenches.

  • Archaeologists will be on site between Monday to Friday, 9am to 4pm and on Sunday 4th August, 9.30am to 4pm. The work is being undertaken with the kind permission of Arts and Leisure, Leicester City Council and funded by the University of Leicester with additional generous assistance from Scaffold Services Ltd and Pickerings Plant Ltd. The dig finishes on Friday 11th August.

    For further information, please contact Richard Buckley, University of Leicester Archaeological Services, telephone 0116 252 2848.

    There are photo-opportunities on Sunday August 4 between 9.30am-4pm.


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    Information supplied by: Barbara Whiteman
    Last updated: 03 August 2000 14:09
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