The modern town of Crowland, Lincolnshire, is dominated by the impressive remains of its abbey, now serving as a parish church. Only the north aisle of the former monastery is in use, but the roofless nave still stands and its dramatic west front attracts a steady stream of visitors. The abbey was founded in honour of St Guthlac who, at the end of the 7th century, left his monastery at Repton in Derbyshire to pursue a life of prayer and solitude on the fen island of Crowland. A remarkably detailed account of Guthlac, written 30 or so years after his death by the monk Felix, tells of the spiritual battles that he fought with devils who dwelt in the remains of a grave-robbed barrow. Guthlac made this unusual site the location of his hermitage, constructing cells and a chapel for worship, and his association with the spot continued long after his death.
When Guthlac died, probably around the year 715, he soon became venerated as a saint, largely thanks to the dedication and zeal of his sister, Pega. Later accounts suggest that his hermitage may have been embellished with monuments and structures, perhaps to act as a focus for pilgrimage – although exactly where Guthlac lived and was celebrated after his death is contested. One idea is that his hermitage lies underneath Crowland Abbey, but there is little evidence to support this theory. An alternative local tradition points to a different site around a kilometre east of the town centre: Anchor Church Field, which has long been thought to be a place linked to either Guthlac or Pega. The name of the site is suggestive, with ‘Anchor’ perhaps deriving from ‘anchorite’ – a hermit.
Previous archaeological work at Anchor Church Field has identified activity dating from Guthlac’s time, but the site had never been investigated in detail – and it was with the aim of rectifying this that a team from Newcastle University and the University of Sheffield carried out a first season of open-area excavation in the summer of 2021. The team focused their efforts on a large building whose footprint could be seen in aerial photographs, and which had widely been thought to represent the remains of a chapel. Excavation revealed that the outline visible from the air was indeed the foundations of a substantial stone-built structure, although its precise date and function are still to be determined. The team also encountered evidence of much earlier activity: regular finds of flints hint at prehistoric use of the site, although we did not find clear evidence of the ring-ditch, thought to represent the remains of a ploughed-out barrow, that is also visible in aerial photography.
Perhaps most intriguingly, though, the excavation recovered significant quantities of ceramics and a decorated bone comb broadly datable to Guthlac’s time. None of this material was associated with specific features, but the sheer quantity of the finds indicates either intense or long-lived occupation of the site around the 7th and 8th centuries. It seems that either we had hit the edge of this activity, or that later occupation of the site had damaged or destroyed features from this period. Significantly, Paul Blinkhorn’s analysis of the pottery shows that all of the ceramics dating to the 7th and 8th centuries were locally produced, with no examples of higher-status Continental imports or Ipswich Ware among them. Whoever was using the site in this period, then, was not accessing the elite goods often associated with wealthy church communities. The ceramic sequence further hints that Anchor Church Field continued to be used after the 8th century, and that this occupation may have been religious in nature. Particularly telling is the recovery of a rare Thetford Ware bowl, dating from the 10th or 11th century; this large, shallow object seems to have been very long-lived, judging by its patterns of wear, and its unusual shape may hint at a liturgical use.
In addition to the ceramics, substantial quantities of Roman building material, specifically tile and tesserae, were also found on the site, but there were only three sherds of Roman pot. This somewhat confusing collection strongly suggests that Anchor Church Field was not occupied during the Roman period, but that building material had been brought to the site from elsewhere at a later date. There is every possibility that this occurred during the early medieval period, and it might be that Roman material was being integrated into the stone-footed, west–east orientated building that was only identified in the final days of last summer’s excavation. Our primary aim for the 2022 season is to dig this structure, which may be the remains of an early church. We will continue to explore Anchor Church Field – an archaeological site with a seemingly justified saintly reputation.
Source Dr Duncan Wright is Lecturer in Medieval Archaeology at Newcastle University. Dr Hugh Willmott is Senior Lecturer in European Historical Archaeology at the University of Sheffield.