Medieval carvings found in cave near Guildford

A possible 14th-century shrine adorned with medieval carvings has been discovered in a cave following a landslip near Guildford.

The initial discovery was made by rail workers from Osborne carrying out repair works on behalf of Network Rail, after which the cave was investigated by a team from Archaeology South-East (ASE, the commercial branch of UCL’s Institute of Archaeology). This was no small task, as the site is located on the side of a steep railway cutting, so ASE’s historic buildings team was required to abseil down in order to carry out recording.

PHOTO: Archaeology South-East
A cave discovered near Guildford contains 14th-century carvings and is believed to be a possible shrine. PHOTO: Archaeology South-East.

The shallow sandstone cave survives up to head height, but it may be only part of a much larger space that has been destroyed by the construction of the railway, which cut through the hill in the early 1840s. Even so, seven or eight niches up to 0.7m high have survived, including a principal Gothic niche decorated with inscribed dots, with a Calvary cross engraved nearby. Evidence of writing and other markings were also found across the cave’s ceiling.

A black deposit covering parts of the cave ceiling is believed to be soot from lamps, and the remains of two suspected fire pits were identified in its floor. It is hoped that these can be used for radiocarbon dating to determine when the site was in use, but the space is thought to be a shrine or hermitage dating to the 14th century, probably associated with the nearby chapel of St Catherine, the ruins of which are on the hill nearby.

It is also possible, though, that it has earlier origins, as St Catherine’s hill was known as Drakehill, ‘Hill of the Dragon’, before the establishment of the chapel, and it has been suggested that the site was an area of cult activity prior to the 14th century.

The cave has been recorded in detail and it is hoped that future analysis of the carvings and dating of the soot and charcoal will tell us more about how and when the site was used.