Archaeologists have discovered what they think are the remains of an Anglo-Saxon church and ancient pagan animal burials in an archaeological dig around a late 12th/early 13th century church in Shropshire.
The discoveries are not only significant for the history of the site at Sutton, Shrewsbury, but they could potentially rewrite the ecclesiastical history of Shropshire.
The team of archaeologists faced a race against to find the remains of a wooden beam, post or other object that could be used to accurately date the site, before it was due to be sealed to make way for a road and car park.
On the final day of part of the dig, to the west of the existing Medieval church, they discovered the crucial piece of evidence that they needed – a 15-inch section of an upright wooden post, believed to be a door post. A rusty metal hinge was also found in the same spot.
“I had a hunch there was an Anglo-Saxon church here, the site was rumoured to be Anglo-Saxon and the vital piece of evidence that we need to be able to prove that it is Anglo-Saxon came at the last hour literally!” said project manager Janey Green, of Baskerville Archaeological Services, based in Ledbury, Herefordshire.
The post will now be sent away for dating and further analysis along with other finds. Among these are some mysterious animal burials on the site of the Medieval graveyard, to the south of the church, which Ms Green believes may be evidence of an ancient pagan site.
Among the excavated burials are the skeletons of a calf and a pig that appear to have been carefully laid beside each other in a symmetrical shape. A Stone Age flint was recovered from between the ribs of the calf.
The dig has also found the skeleton of a pig that appears to have been laid in a leather covered wooden coffin, a large dog that died while giving birth and which lies next to the bones of six chickens, a pregnant goat and the so far unexcavated bones of another dog and a large bird, possibly a goose.
Ms Green believes the animal burials pre-date the Christian period.
“It was a huge surprise to find these burials in a church graveyard. To find animals buried in consecrated ground is incredibly unusual because it would have been a big no no,” she said.
“The bones don’t show any signs of butchery and the animals appear to have been deliberately and carefully laid in the ground.
“The site is a few hundred metres from known prehistoric human burial mounds so they may be connected.
“Initially I thought I may have come across a whimsical Victorian burial of a beloved pet. But the Victorians usually left objects in the graves such as a collar, a letter or a posie of flowers and we haven’t found a shred of evidence of anything like that here.
“Neither is there evidence that the animals were fallen farm stock that were disposed of in modern times.
“The next step is to have the bones carbon dated and we’re hoping funds would be available for that,” she said.
Land to the west of the church, off Oteley Road, is currently being developed for housing.
Developer Taylor Wimpey, which is building nearly 300 homes at Sutton Grange, initially provided funds for the archaeologocal dig as part of the conditions for planning consent. The church, now owned by the Greek Orthodox Church, has continued to fund the dig since early November and Taylor Wimpey has allowed archaeologists extra time to work on the site.
With a wedding due to take place at the church on Sunday, the area to the west of the church entrance needed to be covered to enable the wedding party to gain access. Taylor Wimpey has agreed to seal the foundations in a protective geotextile membrane before it disappears beneath a layer of aggregate and asphalt.
The archaeology team managed to excavate 17 metres to the west of the church before they had to down tools in this section of the dig. They found foundations showing that the existing Medieval church once extended a further six metres. And beside these, 15 to 18 inches lower in the ground, they discovered stones and foundations relating to the earlier building. The archaeological dig on the south side of the church is set to continue.
Parish priest Father Stephen Maxfield said that he had always suspected that the existing church stood on a much older Christian and possible pre-Christian site and described the archaeological finds as “extraordinary”.
“The news that the archaeologists have been able to find a piece of wood that can actually be dated is very exciting. It means that we will be able to prove once and for all that an Anglo-Saxon church stood here.
“We also now know that the foundations of our existing church were significantly bigger and that it stands on the site of the earlier church. Below that may well have been another church, possibly a Celtic church, but I don’t think we will ever resolve that question.”
Christian use of the site may go back to the late 7th century. It is known that between 674 and 704 AD Wenlock Priory was given a number of manors in Shropshire by the two half brothers of St Milburga, the priory abbess. One of those was the manor of Sutton. ‘Sutton’ itself is Anglo-Saxon for ‘south’.
After her death in 714 AD Milburga became revered as a saint. Inquisition documents, dating from 1278, show that the existing church was originally called St Milburga’s. During the Reformation it was rededicated to St John the Baptist.
The existing church, now called the Church of the Holy Fathers, was saved from dereliction by the Greek Orthodox Church who bought it from the Church of England for a few pounds in 1994. It had not been a regularly functioning church for over 100 years and stood in the corner of a farmer’s field and was effectively used as a barn for storage.
Restoration work funded by English Heritage uncovered original Medieval wall paintings including a depiction of the Martyrdom of Thomas Beckett which is thought to be the oldest figurative wall painting in Shrewsbury.
“Who would have thought that this little church, stood in the corner of a field and written off as a ‘shed’, has turned out to have a history of great significance. It’s quite possible that St Milburga herself visited this location,” added Father Stephen.
The dig has so far uncovered the remains of at least three people, including the complete skeleton of an early Medieval woman buried in a shroud. The remains will be reburied during a special service.
Other significant finds include three small garment pins and a carved stone that could be Iron Age, Roman, Anglo-Saxon or early Medieval. These were found in rubble on the West side of the church along with two small coins. One of the coins was a half farthing minted sometime between 1624 and 1635, during the reign of Charles I.
Foundations unearthed on the south side of the church indicate that it once had a transept to form the arms of the traditional Medieval cruciform.
A large medieval village is thought to have once stood in the area. There are also rumours that an Anglo-Saxon or Medieval hall stood on the site of an early 17th century former farmhouse next door to the church.