An archaeological dig around a Shropshire church has discovered it is the earliest known sacred centre that is still in use in Britain today – dating back over 4,000 years.
Carbon dating of a wooden post, which extracted from the dig in February, has shown it was first placed in the ground in 2033 BC – a time when the ancient Egyptians were still building Pyramids.
Archaelogists expected the post to turn out to be Anglo-Saxon, so were shocked to discover it dated from the late Neolithic/early Bronze Age period instead.
The dig has given a fuller picture to the ancient history of the site at Sutton, Shrewsbury. Its findings correspond directly with earlier archaeological excavations, carried out on nearby development land to the east of the tiny Medieval church in the 1960s and ‘70s, which unearthed evidence of Bronze Age and Neolithic structures. It wasn’t then known that these were connected with the church site.
Back then archaeologists discovered burial mounds and cremations, slots for standing stones and two rows of Neolithic post holes and a ditch, known as a cursus, which they interpreted as processional walkway. It was aligned east to west, extending towards the current late 12th/early 13th century church.
The recent archaeological dig now shows that the prehistoric site extends to a larger area to the west of the church and that the building is built directly on top of both a previous Anglo-Saxon church and prehistoric structures. The current 10–metre long church itself was discovered to have originally been three times longer and to have once had transepts.
“The 15-inch section of post we found was sticking up into the Medieval foundations. It appeared to have been deliberately incorporated,” said archaeologist Janey Green, owner of Baskerville Archaeological Services, of Ledbury, Herefordshire, which carried out the dig.
“We thought we had found a Saxon post that formed part of an earlier church amongst Medieval foundations, but the radio carbon dates have shocked us all!
“What we actually have is a sacred site dating back over 4000 years. It appears the current Medieval church is built over the site of an ancient pagan burial ground that’s been in use from the late Neolithic period through to Bronze Age, Iron Age, Roman, Anglo-Saxon and through to today.
“These findings appear to indicate that this special place has been recognised and honoured by our ancestors from at least 2,000 years before Christ until the present day.
“To put it into context – all this was being built and used at the same time as the ancient Egyptians were building pyramids for their Pharoah’s and writing in hyroglyphics.
“What makes this site different is the continuity of ritual practice in one form or another. It predates the Basilica of Rome.
“We’ve had to do a fair amount of detective work to locate missing documents from the earlier excavations, the dates of which correspond with our findings. Both excavations piece together an exciting and potentially unique story for Britain and the Ecclesiastical world.
“It is well known that Christians liked to build churches on pagan sites, but this goes back to the Neolithic and this time we have the archaeological evidence so we can rewrite the history books and add to our knowledge.
“The only other British site of a Christian church that is known to date back to the late Neolithic period is at Cranborne Chase, in Dorset, but it is a Norman ruin.
“Most of these Neolithic sites have long since been abandoned, like Stonehenge. They are monuments, but this is a living monument. People are still worshipping here.
“The earliest sacred development on the site was probably a stone circle with a cursus, a processional walkway.
“It’s tremendously important to fully understand what is going on here and another phase of excavation is desperately needed.”
Christian use of the site probably goes back to the late 7th century when the manor of Sutton was given to St Milburga, the founder and abbess of Wenlock Priory sometime between 674 and 704 AD.
The current church, known as the Church of the Holy Fathers, now belongs to the Greek Orthodox Church which bought it for the nominal sum of £50 from the Church of England in 1994 and saved it from dereliction. It was previously called St John the Baptist and dedicated to St Milburga pre-Reformation.
Local Anglicans had held services there once a year, but it had not been a regularly functioning parish church since before the First World War and had stood in the corner of a farmer’s field, effectively used as a barn for storage.
Church priest Father Stephen Maxfield said the church community, which has been funding the dig, wanted it to carry on and was seeking additional funding to help with the costs.
“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 Milburga herself visited this location,” he said.
“From the moment we first saw this building as a crumbling ruin, full of farmer’s clutter, we thought it was a very special building. Now we know that it is and that it is quite unique. It is a place of transcendence and healing.”
During restoration of the church building Medieval wall paintings were discovered and conserved, including a depiction of the Martyrdom of Thomas Becket.
Other significant finds from the archaeological dig include a carved Saxon stone from an archway, the remains of what is thought to be an Anglo-Saxon apse, a prehistoric worked flint and a Neolithic stone counting disc. Some unusual animal burials were found, but these are thought to be Medieval and have yet to be dated.
Ms Green found two coins, minted from between 1625 and 1634, amongst rubble from a wall collapse and believes this could indicate that two-thirds of the church collapsed during that period or slightly later, possibly during the English Civil War, 1642 to 1651.
The dig was started because a new housing development of 300 homes is currently being constructed next door to the church. The first phase of the dig has been completed but archaeologists believe there is more to be found in the area.