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Saturday, 20 December 2014

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Treasures revealed in dig at north Cumbrian abbey

A chess piece, a shoe sole and leather horse tack are the latest findings to have been uncovered at a north Cumbrian excavation.

Abbey dig find photo
Archaeologist Mark Graham with a medieval chess piece

Archaeologists have unearthed artefacts at Holme Cultram Abbey, near Abbeytown, that they believe tell us about the activities of the Cistercian monks who lived in Cumbria more than 500 years ago.

To the south of the site a latrine has been found in a newly-discovered building, thought to be an infirmary.

Archeologist Trish Shaw said: “It’s brilliant. It goes beyond what we expected to find really.

“It’s absolutely wonderful to be in Cumbria and to do research on a site like this.”

Volunteer Robert Bone read about the dig in The Cumberland News and decided to take part.

He was the lucky digger who found the chess piece on his second day.

“I’d only been there for about half an hour before I found it,” said Robert. “It was beginner’s luck. I didn’t expect to find anything more than a bit of bone.

“If I hadn’t found it someone else would have.”

He said it looked unusual and was unsure what it was made of.

The piece was found inside the refectory – where the monks would have eaten and socialised – and is thought to be a queen or a pawn.

“It’s small but intricate,” said Trish. “It could be ivory, bone or horn but it is yet to be looked at by a specialist.”

Leather horse tack and a shoe sole were found at Friar’s Garth, an area to the west of the abbey where, in 2012, experts found it to be an area containing a high level of magnetic disturbance.

Trish continued: “The leather is quite good and well-preserved, and it should be able to be handled when it is conserved.”

She explained how all their findings tell us a lot about how the monks lived.

“We’ve found drainage systems, but no water sources yet. But it shows us they were managing the water systems.

“We know they were breeding sheep and cattle – from the bones we’ve found – and that they encompassed quite a lot of the area, managing the woodland, farming and utilising the sea,” added Trish.

“As they increased in wealth they were in a position to reorganise things. So over a long period a lot would have changed.”

The site around the church, that was nearly destroyed by fire in 2006, dates back to about 1150.

It would have once been a huge complex, but experts say it was destroyed in 1538 during the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII.

The excavation, which is part of the Heritage Lottery funded Solway Landscape Partnership, has been ongoing since June and will run until July 25.

In the past, coins, stained glass, ceramics, decorated tiles and bodies have been found in the area.

Where the artefacts will be displayed is yet to be decided. There is a lot of post-excavation work and research to be completed before then.

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