Archive of Transactions

Excavations at the dorter undercroft, Westminster Abbey

Peter Mills

Excavations in the dorter (monks’ dormitory) undercroft of Westminster Abbey took place in 1986. A scatter of Middle Saxon potsherds indicated sparse activity in the area between c. 750 and 850, when the site would have been on the periphery of the main Lundenwic settlement.

The first strata excavated were waterlaid deposits of mid 11th-century date, showing that the site, on Thorney Island, was especially prone to flooding. In about 1050 a road was built and a substantial ditch was dug. The ditch was soon backfilled, to be replaced by a short-lived timber structure – possibly a temporary shed or workshop associated with the building of the Abbey – and by what appears to have been the surface of a masons’ yard. The ditch is most easily interpreted as a precinct boundary, which would suggest that the Abbey was originally planned on a smaller scale and that enlargements were made when the second phase of works began, in or after 1066.

The present undercroft dates from the late 1060s or early 1070s. A detailed record was made of the stone used and of the architectural elements, including rare examples of mid 11th-century vaulting. The excavation also provided evidence for 12th-13th-century rearrangements – the creation of the Pyx chapel and St Dunstan’s Chapel – and of the conversion of the building, at or just before the Dissolution, into a warming room or store.

The paper includes a major series of finds’ reports. One of the earliest objects is a fragment of Roman tile with the stamp of the Procurators of Britain. Most of the pottery was securely stratified in mid 11th-century contexts and, being one of very few such groups from Westminster or Southwark, provides an important check on the London type series of late Saxon pottery, which has so far been compiled almost entirely from City finds. Nearly two hundred fragments of window glass were found – presumably waste from glazing the first Abbey buildings – and a number of decorated tiles, some of which may also be dated to the time of the Abbey’s construction. The site yielded copious environmental evidence, principally from the mid 11th-century ditch. This seems to have acted as a general rubbish dump for the Abbey, containing a mixture of exotic food debris, such as sturgeon, and humble peasants’ food such as rye bread.

[Transactions 46 (1995), 69 – 124; abstract by Francis Grew, 10-Aug-97]

Back to Volume 46