There has been digging at Glastonbury for over half a century – in the Lake Villages, in the Abbey grounds, and more recently on the Tor, the highest point of the ‘island’ of Glastonbury. The current work has been initiated by the Chalice Well Trust. The Chalice Well, just below the Tor, was originally a medieval well-house, built to control the water supply to the Abbey in the later twelfth or early thirteenth century. This was buried in silt in later centuries, and with its roof removed now looks like a well. It utilised the constant flow from a major spring; excavation in 1958 around the well showed that the area had been frequented since Mesolithic times. Traditions associate the Chalice Well with the earliest Christian occupation at Glastonbury.
In order to understand the background of early Christianity at Glastonbury, it is necessary to know not only more of the pagan and prehistoric occupation of the area, and the development of Glastonbury as a religious centre in Saxon and medieval times, but also to set these firmly against the topographical and geological features of the island, particularly in relation to such things as sea levels, climate and peat formation.
Pre-Iron Age Glastonbury is represented by isolated finds of Mesolithic and Neolithic flints at Chalice Well and the Tor, and by a stone axe-head from the 1966 excavation. The well-known Lake Villages are being re-assessed by Michael Avery, and it seems that their occupation probably ended some decades before the Claudian conquest. Dr.C.A. Ralegh Radford thinks that it is possible that Glastonbury may have been an important Celtic sanctuary, in an area delimited by the great earthwork at Ponters Ball, which spans the ‘causeway’ linking Glastonbury with the ‘mainland’. Sherds found under this earthwork by Dr. Bulleid are comparable with those from the earlier phases of the lake villages.
Roman pottery has been found at several places – on the Tor, in the Abbey, in the highest levels of the lake villages, and especially in the area around Wearyall Hill; here if anywhere will be found evidence of Christianity within the Roman period.
Dr. Ralegh Radford has good reasons to think that the tradition of Arthur being buried in the Abbey grounds has some foundation, and he has found what he believes to be the robbed grave in recent excavations. In the abbey too, are traces of timber buildings and a great ditch which may be part of the layout of a Celtic monastery pre-dating King Ine’s church of the later 7th century, whose foundations were exposed in pre-war excavations. Post-Roman imported pottery from the eastern Mediterranean has been found on the Tor and probably dates from the 6th.century.
There is the possibility that the Tor was a small monastic site at this time, but the presence of thousands of food-bones in the levels suggests that the occupation was rather more of a secular nature as the monks were not meat-eaters. The imported pottery is all of wine or olive oil jars and it is clear that the 6thcentury buildings were used by people of some wealth and distinction. Other finds were few, but included a small bronze head, possibly a bucket escutcheon, some iron ferrules and a sherd of grass-tempered pottery.
In 1967 a dig is planned at Beckery, on low-lying ground near Wearyall. In 1884, Mr. Morland uncovered the foundations of a medieval chapel and priest’s house, which enclosed the foundations of an earlier chapel, which might be pre-conquest. It looks as if an earlier chapel or shrine remains to be found, possibly of timber. The traditions of the site are recorded by William of Malmesbury, who says that the chapel was originally dedicated to St. Bridget, and was the resort of Irish pilgrims. The area below Wearyall Hill revealed not only Roman sherds but timber structures in situ, which may have been quays by the water edge.
The Chalice Well Trust is most grateful to the National Trust for allowing excavations on the Tor, and to Dr. Ralegh Radford who as chairman of the excavation committee has been a constant source of help and encouragement. All the digging has been done by voluntary workers, including undergraduates of the School of History at the University of Birmingham.
Philip Rahtz, Director of Excavations