Excavation at Bath Abbey

Bath Abbey location planCotswold Archaeology has recently undertaken an excavation at Bath Abbey as part of Phase One of Bath Abbey’s Footprint Project, a major programme to repair the Abbey’s collapsing floor, install an eco-friendly heating system using energy from Bath’s hot springs, and create new spaces and facilities which will enable the Abbey to improve its worship, hospitality and service to the community, visitors and the city of Bath. As part of Phase 1 of the Footprint project, some initial excavation work took place earlier this year to shore up the foundations and to create some of the new underground spaces along the south side of the building, just outside the Abbey shop (known as the Jackson extension).

Rather than creating the underground spaces from scratch, the Abbey was able to use a small area of former cellars which date from the late 1750s. These became infilled when several buildings, known as the Kingston Buildings, were demolished around 1834 and the resultant rubble used to backfill the cellars. The first stage of work involved the monitoring, by Cotswold Archaeology, of the mechanical removal the cellar infill down to the old cellar floors. Following this, CA commenced removal, by hand excavation, of the deposits underlying the former cellar floors down to the construction level required for the new store rooms.

The excavation uncovered a compacted gravel and stone construction deposit which had been laid down in a single event, although it had been compacted into several layers during its deposition. This deposit may have formed a rafted foundation for construction of the Norman Abbey; a wall footing relating to the Norman Abbey was recorded overlying this deposit in the edge of the trench. However, similar deposits were uncovered during earlier works at the adjacent Roman Baths, where they were believed to be the base of a Roman podium associated with the Roman Baths and Temple complex. The southern edge of the deposit had been cut away by a trench whose location suggested it had been excavated to rob stones from a wall associated with the deposit.


Gravel and stone construction deposit with probable Norman Abbey wall in upper right hand corner of photo

The base of a wooden coffin, which had been heavily disturbed by the construction of the later cellar in the late 1750s, lay to the south of the robber trench. Any skeletal remains were probably removed and re-buried at that time, as only three small fragments of bone were found within the remains of the coffin. Several coffin nails, and a possible coffin plate, were associated with the remains of the coffin – a large piece of which was recovered intact. The coffin is likely to be of 17th-century date or earlier. Another probable burial lay adjacent though was not excavated as it lay beyond the required limits of the excavation.

Recovery of the largest surviving piece of the coffin

Recovery of the largest surviving piece of the coffin

A mortar surface, identified in the deepest part of the trench, was likely associated with a cellar of the Abbey House, which was constructed in the 17th century to accommodate visitors to Bath. At some stage this cellar was infilled with a large amount of residual Roman material, and around 1750 new cellars were constructed when several houses, depicted on 18th-century mapping as the ‘Kingston Buildings’ abutting the south-west corner of the Abbey, were constructed. These cellars featured several light wells and at least two fireplaces. They were infilled in the early 1830s when the Kingston Buildings were demolished prior to construction of the moat around the Abbey.