Anyone who’s ever seen BBC Springwatch will know that RSPB Minsmere is an excellent place to spot rare birds. But today, birders had an opportunity to spot something even rarer: archaeologists.
Leaving the Landrover at the gates, a carefully-picked team of DigVenturers made their way silently through the reserve – any foul move could be catastrophic for Minsmere’s nesting birds.
We were heading right in the heart of the reserve on a very special mission: to investigate the ruins of a medieval chapel.
Ruins often get seen as something frozen in time – untouched, and unchanging. But take a closer look and their walls will bear the scars of a chequered past: you can see evidence of how they were built, knocked down, recycled, rebuilt and refashioned for new purposes.
The story of Minsmere chapel begins in 1182, when a little-known order of priests decided to settle here and build themselves a glorious abbey. They had just one problem: the site was marshy, wet and increasingly prone to flooding. They soon realised their mistake.
By 1363, they had dismantled the entire abbey and carried it stone by stone a few miles inland to a new, drier site close to the village of Leiston. But they left something behind: a tiny chapel, whose ruins still stand today.
We don’t yet know why they left it there. Perhaps some of them couldn’t bear to leave the site entirely, or perhaps it was a useful outpost? Somewhere secluded where they could bring in goods from the sea?
Either way, life continued inland at Leiston Abbey until the priests were finally ousted by the Dissolution. While the new abbey was reclaimed and turned into a farm, the chapel was left to ruin for almost 700 years.
But as any history buff will know, Suffolk’s coast was hugely important during WW2 – if the German’s had invaded, this would have been the first line of defence. The landscape is dotted with concrete pillboxes and what better place to conceal one than inside the ruins of a medieval chapel?
In a move that would horrify many people now, WW2 soldiers knocked the gables down and installed a pillbox, leaving behind two mounds of rubble that no one has looked through before. What clues to the early life of Leiston Abbey could we find?
Our special ops team started out by sifting through the rubble. It was heavy going – full of medieval cobbles and building waste. But that wasn’t all…
Meanwhile, Venturer Hugh circled the chapel taking photos. Then he circled it again, this time taking photos with his camera on a pole. Back at HQ, we fed them into Hugh’s computer. By the end of the day, we had an intricate 3D model of the chapel ready for conservationists to explore in virtual reality!
This was just an initial foray into the ruins to assess how much remains. With such a heady combination of medieval intrigue and WW2 archaeology, we’re just going to have to come back!
If you’d like to be part of the team, you’ll have to stay tuned for announcements – we want to find out what was really going on at Minsmere and we’re going to need your help!
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