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Shropshire church stands on Neolithic site of worship dating back to 2000 BC

02 June 2017

Sarah Hart

Unearthed: the Stone Age post, with some of the archaeological team, led by Janey Green (second from the right)

Unearthed: the Stone Age post, with some of the archaeological team, led by Janey Green (second from the right)

A FORMER Anglican church in the corner of a Shropshire field could be one of the oldest sacred sites still in use in Britain.

An archaeological dig at the former Church of St John the Baptist, Sutton, Shrewsbury, has un­­earthed evidence that links it to a 4000-year-old Neolithic-ritual site near by, which was discovered dur­ing the 1960s. The present church dates from medieval times, but is known to have been built on the site of a seventh-century Saxon church. So experts were “shocked” when a 15-inch wooden post, excavated in February, was carbon-dated to 2033 BC.

“We thought we had found a Saxon post that formed part of an earlier church among the medieval foundations,” said Janey Green, the owner of Basker­­ville Archaeological Services, which carried out the dig.

“What we actually have is a sacred site dating back over 4000 years. It appears that the current medieval church is built over the site of an ancient pagan burial-ground that has been in use from the late Neolithic period through Bronze Age, Iron Age, Roman, and Anglo-Saxon times, to today.

The findings, she said, indicated that this special place had been honoured by our ances­­tors, from at least 2000 years before Christ. “All this was being built and used at the same time as the ancient Egyptians were building pyramids for their pharaohs. What makes this site different is the continuity of rit­ual practice in one form or other.”

Fifty years ago, in excavations on a neighbouring site, which today is part of a housing estate, Neolithic and Bronze Age burial mounds and cremations were discovered. Arch­­aeologists also found slots for stand­ing stones, two rows of post-holes, and a ditch that they inter­preted as being a processional walkway, ex­­­tending towards the present church.

Over the years, the building has had different uses, including farm storage. In 1994, it was sold in poor condition for £50 to the Greek Orthodox community, which restored it and renamed it the Church of the Holy Fathers of Nicaea. Their priest, Fr Stephen Maxfield, said: “Who would have thought that this little church would turn out to have a history of great significance? “From the moment we first saw this building as a crumbling ruin, full of farmer’s clutter, we thought it was very special. Now we know that it is.”

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