THE discovery of a 14th-century stone head and a rosary bead at Shaftesbury Abbey “raises a lot more questions than it answers”, an archaeologist has said.
The expert, Dr Julian Richards, said in a statement on Monday: “Archaeology is about people, not about objects. Objects can tell us about people, and, occasionally, you find something that has an amazing human story, even if you’ll never know all its details.”
The stone head and the bead were found in the ruins of the abbey during a dig in August 2019 led by Dr Richards. The identity and the sex of the person represented by the head are still uncertain. On Thursday of last week, however, it was announced that an examination conducted by the director of Built Heritage Ltd, Dr Jonathan Foyle, had shown the head to be from the 1340s, and most probably depicting a monarch such as Edward II.
“The hairstyle is similar to known carvings of Edward II. That can be figured out by comparisons with known dated sculptures from the period. Tombs and statues, particularly those with certain types of stone, that have survived can show who a figure is, and what date it’s from,” Dr Richards said.
“Hairstyles can also be quite generic. It could be a queen rather than a king, or a general royal figure to emphasise Shaftesbury’s royal connections.”
The black bead, which was found during the same dig, is made of jet, and is thought to be from a set of rosary beads.
Shaftesbury Abbey was founded in 888 by King Alfred the Great, and became the first religious house exclusively for women. It was dissolved by Henry VIII in 1539, and by 1550 the building had been destroyed. Most of the stone was taken away to be used elsewhere. Decorative masonry would have been of little use, however, and more likely to survive.
“These discoveries have been very exciting, because they were right at the end of the dig; we didn’t expect something like this, as nothing similar has been found at the abbey before,” Dr Richards said. “The head is more than just a piece of architecture, as what it has shown us for the first time is that the church had a screen separating the chancel from the knave, adorned with high-quality statuary.
“Previous excavations have found a lot of architectural fragments, and so we’re trying to use those to piece together what the Abbey looked like.”
Dr Richards said that the rosary bead hinted at a significant, if incomplete, story about the abbey’s history. “Objects that are handled a lot become smooth, and are therefore far more likely to survive long periods in the ground. How did it end up in the rubble of the destruction? Did it break? How did such a spiritual, tranquil place come to be invaded and destroyed? Just by holding it, you get a sense of the contrast between the peace and destruction that took place here.”
Shaftesbury Abbey Museum and Gardens, where the objects are currently held, is closed because of the pandemic, but the plan is to reopen it to the public in the spring of 2021, when both objects will be on display.