Roman discoveries shock archaeologists at Northampton's 12th century Delapre Abbey

By Ben Miller | 12 January 2016

High-quality pottery has predated archaeologists' expected finds by 1,000 years at a former monastery

A photo of people holding up archaeological remains at Delapre Abbey in Northampton
Iain Soden (right) with Councillor Tim Hadland, of Northampton Borough Council, at the town's Delapre Abbey© Courtesy Craig Forsyth
It might sound sensible for archaeologists to have expected medieval discoveries at Delapre Abbey, a former nunnery in Northampton which once belonged to the congregation of a French Benedictine monastery.

Days of toiling, carried out as part of the abbey preservation trust’s 18-month, £6.3 million restoration of the site concluding this summer, have struck upon plenty of pottery from during and after the period. But Iain Soden, the man who is overseeing the excavations, never anticipated the Roman remains which turned up last week.

A photo of people holding up archaeological remains at Delapre Abbey in Northampton
A copper alloy pin found at the site© Courtesy Craig Forsyth
“I ought to have sat down and had a stiff drink,” he laughs, discussing the work at the former nunnery and post-dissolution country house. “There was the odd mention on the Historic Environment record of bits of Roman material round about.

“We have Roman material around Northampton – there’s a Roman villa about a mile and a half away. But a mile and a half is a long way.

A photo of people holding up archaeological remains at Delapre Abbey in Northampton
This glass phial was among the discoveries© Courtesy Craig Forsyth
“I guess, the thing is, it’s a decent landscape, it’s well watered, so why shouldn’t it have appealed to another generation long before? I’m never surprised when stuff is found – but it wasn’t expected, that was all.

“The last thing I expected to find, after 18 months without, was anything Roman. To actually come across a bit was quite a shocker.”

A photo of people holding up archaeological remains at Delapre Abbey in Northampton
Archaeologists were surprised by the high-quality pottery© Courtesy Craig Forsyth
Earlier in the summer, during a three-week spell when the ground was “hard as nails” – a distant memory from its current, ultra-soft state – the team emptied a medieval cellar. The latest trenching was part of a new gas mains, and previous utilities work, as well as some gardening, had badly disturbed the much earlier artefacts.

“It meant that the pottery was pretty well smashed up, but we’re hoping that the vessels may well be reconstructed and might be on show when the abbey opens again in September,” says Soden.

A photo of people holding up archaeological remains at Delapre Abbey in Northampton
A multi-million pound renovation is taking place at the former nunnery© Dave Dunford / geograph.org.uk
“It’s one of those jigsaw puzzles. We can all wash and mark the pottery, but reconstructing is a different matter altogether.

“There are some really nice pieces here and they will be of value in telling the wider story of this site. It made all the damp mornings and aching backs worthwhile.”

A photo of people holding up archaeological remains at Delapre Abbey in Northampton
© Dave Dunford / geograph.org.uk
The abbey is Grade I-listed and a scheduled monument. “It’s a long process and there’s a lot of work going on onsite. The new footprint of the abbey building, including any new structures, is almost complete now in terms of fieldwork.

“One thing we’re trying not to do is make too much disturbance of a listed building in a battlefield landscape. While my archaeological tendencies would say ‘ooh, let’s strip loads of this and get a good area open’, it’s something we have to resist.

A photo of people holding up archaeological remains at Delapre Abbey in Northampton
This 15th century stone structure was previously found beneath the planned site of the new commercial kitchen© Courtesy Northampton Borough Council
“The period that I’m particularly interested in is the medieval one, the monastic angle. We’ve got lots of medieval pottery and the like so it’s going to be worthwhile in archaeological terms.

“We’ll provide the trust and the museum people with the best of what we’ve found.”


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Three abbeys to see

Tintern Abbey, Gwent
Tintern was only the second Cistercian foundation in Britain, and the first in Wales. Very little remains of the first buildings but you will marvel at the vast windows and later decorative details displayed in the walls, doorways and soaring archways.

Balmerino Abbey, Fife
The ruins of Balmerino Abbey are a fine example of a 13th century Cistercian monastery, which became a dwelling house of the lords Balmerino after secularisation in 1603. The abbey is situated in the award-winning hamlet of Balmerino Village where examples of medieval farm buildings can be seen.

Torre Abbey Historic House and Gardens, Torquay
Picture the opulent lifestyle of the Cary family who transformed the abbey into a fine country home. Enjoy the impressive permanent art collection and lively programme of contemporary arts events and visit the beautiful gardens.
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