Glastonbury Abbey Celebrates The Antiquarian Frederick Bligh Bond

By Caroline Lewis | 13 June 2008
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Black and white photo of a man in a suit

Frederick Bligh Bond, pictured in 1935. © Glastonbury Abbey, historical archive

Exhibition preview: The Oddest Little Gentleman - Frederick Bligh Bond and the Glastonbury Excavations at Glastonbury Abbey, until August 31 2008

"He is the oddest little gentleman; he sits and talks about archaeology, the fourth dimension and the mathematical relation of form to colour, till you don't know if you are on your head or your heels."

So said novelist Dorothy L Sayers about her contemporary, the eccentric archaeologist and architect Frederick Bligh Bond (1864-1945). Bond was Glastonbury Abbey's first official archaeologist, starting work there in 1908. Now a new exhibition at the Somerset landmark unearths the story of this intriguing character and marks the centenary of his appointment to the Abbey.

The exhibition, which looks at Bligh Bond's achievements and discoveries, also coincides with Glastonbury Festival and the Summer Solstice. It's fitting, as Bligh Bond was a psychical researcher and highly spiritual man, and played a key role in establishing Glastonbury as the heart of English spirituality (even employing a medium to aid his research at the Abbey).

He was the first person to carry out a detailed archaeological survey of the site, and used scientific methods that were by no means standard at the time.

Photo of a ruined abbey

Glastonbury Abbey. © Glastonbury Abbey, historical archive

A scholar, antiquarian and architect, Bligh Bond began his work at Glastonbury the year after it was purchased by public subscription and placed in the hands of the Church of England. It was his discoveries that started the notion of King Arthur's grave and a mystical visit from Joseph of Arimathea to Glastonbury, putting Glastonbury on the map forever.

The exhibition examines Bligh Bond's archaeological methods and the many important finds he made during his excavations at the Abbey. These include a Saxon Cross he used to inspire his design for the town's war memorial.

Photographs, letters, drawings and plans, as well as recently discovered archaeological papers explore his professional life and other more eccentric aspects; such as his membership of the Society for Psychical Research and use of automatic writing techniques.

Illustration of the inside of a medieval abbey

© Glastonbury Abbey, historical archive

Francis Thyer, Deputy Custodian at Glastonbury Abbey, says Bligh Bond is a father of modern archaeology.

"His architectural background meant he gave great attention to detail," he says, "and was making records and plans as he worked, much in the same way as you see on Time Team. Before that, archaeology had not been like that - we have a lot to thank him for."

The final part of the exhibition looks at his later life, when he emigrated to the USA and took another interesting turn by being ordained as a Bishop in the Old Catholic Church of America.

Another interesting snippet about the man is that the double-barrelled surname does indeed indicate his relation to Captain William Bligh of Mutiny of the Bounty fame, in case you were wondering.

More on the venues and organisations we've mentioned:
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