10th January 2019:

In 2018 the first of two community excavations supervised by OA East took place at the site of a former Benedictine Abbey in Ramsey, historically an island in the Cambridgeshire fens.

In its heyday, Ramsey Abbey was one of the richest abbeys in England. Most of the Benedictine monastery was demolished following the dissolution but some remains were incorporated into Ramsey Abbey House which is now a secondary school, Abbey College. OA East conducted several archaeological investigations within the school grounds between 1998 and 2006. In 2012, pupils from the school, together with members of the local community, took part in test pit excavations within the scheduled area as part of a Young Roots project funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

The original layout of the monastic buildings and the extent of the abbey precinct is still not well understood and in 2017 a community archaeology group, Ramsey Abbey Community Project (RACP), formed to conduct the first comprehensive geophysical survey of the school grounds. RACP was begun by members of the Warboys Archaeology Project, who were initially trained in the use of geophysical survey equipment by OA East as part of the Jigsaw Cambridgeshire network of community volunteer archaeologists. Earlier this year, RACP successfully applied to the Heritage Lottery Fund for a grant to excavate some of the potential archaeological anomalies identified by their survey and to run public events to raise the profile of this important heritage site.

The summary excavation report is now available to download from our digital library, along with other OA East reports on previous investigations in Ramsey: https://library.thehumanjourney.net/4576/

Two of the three excavation areas opened this summer targeted low resistance anomalies thought to be a drainage ditch and an associated landscape feature. In actual fact, a series of intercutting ditches was revealed, the earliest being a large north to south orientated ditch. Whilst it contained 13th to 14th century pottery, this early version may have been part of the 12th century defences constructed by Geoffrey de Mandeville when he used Ramsey Abbey as a headquarters during the Anarchy. Once established, the ditch became part of the abbey precinct boundary, identified on the same alignment in previous excavations by OA East and as earthworks in fields to the north. Late medieval and post-medieval pottery found in later versions of the ditch indicates that it was in use for around 700 years before finally being backfilled in the 19th century.

A trackway ran along the eastern side of the precinct boundary, represented by a hollow filled with mixed dumped deposits including tile and 12th to 14th century pottery. It may be that this trackway was used during expansion of the abbey in this period, whilst the absence of later medieval and early post medieval pottery suggests abandonment following the dissolution. A 3D model of these two excavation areas can be viewed on the OA Sketchfab account here: https://skfb.ly/6BsrJ

The third excavation area was targeted over a discrete high resistance anomaly, believed to be a structure of some kind. Upon excavation this was found to be a brick clamp kiln, dating from the 16th or 17th century. The kiln, which contained residues of unfired bricks, brick wasters and ash, is likely to relate to the post-dissolution destruction and remodelling of the grounds of the abbey by the Cromwells. The amount of waster material found surrounding the clamp was probably indicative of multiple re-uses of this area for brick making. A 3D model of the clamp kiln (before and after excavation) can also be viewed on Sketchfab here: https://skfb.ly/6Bs88

 Ramsey Abbey Community Project volunteers excavating area A1

Over 30 volunteers took part in the excavations, including current and former pupils of Ramsey College, without whose help we would not have achieved such fantastic results in such a short time. RACP also welcomed members of the public to the site during an open weekend. OA East will return to Ramsey Abbey with RACP next summer for another two-week community excavation and, in the third year of their HLF project, RACP will create a travelling exhibition of finds and information about Ramsey Abbey and a local heritage trail.