'A most beautiful and opulent abbey'

During 2010 and early 2011 OA East were given the opportunity to work on a research project that included an analytical earthwork survey and wider area investigation of the remains of the 12th-century Cistercian Abbey at Tilty in Essex. A geophysical survey was also carried out within the 5ha scheduled site.

Very little of this secluded abbey survives above ground, other than a section of cloister wall and the former gatehouse chapel, now the parish church. Fortunately there are a number of excellent research tools, including a 1594 estate map, previous excavation plans and an aerial photograph taken in 1996.

The Level 3 measured earthwork survey was undertaken with training and guidance from David McOmish (English Heritage) and was created using the tape and offset method, based on a series of control points established by GPS, at a scale of 1:1000. A digital hachured plan was then created using AutoCAD and Adobe Illustrator. The resulting analytical report was well-received by English Heritage who plan to use it as an exemplar for similar projects in the region.

Evidence for water management, industry (mills, brick kiln), land-use (watermeadows, woodland, pasture, orchards, fishponds), boundaries and buildings both within and beyond the monastic precinct was explored. Other notable aspects include the identification of a possible Late Saxon estate/manorial centre at Tilty Grange, an early hollow way and a previously-unknown ?industrial building within the abbey precinct. The earthwork survey also recorded extensive garden features associated with the post-Dissolution manor house.

tiltyIn addition to providing sufficient information to guide the long term management of the monument and collate material for interpretation boards, one of the main aims of the project was to encourage community participation and raise awareness of the monument within the local area. This proved to be particularly successful, with local volunteers taking part in both the Level 1 and Level 3 surveys; an illustrated talk was also well-attended. This enthusiasm has continued to grow with the setting up of a local archaeology group that will aim to further explore some of the research themes identified by the project.

The interpretation scheme comprises four panels positioned at key points around the site. Each panel details different aspects of the history, archaeology (both buried and standing) and environment of the site, illustrated by a number of superb reconstructions (by freelance illustrator and designer Jon Cane) that really help to bring the abbey back to life.

Image (top) copyright Jon Cane.