Kirkdale Archaeology - 20 Years in Field & Study

Kirkdale Archaeology -

Twenty Years in Field and Study






Philip Rahtz and Lorna Watts: excavation, S wall of bell-tower and W wall of nave

The ancient parish church of St Gregory’s Minster, Kirkdale, stands beside Hodge Beck which rises at the far end of Bransdale and runs (partly underground) through Kirkdale, to join the River Dove and, eventually, the River Derwent and the Humber. Sited near the crossing of two ancient routes running north/south and east/west, the ruined church was rebuilt by Orm Gamalson ‘for Christ and for St Gregory … in the days of King Edward [the Confessor] and in the days of Earl Tostig [of York].’ Tostig’s days as earl extended from his appointment in 1055 to his expulsion in 1065. The Minster is famed for the mid-eleventh-century Anglo-Saxon inscription over its south-west door.


The history of the archaeological project centred upon St Gregory’s Minster in Kirkdale, which has now reached the preliminary stages of publication, began in the early 1990s when Philip Rahtz, a much-respected excavator and publisher of excavations, was asked to report on the implications of the poor foundations of the tower, a nineteenth-century addition to the west end of the church. This request was the result of an approach of the then Vicar, the Revd. John Warden, and a member of the congregation, Dr Richard Fletcher, to Professor Martin Carver, who asked Philip to look into it as he lived close-by. This group of people were all associated with the University of York - Philip as the recently-retired founder and first Professor of the Department of Archaeology there, Martin as its second Professor of Archaeology and Richard as an eminent medievalist in the Department of History. Philip, with his wife, Lorna Watts, had recently completed the report on fieldwork, excavations and structural analysis of the primarily Anglo-Saxon church at Deerhurst, Gloucestershire. This had been part of the Society of Antiquaries' churches project, which had already alerted them to the archaeological potential of such a structure and to the perils to the survival of such a structure in a rural setting.

The ensuing work at Kirkdale resulted in over twenty years in the field and in preparing the resulting data for publication. A total of  some 124 square metres has been excavated around the church and in the fields to its immediate north and south; this has been a combination of architect-led projects and research excavation.

On the north side, for example - usually considered to have been the least favoured side of the medieval church and burial-ground, and hence often distinguished by the best undisturbed preservation of archaeological features - the context of a hitherto ignored piece of masonry in the form of a double plinth was investigated and deemed to be probably of early date, with important implications, not only for the building-form of the church but also, arguably, for its cult status.

Inside the church there has been no formal excavation beyond deposition of cremated ashes and installation of an underfloor heating system, although archaeological observations have contributed substantially to the narrative that can now be constructed.

In all this work, we have been generously helped in kind by volunteers, friends and colleagues (this last group providing help in kind, for instance in contributing to the finds reports). The project has to date received grants totalling £3580.

The results now nearing publication are provisionally entitled Kirkdale: Church and Excavations in Context, by the late Philip Rahtz and Lorna Watts. The aim of this work is to place the church within the development of the surrounding area in the pre-Norman period (pre-1066). In it, fieldwork and excavations are presented area by area, beginning with those surrounding the church. The interior of the church is also interrogated before widening the focus to the fields to the north and south. Each area of excavation is interpreted separately from its description. All are accompanied by highly-informative and stylish hand-drawings and photographs by Philip Rahtz. A particularly informative human bone report by Dr E. Craig-Atkins is followed by the remainder of the finds. These include many items of stone, where the geology and the sculpture are dealt with by John Senior and Richard Bailey. Included are the first ever accurate drawings of the late eighth- and ninth-century graveslabs, executed by Daniel van der Toorn.

All is drawn together in a final overview. The main evidence for the sequence of churches, culminating in the present building, is derived primarily from the small area in which the superimposition of several successive junctions of nave and chancel was observed on the south side of the present structure; this has then been correlated with numerous observations from other parts of the structure, both external and internal. The dating for this sequence is linked to the discarded material found in a builders' construction area in the North Field (there is a similar but later dump of construction refuse, assignable to the nineteenth century, in a disused building within the north churchyard wall).

Among the questions considered are the possible relationship of the site to the neighbouring Roman villa, the site of which (until the post-medieval period) was within the parish of Kirkdale; the significance of the dedication to St Gregory within the context of earlier Anglo-Saxon, specifically Deiran, history; whether the church was ever monastic; and its putative relationship to the neighbouring settlement of Kirkbymoorside, which is only clearly visible in the Anglo-Scandinavian period, but may reflect earlier arrangements. The question as to why a church should have been built at Kirkdale, in an isolated setting without any apparent settlement history, may prove explicable in the context of an earlier and older 'sacred' association of the valley in which the church came to be situated.

- Lorna Watts (March 2019)


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