Peterborough Cathedral Archaeology: Dr Jackie Hall, November 2011

Dr Jackie Hall gave a great lecture on Peterborough Cathedral and its archaeological history, starting with the caveat that the history would never fit into 45 minutes and that for a considerable period of the Cathedral’s history it was an Abbey, not a Cathedral at all. She also made the point that the Cathedral is the reason for Peterborough’s existence.

Dr Jackie Hall lectures in St Johns Church

Dr Jackie Hall lectures in St Johns Church

Dr Hall began her lecture by showing a drawing of the oldest object in the Cathedral, the palm cup, found in a coffin. Most of what we know about the Cathedral in the very early period comes from Bede and the Anglo Saxon Chronicle. (An online version of this text can be found here). However the Abbey may well have been founded upon an earlier Roman site, most likely a Fen edge temple. Some evidence for this comes from some surviving inscriptions and part of a wide column. However any building remains will have been hidden under the existing building.
There is more evidence of Mercian sculpture, some of which is now held in Fletton Church, and some still remaining within the transept walls. The most famous stone is the Hedda stone, found in the East end of the Cathedral behind the presbytery. A nice photo and article on this stone can be found on the Megalithic Portal here. This stone has been linked to the Vikings as it is named by the Abbot Hedda who was murdered when the Vikings sacked the Abbey, but it actually dates from earlier. There is not a great deal of evidence from the Viking period in the Cathedral, so we don’t know how much of the town then known as Medehampstede was destroyed by them.
The religious life of Peterborough was quiet until 1000 years after the Vikings, when the Abbey was re-founded. At this time the Abbey came to be called ‘Burgh’ due to the defensive wall around it, giving the city the name ‘Peterborough’ with the dedication.
The 10th century leaves much more in the way of archaeological remains, such as gravestones and the foundations. Some are crosses carved from local Barnack stone. The reason so much was known about this period relates to 18th and 19th century works to fix a collapsing tower. This removed the piers and thus exposed the Anglo Saxon church below the more recent foundations. These remains are still in situ under the modern day Cathedral. Very cramped and fragile, they used to be open to visitors but are no longer.
The ‘burgh’ wall was discovered in part during excavations in the 1980s in the Dean’s garden. Today the Cathedral are a rich resource of built and underground archaeology, with more still to be discovered about its past.
Dr Jackie Hall takes questions from the audience at the end of the lecture

Dr Jackie Hall takes questions from the audience at the end of the lecture

Useful links:


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