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Down to earth in history hunt; A team of volunteer archaeologists is investigating the origins of an ancient Midland abbey. Mary Griffin joined them.

Byline: Mary Griffin

Until recently, this forgotten corner of the grounds of a historic Midland abbey was covered in nettles and brambles.

But now a team of volunteers is on the verge of cracking a thousand year old riddle after discovering bodies which may date from Roman times.

"We are discovering at the moment whether we are old, very old or very, very old," says Father Philip Wells at Polesworth Abbey near Tamworth, where hundreds of volunteers, overseen by professionals, have been uncovering treasures of the past.

The team at Polesworth know the abbey dates back to the 1300s, but have found items that appear to date back 200 years further. While there are theories that the abbey was first founded in 827 (which, apparently, would make them "very old") the latest findings could, says Father Philip, date back as far as the Roman occupation.

The dig, backed by the Heritage Lottery Fund, began at the ancient scheduled monument in 2011, as part of a necessary reconnaissance mission before the abbey embarks on a new building plan.

In the first summer these "Time Teams" made up of volunteers from a 20-mile radius, unearthed magnificently preserved tiles and jewellery dating back to the Saxon period. But they didn't yet realise then what discoveries lay ahead.

Father Philip, dressed in a dog collar, black cassock and high visibility vest, says: "Usually if you find three whole tiles you're doing well but we found 1,000.

"There were nine known Warwickshire Medieval varieties of floor tile and here we found ten."

But as last summer's dig was drawing to a close the team struck upon human remains in a patch of land west of the Abbey.

the Abbey. So far, they have unearthed seven bodies, buried under layers of Medieval floors and foundations, and today they are drafting in an osteologist from York University who will study the bones in-situ, planning to carbon date them, but also hoping to find key facts about who these people were and how they came to be here.

Father Philip already has his own theory and struggles to contain his excitement that these remains could be Roman.

He says: "A building dating back to 1300 means we're old, but underneath that was a post-Norman building, and beneath that there are Saxon buildings, which would make us "very old".

"Underneath that we seem to have a burial ground. Now, the Saxons wouldn't have built on a known graveyard so this must be a lost graveyard from before that time."

But Coventry-born professional archaeologist Jonathan Elston isn't yet convinced by Father Philip's Roman hopes.

He's putting his money on the seven bodies - found with arms crossed over their chests, their skulls pointing to the west and their feet to the east - being early Medieval or late Saxon, possibly dating back to the 1100s.

He says: "I don't think they're earlier than that because of the east-west alignment. It's typical of a Christian burial. There are no grave goods and that would be quite typical of Roman burials. They could be Roman - but I don't think they are."

He adds: "Living history isn't that long in that period [the 1100s], because you're only living to 30 or 40 years old, so chances are that in 100 years you've gone through three generations and things go out of living memory quite quickly. They wouldn't have had big gravestones marking them, so effectively, in 50 to 100 years a burial ground like this could be lost."

The team are all hoping the osteologist will fill in the blanks.

By studying the bone fusion, deterioration and wearing of the teeth she should be able to decipher their age, gender, and possibly more.

as was Jonathan says: "You can get a fair amount of information from a skeleton. "Just by looking at the wearing of the teeth you can sometimes tell what they've been doing and whether they've been making things using their teeth. Sometimes you'll find clean breaks in bones and be able to tell if people have been riding horses or doing heavy manual labour.

"Some bones you find are really slender and you think it's a female body, but then you find out it's a male and they've been a cleric, or equally you can find bones that are twice the size and really heavy and that person has been working out in the field.

"The attachments of the muscles to the bone itself get larger just from strength."

The carbon dating process will take three months to shed more light on the age of the remains.

Once the bones have been studied at the site they will be lifted from the ground, placed in small coffins, and given a commemoration ceremony at the abbey on September 8. "The volunteers get very attached to their find and their 'person'," says Father Philip who has watched the skeletons uncovered one-by-one. "Each person will be able to take theirs back up the churchyard in a procession and put them in a grave.

"It will be a 2013 burial for these people, however old they are."

CAPTION(S):

The Abbey as was

Vicar of Polesworth Fr Philip Wells looking a some previous finds

Rob Need, right, at work at Polesworth Abbey, Warwickshire. Above and below: some of the finds
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Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Aug 29, 2013
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