Dig may unlock Dunwich secrets

ARCHAEOLOGISTS are hoping to carry out a major five-year dig at a nationally important historical site before it is lost to the sea.They face a race against time to collect information about Greyfriars Priory at Dunwich before the site is washed away by coastal erosion.

By Sarah Chambers

ARCHAEOLOGISTS are hoping to carry out a major five-year dig at a nationally important historical site before it is lost to the sea.

They face a race against time to collect information about Greyfriars Priory at Dunwich before the site is washed away by coastal erosion.

Suffolk County Council is preparing a bid for a 90% grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund to help cover the dig, which is expected to cost around £750,000.


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The ambitious excavation would involve the complete excavation and salvage of buried historical artefacts – including uncovering 1,000 burials at the site.

It is estimated that more than half the Franciscan friary ruins will be lost through coastal erosion over the next 35 years, and that in 70 years, it will have suffered the same fate as most of the ancient medieval city, which has already been lost to the sea.

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Such a dig at a Scheduled Ancient Monument is seen as a rare chance to gain insights into medieval life.

Because the town and site was abandoned and never developed, the Dunwich Greyfriars provides a unique opportunity to uncover the entire ground plan of a friary and its associated cemetery.

The priory, which was founded in 1277, probably moved to its present site in 1290, but would have ceased to be used during the dissolution of the monasteries in 1538.

There were many friaries in medieval England, but as they were all founded in towns and were largely demolished at the dissolution and their sites redeveloped, very few have been excavated on a large scale.

Under the proposals, mechanical diggers will be brought in to remove topsoil from each area, and the dig itself will be completed by hand. Once an area has been excavated, it will be covered over and returned to grass.

Only one area will be dug at a time to limit disruption at the site.

Archaeologists expect to uncover finds which will be of academic value only, such as pottery, floor and roof tiles and bones. There is virtually no chance that treasure trove – gold or silver – will be found.

The information gathered will help them to piece together the Dunwich story more completely than ever before.

It is expected that a range of finds will be displayed at the Dunwich Museum for visitors and residents to view.

Lectures for residents are scheduled throughout the life of the project, and there would be public involvement in the dig.

Keith Wade, archaeological services manager at Suffolk County Council, said that community support was important, and they would be making a presentation about the proposed dig to Dunwich parishioners on October 22.

There was a great deal to learn about the site. A limited excavation took place in 1935 to 39 and in 1999, the whole site was evaluated to find the extent of the friary and its state of preservation. Trial trenches were dug, and an earth works and geophysical survey carried out which established the likely layout of the friary buildings.

"Hardly any excavation has taken place at all really," he said. "It's a remarkable opportunity."

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