During 1990, I was involved in what transpired to be the biggest archaeological survey undertaken at the time of a church in use and involved the dismantling and re-erection of a mediaeval church tower -- the first time such a thing had been undertaken in the UK. The following is a transcript of the text which I prepared for publication in the "in-house" magazine of Kellingley Colliery, prepared following a request for an article about the Church and British Coal's involvement with it, which was creating much local interest amongst the workforce and local residents.
Malcolm Webb FRICS MCIArb
As a result of proposed coal workings from Kellingley Colliery, preventive works have had to be carried out to protect the structural integrity of the mediaeval Church of St. Edmund, Kellington.
It has been necessary to design a scheme to sit the Church on new foundations incorporating facilities to jack the Church back to level following future mineworkings. The Church is now founded on a reinforced concrete ring beam and sits upon 17 bridge bearings. Unfortunately, the structural stability of the tower was such that it would not withstand the underpinning and so it has had to be dismantled and re-erected.
In order to facilitate the work, an archaeological survey has been carried out by the Archaeological Department of the University of York to carefully record everything which would be destroyed by the civil engineering works. This has involved the total excavation of the interior of the Church and of the immediate external surroundings up to 6 metres outside the Church walls and down to a depth of approximately 2 metres. It also involved the stone by stone recording of the tower as it was dismantled.
This is probably the most extensive archaeological survey which has yet been carried out at a church in use and is certainly the first time that a mediaeval church tower has been completely dismantled and re-erected.
The findings of the survey are currently being evaluated and it will probably be 2 years before the full findings are published. A preliminary report of the findings has just been published however, and a number of important finds have been recorded.
The most surprising find has been the discovery of over 800 intact burials dating back at least 1200 years. The site has been an important burial ground for several centuries and was originally the site of a single funeral involving the burial of an individual oriented on a south-north alignment, possibly under a cairn of large cobbles which was later dispersed. No date for this burial can yet be given, but it is likely to date from the period 550-750 A.D. This individual will be the subject of a full pathological investigation, and radio-carbon dating will ultimately give us the exact age of the remains.
An early burial ground pre-dating the earliest parts of the existing Church has also been discovered. In fact, this burial ground also pre-dates an earlier Anglo-Saxon Church which stood on the site, evidence of which was found by way of a rectangular platform of pitched thin magnesium limestone flags set in dry mortar. This platform was uncovered beneath the floor of the existing nave, and whilst it had been pierced extensively by post-mediaeval graves its former extent and limits were obvious in the excavation.
A systematic exhumation of graves had been carried out in preparation for this early church, and there were several burials which were obviously associated with it. They share the same alignment as the platform and post-date the early cemetery, but pre-date the first phase of the existing Church. this means that the Saxon church cannot have existed later than about 1050-1100 AD.
Within the north aisle of the Church was discovered a burial which has come to be known as the "knight's grave". The remains of this individual will also be the subject of future investigation, but the burial was marked with a carved gravestone estimated to date from around 1350, and preserved in almost perfect condition. This stone is 6'4" long, 2'5" wide at the head, and 6" thick, and has a carved design in bold relief of an ornamental cross and a sword which, in those days, was the usual indication of a knight. The slab is so well preserved that the mason's scribed setting out lines are still perfectly clear.
Another important discovery was the presence of an underground chamber beneath the north-east chapel, with access only via steps behind the chancel leading down to a doorway. This underground room was constructed in the 15th century when the chapel was extended eastwards and was filled up sometime afterwards, all knowledge of it being lost until recently. This chamber is interpreted as being a sacristy, mainly because of its restricted access from within the chancel behind the high alter. Its purpose would be for the preparation of material for the church services, and as a robing room for priests. The presence of a small wall-hearth, containing residues of ash, with a flue above within the thickness of the wall would indicate its use also as a place for the disposal of surplus consecrated material which can only be destroyed by fire.
In view of the short time scale allowed for the archaeological dig (from October 1990 to January 1991) little time was available to interpret the findings. This will be done at leisure by York University staff and will be the subject of a full report to be published later.
Dismantling of the tower was done stone by stone, each stone being numbered in accordance with an accurate plan. The tower is currently being re-erected on its new foundations with every existing stone, repaired where necessary, going back into its original position.
A preliminary jacking operation has recently been successfully carried out to raise the Church by 10mm to test the operation of the system.
In future, jacking will be done as and when necessary to restore the Church to level as a result of future mineworkings, but physical damage to the fabric of the Church will be kept to an absolute minimum as a result of the reinforced ring beam which now forms the foundation of the Church.
I am in the process of turning my information and photographs on this project into a book which I hope to publish in due course. In the meantime, a draft of the complete text can be seen in pdf format by clicking the following link. The text is provided for research purposes only and is copyright.
© M. F. Webb 1991 - 2012