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Excavations at Whitby Abbey

Our work has revolutionised understanding of Whitby Headland’s history through time. The analysis of 21 years of excavation and survey work is currently being undertaken by members of the team.

Roman & prehistory

The earliest occupation so far identified was an enclosure containing a round house of late Bronze Age date.  A Roman presence is attested by finds, but the late signal station thought to have been located here has long gone – some 500m of land has been lost to coastal erosion in the last 2,000 years.

Archaeologists digging in a trench on excavating a chapel in the Anglian cemetery Whitby Abbey is in the background.
Excavations in 2014 on a chapel in the Anglian cemetery. The 13th century Abbey is in the background. © Historic England

Anglian

The Anglian period is the most important historically. The Abbey founded by St Hild in 657 was the site of the great Synod of 664 which decided in favour of Roman over Celtic ecclesiastical rites. Once thought to be a small group of stone cells, we can now show a major settlement, fitting for a royal abbey.

Much of an extensive lay settlement has been lost to the sea, but timber buildings containing evidence for industry including glass working have been excavated. The extent of the monastic cemetery near the later abbey has been confirmed and two Anglian cross fragments were found in the area.

To the south of the Abbey it is possible that a major ditch cuts off the Headland from the river Esk to the west to the North Sea on the east side. This Anglian ditch excludes a major contemporary cemetery within which was a small stone chapel, excavated in 2014.

Small fragment above a red and white rod used to show scale
Anglian cross head fragment from the area of the Abbey cemetery. © Historic England

Norman period & later

Little evidence for the Norman re-foundation of the Abbey has emerged from the work, but the 13th century monastic precinct boundary has been identified.

The landscape around the boundary was entirely covered by ridge and furrow ploughing. Within the boundary the area had been terraced, such that the high altar within the Abbey stood on the high point, and the church was the most visible element.

After the dissolution the Abbey was acquired by the Cholmley family, who built Abbey House, altering the monastic terraces to create yards and gardens surrounding their fine new house, of which the modern visitor centre occupies the façade.

17th Century stone surface in foreground, in the middle ground 2 archaeologists excavate a trench at the foot of the façade of Cholmley House with two stories of windows filled with cement
The 17th century hard garden in front of the façade of Abbey House. © Historic England

Background

The Whitby Headland Project began in 1993 with the intention of improving the visitor facilities, and contributing new knowledge to site interpretation.

Evaluations around Abbey Lands Farm  revealed significant archaeology , and from 1996 the development of a new visitor centre around the so-called Banqueting House, a  surviving 17th century wing of Abbey House, was undertaken necessitating many archaeological investigations.  

The new Cholmley’s House Visitor Centre was opened in 2002. In 1999 and 2000 a research excavation was conducted on the Abbey Lands Farm, revealing an extensive Anglian Christian cemetery.

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Contact

Tony Wilmott

Senior Archaeologist

Fort Cumberland,
Fort Cumberland Road,
Portsmouth,
Hampshire,
P04 9LD

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