It is the most iconic building in Whitby, yet the Abbey remains shrouded in mystery.
Over a period of 20 years archaeologists have dug trenches across the plain and dangled from cliffs as they sought to learn more about the area’s history.
Just this week, a previously unknown chapel was uncovered by archaeologists as the largest study ever undertaken within the Abbey grounds draws to a conclusion.
Tony Wilmot is leading a team of nine English Heritage specialists and he said: “There used to be an idea that Whitby Abbey was a little group of monks freezing in their cells. We have demonstrated that it was actually a large and substantial settlement in the Anglo-Saxon period.”
Hundreds of previously-unknown features have been uncovered, including a 1,300-year-old cemetery that contains around 300 burials.
At the centre of this a small chapel has been identified - one of the oldest buildings to have ever existed on the site.
It was a small sandstone building measuring just 10m by 5m and was in use 600 years before the familiar Abbey building we see today was even constructed.
The chapel was in use during a period of history when the British Isles were split into seven kingdoms and perpetual war meant life was tough, violent and often short - the average life expectancy was just 34 years.
From this turmoil a Northumbrian king named Oswy instructed Abbess Hild to construct a monastery in Whitby in 657AD, just in time to host the Synod of Whitby. This meeting brought together the Irish and Roman branches of the church, tying England together under the Catholic faith and fixing a date for Easter.
Tony said: “The Synod held here was of great significance and nothing more important happened until the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII.”
Since the project began in 1995, technology has greatly improved and high-tech tools are now used to accurately plot every artefact, stone, post hole and plough trough that is uncovered.
Yet for archaeologists, their greatest tool remains the humble trowel.
On hands and knees, gradually scraping back the surface, an archaeologist forms a close attachment to his trowel.
“You love your trowel,” said Tony, who keeps the first one he ever bought as a good luck charm. “Everyone’s trowel develops the signature of their own way of digging.”
By gradually scraping back the surface, the cemetery and chapel have over the past two weeks been uncovered.
All the bodies interred within the cemetery are aligned east to west, confirming it was an early Christian burial ground. Yet the harsh Whitby clay at first made dating the graveyard difficult.
The clay upon which the Abbey was built is acidic and causes relatively rapid erosion of biological matter.
After 1,000 years all that remains of bone is crumbly fragments that fall to pieces as soon as they are revealed. In other graves the only evidence a human body ever lay there is a brown stain and tiny fragments of tooth enamel.
So it was fortunate when the archaeologists stumbled across an extremely rare cremation among the graves, which allowed carbon dating to take place.
This fixed the cemetery firmly within the first few decades of the Abbey’s history.
Almost 200 graves have been confirmed, but it is estimated there could be up to 300 in the area of excavation.
These new burials are basic and tightly packed, so they were the regular inhabitants of early Whitby - the everyday glassmakers, weavers, jet carvers and fishermen.
“I think this is the lay community,” said Tony. “You have men, women and children buried here.”
“We are really fortunate to have got the story out that we have,” added Tony. “It looks like you work hard for very little but by the time we have got the big picture I think people will be surprised at just what’s come out.”
A thousand years ago, the Abbey headland actually spread half a kilometre further out to sea and there is evidence of a large settlement there.
Whitby back then would have looked very different to today, although there was a thriving fishing community on the east side.
There would have been little inhabitation on the western banks of the Esk, while a large settlement grew up around the abbey as residents sought to take advantage of the huge wealth the establishment gathered.
The current dig at the Abbey is expected to be the last held within the grounds for a generation. Following its completion, Tony will begin writing a book that will span the history of the Abbey plain over 3,000 years, from the Bronze Age to the shelling of Whitby in 1914.
“We have answered some questions and we have asked some more,” he said. “But the process never stops and you can never say you know the truth about anything, like life. But you can make a damn good stab at it.”
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