New research led by the University of Reading has revealed that finds at Glastonbury Abbey provide the earliest archaeological evidence for glass-making in Britain.
Professor Roberta Gilchrist of the university’s archaeology department has re-examined the records of excavations that took place at Glastonbury in the 1950s and 1960s. Glass furnaces recorded in 1955–57 were previously thought to date from before the Norman Conquest, but radiocarbon dating has now revealed that they date to much earlier, roughly to the 680s, and are likely to be associated with a major rebuilding of the abbey undertaken by King Ine of Wessex. We have documentary records of glass-making at York and Wearmouth for the 670s, but Glastonbury provides the earliest and most substantial archaeological evidence for glass-making in Anglo-Saxon Britain.
The extensive remains of five furnaces have been identified, together with fragments of clay crucibles and glass for window glazing and drinking vessels, mainly of vivid blue-green colour [Fig. 1]. It is likely that specialist glassworkers came from what is now France to work at Glastonbury. The glass will be analysed chemically to provide further information on the sourcing and processing of materials. Professor Gilchrist said: ‘Glastonbury Abbey is a site of international historical importance, but until now the excavations have remained unpublished. The research project reveals new evidence for the early date of the monastery at Glastonbury and charts its development over one thousand years, from the sixth century to its dissolution in the sixteenth century.’ An exhibition at Glastonburg Abbey Museum, ‘From Fire and Earth’, tells the story of the abbey’s pioneering role in medieval crafts and technology, and runs until 16 September 2012.
The full archive of excavations will be brought to publication by Professor Gilchrist, in partnership with the trustees of Glastonbury Abbey, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. The radiocarbon dating was funded by the Somerset Archaeology & Natural History Society and the Society for Medieval Archaeology. Specialist analyses of the glass are being undertaken by Dr Hugh Willmott (University of Sheffield) and Dr Kate Welham (University of Bournemouth).