Researching Architectural History Through Archaeology: The Case of Westminster Abbey
Lecture by Warwick Rodwell
Given at the Society of Architectural Historians of Great Britain, on November 4, 2013
For half a millennium, scholars have researched and written about the history and architecture of Westminster Abbey, using documents and visual inspection. One might therefore assume that the architectural history of this iconic building is well understood, and in some respects it is. But there are yawning gaps in our knowledge which can still be filled by study, and innumerable details that can be added to the existing information base.
These additions are being achieved through systematic 3D recording of the fabric, accompanied by intensive archaeological scrutiny and analysis. This process began in the 1990s, and has been intensified since 2005. Until recently, the only ground plan was that drawn by RCHME in 1921, and there were no plans of the upper levels; nor did any accurate elevation drawings exist. Surveying the Abbey and its ancillary buildings has revealed much about structural sequencing.
Although very little fabric of Edward the Confessor’s abbey remains, archaeology has revealed unnoticed details including glazed tiles with which it was decorated, and a surviving door from c. 1060. The vaulted undercroft upon which Henry III’s chapter house stands had never been recorded or explained, but is now understood following a comprehensive study. Limited archaeological excavation has also yielded fresh information about the earliest structures on the site, and Henry’s employment of huge rafts of stone and lime-concrete, to support large parts of the building.
Professor Warwick Rodwell, OBE, is consultant Archaeologist to the Dean and Chapter of Westminster Abbey and author of The Archaeology of Churches (4th edition 2012), The Lantern Tower of Westminster Abbey 1060-2010 (2010), and The Coronation Chair and Stone of Scone: History, Archaeology and Conservation (2013).