Archaeological Evidence

Introduction

Syon Abbey was founded in 1415 by Henry V.  Construction on the Abbey at a site to the west of London on the river Thames in Middlesex began in 1426 and continued for decades. Syon flourished during its time and was the wealthiest monastery in England when it was suppressed in 1539. After the Dissolution, Syon’s complex of buildings was dismantled completely and the grounds were left with pits full of rubble.

The estate was left to the Crown and then given to the Duke of Somerset, who built Syon House and Gardens in the Italian Renaissance style. Syon later fell into the possession of Henry Percy, Duke of Northumberland, and has stayed in his family since 1594. Today, the Duke and Duchess of Northumberland live in Syon House and it is open to visitors and events. The official website for Syon Park includes photographs and a description of the house, a brief historical synopsis of the Abbey after its dissolution, and information about how to contact Syon.

A brief history of the Abbey and archaeological evidence discovered on site can be found in Richard Farrant’s article “The Birgittine Abbey of Syon: The Archaeological Evidence” in Saint Birgitta, Syon and Vadstena, edited by Claes Gejrot, Sara Risberg and Mia Akestam (Kungl. Vitterhets Historie och Antikvitets Akademien, 2010), pp. 27-36.

As interest in the Abbey has flourished, excavations have been completed by ‘Time Team’, a British television series, and by Birkbeck University, London. These excavations are particularly important because the Abbey buildings were completely destroyed after its dissolution and all evidence of Syon lies underground. Much has been done in order to determine the size and structure of the Abbey and digs have also uncovered four articulated human skeletons. Excavations have found things such as pins, bronze rings, pottery sherds, metal artifacts, and broken window pieces. Below, you can find more information concerning excavations done at Syon Abbey and their findings.

‘Time Team’ and Wessex Archaeology

In 2003, the British television show ‘Time Team’ chose to excavate Syon Abbey because little was known about the original buildings. During their short time at the site, ‘Time Team’ discovered much about the Abbey’s size and uses for various buildings. It was discovered that Syon was one of the largest monasteries in medieval England with its chapel’s dimensions currently estimated as being larger in size than King’s College and comparable to Salisbury Cathedral.

‘Time Team’ worked closely with Wessex Archaeology who ensured that the excavations are properly recorded and standardized. Wessex Archaeology also makes detailed post excavation reports for each site visible here.

This episode of ‘Time Team’ is available only to those currently in England here. For those unable to view this, a detailed synopsis of this episode and a timeline of findings is available worldwide through the ‘Time Team’ unofficial website (image).

Syon greenware found by 'Time Team'

Birkbeck University

After the response to the findings of the ‘Time Team’ at Syon, Birkbeck University in London was invited to undertake a more detailed excavation of the site. Beginning in 2004, archaeologists along with students from the university excavated Syon over a series of six summer digs. Their objectives were to find the size and the layout of the Abbey that may extend under the house built for the Duke of Northumberland and to understand the nature of the buildings in the monastic complex beyond the church.

Birkbeck has found more than 1,000 fragments of stained glass in their excavations. While many materials still await investigation off-site, geophysical surveys have revealed the outline of two sixteenth century courts and suggest a larger northern range than was previously expected. The university worked with the Museum of London Archaeological Service for support in their efforts.

Birkbeck has compiled a brochure detailing their work on the abbey that includes photos of the excavation and diagrams of Syon. Those interested in learning more about the Birkbeck digs can view this short video showing the excavation and explaining some of the university’s findings. Furthermore, this blog details the personal experience of digging at Birkbeck and explains many of the smaller findings at the site.

Syon training excavations in 2008. Photo by Tony Marshall.

Image from Current Archaeology.

A fragment of painted glass from the dig. Photo by Josephine Warren

Image from Birkbeck’s Magazine, Issue 28 p. 7, Autumn 2010.

Museum of London Archaeological Service

In 2008, the Museum of London Archaeological Service began a dig at Syon Park. In their brief time here, they found extensive remains of a Roman landscape only one half metre below the surface of the park. The remains discovered include a Roman road, settlement, human skeletons, shale armlets, and a Bronze Age gold bracelet. The settlement located on Syon Park would have provided shelter for passing travellers and supplied to the nearby Roman city.

Roman skeleton being excavated on site.

Image from Museum of London Archaeology.

A brief description of the remains found at Syon Park can be found at the Museum of London, Archaeology’s website.

For further information, Current Archaeology recently published an article with a short explanation of the history and importance of this find. A selection of these artifacts have been put on display in the hotel erected on site.

Chapel Specifics

The information gathered by the Wessex Archaeology team on the chapel at Syon has told researchers much about its size and structure. The chapel stretched approximately 260 ft long and 108 ft wide, with one single pitched roof. This makes the church twice the width of King’s College Chapel in Cambridge and comparable to Salisbury Cathedral. Also found on site were moulded window dressings, patterns on window fragments and a glazed, Flemish floor tile suggesting that the abbey church was decorated elaborately. The church had heavy buttresses extending approximately 4 meters outside of the northeast and southeast corners and walls estimated 2.5 m thick made of stones with a possible limestone core. Furthermore, the roof of the abbey was supported by stone columns that divided the west end of the church into three aisles and the east end into two. These aisles were possibly used to separate the abbey brothers from the sisters during prayer. (Information assembled from Wessex Archaeology’s post excavation reports.)

A digital reconstruction of Syon by 'Time Team'

A possible layout of the Syon grounds created by 'Time Team'

Images from the ‘Time Team’ unofficial website.

Eyeglasses found at Syon

One of the most interesting finds during the excavations at Syon is a pair of riveted eye spectacle frames (WA, 22). Although not much information has been acquired about these glasses, they are considered parallels in both date, make and use to a fifteenth-century pair found at Trig Lane in London in the early 1980s (WA, 22). Both pairs are made of joint fragments of worked bone, united with an iron rivet (AJ, 58). The bone fragment used to make these glasses is representative of an improvement over the common wooden frames, suggesting that the glasses at Syon were of a higher class than many seen at the time (AJ, 60). Furthermore, the bone used to make these glasses is both difficult to acquire and to work with, as it comes specifically from the metacarpal bone of a bull (AJ, 68).

After their invention in Italy in 1286, eye glasses quickly caught on in current fashion and were being manufactured all around Europe (ETA). By the end of the 14th century, they were available to people of most classes, as they typically cost somewhere between two and eight shillings (ETA). Demand for eyeglasses in England was so high that Dutch craftsmen immigrated there in the fifteenth century. Although typical eyeglasses were fairly common and inexpensive in the fifteenth century, the eyeglasses found at Syon seem to have been more expensive and finely made than usual. The style of these eyeglasses is of the earliest known European variety, showing that they were very rare at the time of manufacture (WA, 22).

Illustration of the glasses found at Trig Lane, London. Image: "Antiquities Journal"

Eyeglasses found at Trig Lane, London. Image: "Antiquities Journal"

Ghiraldaio, "Saint Jerome in his Study" 1480. Detail

This contemporary image denotes the importance of eyeglasses in the late fifteenth-century. They were commonly used in art to portray honor and scholarship. This painting also shows how eyeglasses were stored and used, giving a glimpse into the habit of medieval study.

We are working to obtain more information and an image of the eyeglasses found at Syon.

Resources on Medieval Eyeglasses

Rhodes, Michael. “A Pair of Fifteenth-Century Spectacle Frames from the City of London.” In Antiquities Journal 62, 52-67. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982. (AJ)
This journal includes a very reliable and detailed description of the look, make and use of the eyeglasses found in London. It also includes photographs and diagrams of the frames found.
Wessex Archaeology “Syon House, Syon Park, Hounslow” (WA)
This source contains the official post-excavation reports from the ‘Time Team’ excavation at Syon. It includes a detailed list of items found during the dig and a brief analysis of their context and importance.
This source is composed of a fairly reliable overview of the general history of eyeglasses. It gives a synopsis of their origin, manufacturing and use.

Ellen S. Cope (escope@umich.edu)

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