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Students search for Syon's lost abbey



22 June 2004

Syon House is the subject of a revealing archaeological investigation by Birkbeck students which commenced on the 14th June and will continue until National Archaeology Day on Sunday 18th July.

The abbey church at Syon as it might have appeared in 1500, seen from the Thames (Jonathan Foyle 2004)Last summer, Channel 4's Time Team programme identified the site of the former Syon Abbey, dissolved by King Henry VIII. The present Syon House, built in 1547 by the Lord Protector Somerset, was discovered to have been built on the site of the old abbey church. The discovery is particularly exciting because the church would appear to be of cathedral size proportions and as a result it is possibly one of the most important ecclesiastical buildings of the 15th century.

Now, students from Birkbeck are carrying out an extensive excavation to establish the size and scale of the Bridgettine abbey church and the relationship to the cloisters. The dig will be undertaken by 29 students each week over the next five weeks.

An exhibition, including artefacts that have been found to date, is currently displayed in Syon House. It also includes artist impressions together with a painting by Jonathan Foyle (pictured), recreating the abbey as it may have appeared in about 1500 from the River Thames.

"This project provides a great opportunity for students to gain practical experience," says Site Director and Course Director for Birkbeck's MA Archaeology, Harvey Sheldon. "We have a wide range of students getting their hands dirty on site - from complete beginners to Certificate, BA History and Archaeology and MA Archaeology students - and demand for places is very high."

He adds: "We have opened up two large areas between Syon House and the Thames to investigate the structure of the church. We have already found evidence of pathways belonging to the formal gardens of Syon House, as well as debris from the monastery, in the form of tiles and glass fragments, which have always been a feature of the House's environs."

The public are very welcome to view the progress from 11am to 4.15pm on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays, including National Archaeology Day on Sunday, 18th July - the last weekend before the site is completely recovered.

Syon House:

The present Syon House is built on the site the great church of Syon Abbey. The Lord Protector Somerset began the building in 1547 and after his fall from power, Lady Jane Grey was offered the Crown at Syon in 1553. In 1604, Henry Percy, the 9th Earl of Northumberland was gifted the freehold of Syon by King James 1st and it has remained in the ownership of the Percy family for the last 400 years.

The architect Robert Adam created some of his finest interiors at Syon House in the 1760s.The House was remodelled in the grand neo-classical style, making a fashionable home, where the 1st Duke and Duchess of Northumberland could entertain on a lavish scale. Syon is still renowned today for being a grand venue for entertaining, not only in the House, but also in the Great Conservatory, the showpiece of the Gardens, built by the 3rd Duke in the 1820s.

The 200-acre park was landscaped by 'Capability' Brown in the mid 18th century and the views across the Thames-side water meadows, still grazed by cattle, give Syon a unique rural landscape, close to the heart of London.

Archaeological excavation at Syon Park, 14 June - 18 July:

Birkbeck students will be excavating the East Lawn and Flower Meadow at Syon House from Monday 14 June to Sunday 18 July. It is a training excavation with the support of the Museum of London Archaeological Service (MoLAS) and Specialist Services to provide a series of educational opportunities in the form of training in archaeological techniques for a wide range of students. English Heritage is providing advice to the project.

Historical background
Syon House, the London home of the Duke of Northumberland, is built on the site of Syon (Sion) Abbey, which was the only religious foundation dedicated to the Bridgettine Order in England during the medieval period. The abbey, founded by King Henry V, was a dual order serving monks and nuns. At the time of its suppression by King Henry VIII in 1539, the abbey was one of the wealthiest in the country and enjoyed the patronage and favours from royalty and influential people of the day. Even though it was a building of major national importance, there are no surviving records of its structure or visual descriptions.

Archaeological significance
In May 2003, an archaeological evaluation was undertaken by Channel 4's Time Team television programme, to locate the ground plan of the abbey church and associated precinct. The evaluation demonstrated the international significance of the site. The size of the abbey church and questions over the layout has important implications for the study of 15th century monasticism, (the abbey church is the largest church built in England) the scale of Lancastrian royal patronage and the flowering of late Perpendicular architecture. This project provides an opportunity to address some of these questions, whist enabling a large-scale training and education programme to benefit from the investigation of this resource.

Research aims and objectives
The research aim of the 2004 excavation is to understand further the layout of the abbey church and the structural features of the building, as well as to investigate to the south of the church to link with the range of monastic buildings that appear to be present. So far archaeological investigation has only produced limited information about the plan and chronology of the monastic complex and the relationship of its buildings to the 16th century secular house. It is hoped that these, the first extensive investigations, will enable detailed research questions to be developed about this unique 15th century abbey.

Catherine Doherty, Media and Publicity Officer
External Relations, Birkbeck, University of London, Malet Street, Bloomsbury, London WC1E 7HX
Tel 020 7631 6569
Fax 020 7631 6351