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.
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
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.
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.
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