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Interim Report on Excavations at Rufford

Abbey in 2014

Emily Gillott
Dec 2014

Interim report on two phases of excavation carried out at Rufford Abbey,

Nottinghamshire, in July and October 2014. Image on front cover is a general
shot of work being carried out on Trench 1 during the Archaeological Field
School in July 2014. NCA Report Number 044

Nottinghamshire Community Archaeology

Nottinghamshire County Council
County Hall
Loughborough Road
West Bridgford
Tel: 0115 993 2590

NGR: 464563, 364781

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1.0 Introduction

2.0 Aims and objectives

3.0 Site Location, Background and Geology

4.0 Archaeological and Historical Background

4.1 Previous Archaeological Work


5.0 Methodology
5.1 Trench 1
5.2 Trench 2
5.3 Excavation processes


6.0 Results


7.0 Conclusions





Maps, tables and figures:

Fig 1
Fig 2
Fig 3
Fig 4
Fig 5
Fig 6
Fig 7
Fig 8
Fig 9
Fig 10
Fig 11

The location of Rufford Abbey

Trench location plan
Table showing main chronological building phases
Table showing the chronology of known archaeological
works carried out within the Scheduled Area
Significant wall foundation from east part of Trench 1
Largest wall foundation uncovered in Trench 1
Area of blackened material and plaster in Trench 1
Former driveway revealed in Trench 2
Ploughsoil beneath construction layers of the driveway
Wall foundation uncovered in Trench 2
Fragments of woven copper alloy wire found in Trench 2

Page no.

1.0 Introduction
Nottinghamshire County Council has carried out two phases of archaeological work
at Rufford Abbey this year, aimed at finding out more about the monastic buildings
on the site.
The development of the abbey and its estate, from its foundation in 1146 until it was
dissolved in 1536, is poorly understood. In addition little is known about any of the
ancillary buildings beyond the main abbey cloister.
One main excavation took place on the site between 1956 and 1957 and focussed on
revealing the foundations of the main abbey buildings. Many of the details of this
excavation, however, were unclear. More recently geophysical work has been
carried out across the scheduled area but the results had not been tested by groundtruthing.
Two areas were investigated in 2014 with the aim of beginning to answer some of
the questions about the site, and with the additional aims of assessing the condition
of the sub-surface remains and contributing to a new Conservation Management
Plan for the site.
The work comprised two Archaeological Field Schools and involved students and
volunteers from across the county and beyond generating interest internationally.
The material from the excavation is currently being processed and analysed, but it is
possible to suggest some preliminary interpretations.

2.0 Aims and Objectives

The general aims of the archaeological work were;

A better understanding of the extent and layout of the Rufford Abbey

monastic complex.

To find archaeological evidence for the ancillary buildings that once formed
part of the monastic complex.

To clarify details of the 1956 excavation

To understand how well the geophysical survey results reflect the buried
archaeology, and to aid in our further interpretation of the geophysical

To provide opportunities for local people to engage directly with their historic

To promote awareness of different aspects of the heritage asset and its


To contribute to improvements in on-site interpretation and also to the

Conservation Management Plan for the site

To assess the condition of sub-surface archaeological features

The specific objectives of the project were;

To examine the extent and condition of sub-surface architectural remains

suggested by previous geophysical survey through targeted trial trenching.

To relate the excavated features to the geophysical results to enable a more

accurate interpretation of buried features recorded by the surveys.

To provide an opportunity for volunteers to take part in examining and

researching a community asset, namely the archaeological remains of the
N.C.C. owned Country Park.

To provide 2 free Field School weeks designed to educate participants about

archaeological techniques and best practice.

To provide volunteer opportunities for local people to take part in the

excavation during 2 General Excavation weeks.

To fully disseminate the results through written report, popular publication,

guided site tours, displays and presentations.

These themes fit in with the research plan identified in the East Midlands Heritage ,
the Research Agenda for the region (Knight, Vyner and Allen, 2012), specifically:

7.2.4 Can we clarify further the processes of settlement desertion and

shrinkage, especially within zones of dispersed settlement? A number of
villages in the area became deserted following the foundation of the
monastery. By understanding the development and spread of the monastic
complex it might be possible to elucidate further on the decline and
desertion of the nearby villages.

7.5.2 Can we discern significant differences in the planning, economy and

landscape impact of the different monastic orders? At present not enough is
known about Rufford Abbey to allow it to be compared with other monastic

7.5.3 Can we elucidate further the development of hospitals and colleges? It

is not known where the Infirmary building was at Rufford. If the location
could be identified then further research could provide information about its

8.6.1 What was the impact of the Reformation upon ecclesiastical buildings
and monastic estates? It is assumed that the monastery was dismantled
rather than aggressively destroyed, but archaeological evidence has not been
scrutinised with a view to expanding on this idea. Is there evidence of
controlled demolition on the site, and are later features influenced by the
earlier buildings?

3.0 Site Location, Background and Geology

Rufford Abbey Country Park is located approximately 1.6 miles to the south of
Ollerton village (see Fig 1) in the parish of Rufford, and formerly in the Liberty of
The private estate of Rufford Abbey and Park was bought by
Nottinghamshire County Council in 1952, and the Abbey ruins transferred to the care
of the Ministry of Works in 1956. The site is now jointly managed by
Nottinghamshire County Council and English Heritage, with the abbey remains in
English Heritage guardianship. The Scheduled Ancient Monument covers 10.3
hectares of the Country Park, and encompasses the areas known as the Abbey
Meadow, Abbey Lawn and Long Meadow.
The underlying geology is the Nottingham Castle Sandstone Formation. To the east
is a valley formed by the Rainworth Water where superficial alluvial deposits make
the soil more fertile. Most of the Scheduled Ancient Monument area is covered by
either grassed lawn or wildflower meadow, including an area of rare acid grassland.
The site occupies a gentle slope downwards from east to west, to the valley of the
Rainworth Water. Trench 1 was located on the level lawn area where the former
North Wing of the house had been located, and at the western end of the monastic
church. Trench 2 was located on meadow to the north of the current car park. This
area is undulating and contains several earthwork features. Some of these features,
particularly those closest to the car-park, may relate to a temporary army camp from
WWII. The meadow contains a stone-lined well thought to be of medieval origin,
and it is this which provided the focus for Trench 2.
Figure 2 shows the location of the two trenches in relation to the abbey turning
circle, standing ruins and Queen Mothers Walk. For reasons of practicality the shape
of the trenches was altered slightly following approval from English Heritage, but
kept well within the maximum proposed area to be excavated (35 metres square
with a contingency of 6 metres square for each trench).

Fig 1: The location of Rufford Country park within the wider landscape.
(Image from

Fig 2: Showing the location of the trenches in relation to the abbey buildings
and turning circle.

4.0 Archaeological and Historical Background

The earliest mention of Rufford comes from a reference in the Domesday Book of
1086. It is listed as a manor is its own right, with sokeland in Bilsthorpe and a
berewick called Inkersall. It was not an insubstantial place, as far as can be
interpreted from Domesday, but it is not currently known for certain where the
village of Rufford was located.
Rufford Abbey was founded in 1146 by Gilbert de Gaunt, Earl of Lincoln, and
completed in 1170. It was a Cistercian foundation dedicated to St Mary the Virgin
and a daughter house of Rieuvaulx. After the foundation of the monastery the
village of Rufford (and several others in the area) were abandoned.
Rufford was a fairly small abbey, but moderately wealthy, and one of the first to be
affected by the Dissolution in 1536. It passed firstly into the hands of the Talbot
family and then to the Saviles who built their country estate around the medieval
ruins. Part of the medieval fabric survives where it was incorporated into the grand
house built by the Sixth Earl of Shrewsbury. The West Cloister range is described by
English Heritage as the best preserved among all the Cistercian abbeys in England
( The estate was auctioned off in 1938, and partial
demolition carried out in 1956.
Building Phase
Cistercian Abbey
West Range
North and South Gables
North and East Wings
Clock Tower, Grand Staircase, Porch, Causeway
Fig 3: Showing the main chronological building phases.

12th Century
16th Century
Early 17th Century
Late 17th Century
19th Century

4.1 Previous Archaeological Work

Limited archaeological work has been carried out in the Scheduled area, mostly in
the form of non-intrusive geophysical survey and cursory Watching Briefs associated
with maintenance works. One large-scale excavation was undertaken in the 1950s
but this focussed on revealing walls of the medieval abbey and was inadequately
recorded (Gilyard-Beer, 1965, 161).
Geophysical survey has shown a number of anomalies within the scheduled area.
Gradiometer survey was carried out across the Abbey Meadow and Long Meadow in
2006 (Masters, 2006), and this was accompanied by Resistivity survey of the Abbey
lawn area (Masters & Bunn, 2006). The underlying geology meant that the response
for the Gradiometer survey was average to poor (Masters, 2006, p2), but some subsurface features were recorded. A Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) survey was also
carried out in the courtyard area between the Jacobean block and the Coach House
(2005, Arrow Geophysics).

On the Abbey Meadow an area of magnetic disturbance indicates the likely

extent of temporary huts constructed when the area was used by the army
in WWII. Two ditch features, possibly representing drains or gullies, were
recorded. To the north of the well a number of features were revealed that
are worthy of investigation, including a rectilinear anomaly, an area of
magnetic disturbance (burning), and a curvilinear anomaly that runs parallel
to a visible earthwork. The geophysical work on the Abbey Meadow
showed no trace of the Bowling Green shown on the 1725 estate map.
On the Long Meadow the only feature of archaeological potential identified
by the geophysical work was a ditch feature in the NW corner.
The resistivity survey carried out on the Abbey Lawn showed that some walls
of the abbey survived in situ, and gave suggestions of robber trenches. To
the east of the abbey traces of what may be a formal garden were revealed.
Discrete areas of high resistance across the site could indicate compacted
sub-surface rubble or intact features from the abbey or later gardens. To
the north-east of the surviving buildings a number of later garden features
were revealed including a horseshoe-shaped pathway or drive that may be
the one shown on Sandersons map of 1835. At least one service pipe was
detected in the area, which demonstrates the potential for later disturbance
on the site. The trenches from the 1950s excavation were not obviously
The GPR survey of the courtyard area showed that there has been extensive
ground disturbance and revealed a comprehensive three-dimensional plan
of the sub-surface services to a depth of more than 1.5m. It is likely that
most of these represent modern services and a water tank of probably 19th
C date, but it is possible that some of the responses are representative of
archaeological features.
Excavation work was carried out in 1956 and the 1980s, with the earlier excavation
being the most extensive. In addition there have been a number of smaller
Watching Briefs, across the Country Park. The excavation work has largely been
keyhole work, or in strips following walls or pipeline routes. No open area
excavation has been carried out.

An excavation was carried out but the Ministry of Public Building and Works
in 1956 after the north wing was demolished. The main concern of the
Ministry at the time was to protect the standing medieval remains, and the
excavation was designed to trace the outline of the monastic buildings.
Narrow trenches revealed in-situ walls, but there are no context descriptions
or section drawings, and few photographs.

A watching brief was carried out by NCC archaeologists in 1982 on the

excavation of an area for a soakaway. The area excavated was 2x1.5 metres,

and to a depth of 2.1m metres. The trench revealed 19th century brick
foundations from a previous building, and pottery of comparable date.

A watching brief was carried out in 1987 on a narrow service trench to the
north-west of the Turning Circle, and across part of the Abbey Meadow. The
work was overseen by the County Archaeologist, Mike Bishop, and was
recorded on the countys Historic Environment Record. The work revealed
what appeared to be rubble core of walls, or rubble spread, encountered at a
depth of 20cm below the turf. The date of the features was not determined
but the area was subsequently added to the scheduled monument

Various other watching briefs have been carried out in the Country Park, few of
which are relevant to the work described here.
No certain trace of the ancillary buildings that would normally be associated with an
abbey complex have been detected so far by either the geophysical surveys or
excavation work on the Scheduled area, so the presence of an infirmary, gatehouse,
and Priors lodgings remains speculative. Several later garden features have been
shown to remain below ground. Previous excavation has not focussed on these
features, so currently the only way there exists of dating the features is through
relative dating extracted from mapping evidence.
The only trace of an associated medieval building comes from outside the Scheduled
area, from excavation work carried out in 1987 to remedy subsidence (L5517 Notts
HER). The excavation was on a dyke that carried diverted water from the Rainworth
Water. The work revealed evidence of a nearby tile kiln in the form of wasters of
floor and roof tiles, and also produced evidence of a mill of probable Medieval date,
in the form of faced sandstone blocks associated with large timbers. One in-situ wall
was revealed, held together with pinkish mortar and green-grey clay, interpreted as
revetment for the dyke. A mill is shown at this location on the 1725 estate map.

Archaeological Work
Excavation to east of present building
(Listed as Scheduled Monument
Watching Brief (equivalent) to east of present building
Watching Brief (equivalent) NW of turning circle
(Scheduled Monument listing amended
Watching Brief to east of present buildings
Watching Brief to east of present buildings
Geophysics GPR in Courtyard
Geophysics Resistivity Survey on Abbey Lawn
Geophysics Gradiometry Survey on Abbey and Long 2006
Excavation- in Rose Garden to west of present buildings
Watching Brief east of Coach House
Watching Brief in car park and adjacent play area
Watching Brief on the Abbey Lawn
Watching Brief in visitor car park
Fig 4: Showing chronology of known and dateable archaeological works carried out
within the Scheduled Area.


5.0 Methodology
The 2014 season of excavation involved two trial trenches dug over two phases of
work. Both trenches were located within the Scheduled Area.
The trench locations were agreed prior to commencement with Tim Allen (Inspector
of Ancient Monuments) of English Heritage, Ursilla Spence (N.C.C. Senior
Archaeologist), N.C.C. Countryside Services Manager, and Rufford Abbey Country
Park Site Manager, and were subject to Scheduled Monument Consent (SMC)
The trenches were accurately located through the use of GPS equipment and Total
Station survey, taking into account topographical and practical constraints.
5.1 Trench 1
This was located on the Abbey Lawn adjacent to the base of the night stairs. The
purpose of this trench was to try and locate the north and west walls of the abbey
church, neither of which had been positively identified in the 1956 excavation. It
was also hoped that this trench would clarify some of the details of the 1956
excavation, as no stratigraphic or contextual information survives from the work.
The trench was L shaped and placed to intercept the geophysical responses thought
to indicate the northern and western extent of the church. Modern kerbstones
placed in the lawn to define the outline of the abbey church meant that the trench
had to be dug in several sections.
5.2 Trench 2
This was located on the Abbey Meadow, adjacent to the well and set across the
earthwork bank that runs east-west to the north of the well. This trench was
designed to investigate the nature of the earthwork bank, and to establish if the well
is associated with any structural remains. Trench 2 was split into two parts. The
northern-most part was placed to intercept the earthwork bank to investigate its
nature. The southern part was L shaped and placed adjacent to the well.
5.3 Excavation process
Turf was removed with a turf cutter and stored in cool damp conditions in order to
protect it from scorching. Excavation was carried out using hand tools including
mattock and trowel. Both areas were dug in spits of 10cm until archaeological
features were uncovered. Features were excavated in reverse chronological order
wherever possible, and sondages were used to examine foundation trenches and
other similar features. Maximum extent for each trench was 35 square metres with
a contingency for each of 6 square metres.
Single context recording was used, and context sheets included written descriptions,
stratigraphic relations and preliminary interpretations. The NCC site supervisors also
maintained site notebooks into which sketch plans and sections along with notes on
contexts, finds, excavation conditions, etc were entered as appropriate.


The trenches were accurately located using GPS equipment and by Total Station
survey. Small finds were accurately plotted in 3D using the Total Station, which was
also used for taking spot heights across the excavated areas.
All artefacts were collected and are in the process of being washed, marked,
recorded and conserved. Some will have to be sent to specialist for analysis. No
finds relating to the Treasure Act, 1997, were recovered.
A few small disarticulated and redeposited fragments of human remains were
recovered, and these were carefully bagged and retained for later reburial.
A colour digital photographic record was maintained throughout the excavation
showing general location shots of each test pit, along with general views of each pit
as excavation progressed, in addition to the archaeological photographs of sections
and in plan.
Each trench was excavated by volunteers and students with a range of experience
levels, under the close supervision of the Community Archaeologists from
Nottinghamshire County Council.


6.0 Results
Much of the material from the two phases of excavation is still being processed and
analysed, but it is possible to comment on some initial results and preliminary
Wall foundations in both trenches were encountered at a surprisingly shallow depth;
particularly in Trench 1 where some foundations were encountered less than 20cm
below the turf. In Trench 1 the foundations revealed were around 1.4m wide and
several courses deep in most places. The construction was of faced stone and rubble
infill. It was apparent that the walls had been demolished to the same level across
the excavated area, though when this happened is not yet clear. There was some
evidence for reuse of not only the materials making up the foundation, but also of
the foundations themselves. The wall in the east part of the trench appeared to
have a gravel surface adjacent to it.
Fig 5: Significant wall
foundation revealed in the
east part of Trench 1,
showing the possible
gravel surface adjacent.

Fig 6: The largest wall

foundation uncovered in
Trench 1. The wall runs
east-west and shows
some evidence for reuse.
Note the shallow depth at
which remains were


Very little medieval material was recovered from Trench 1. Finds of modern
material, probably deposited during the final demolition phase of the country house,
were recovered from this trench, particularly from the north side of the wall on the
western part of the trench. These included plastic bags, cans and fencing materials.
Much of the remaining material recovered appears to be earlier post-medieval,
though specialist analysis is required to provide tighter dating.
An area of blackened material and plaster was recorded in the central part of the
trench. Due to the restricted area for excavation it was not clear what this
represented, but it is hoped that further analysis of the samples and other
information will help with interpretation.

Fig 7: An area of blackened material and Fig 8: The north part of Trench 2
plaster in Trench 1, at the intersection of showing traces of the earthwork feature
two wall foundations.
after deturfing.
Fig 9: The north part of Trench 2
showing the dark ploughsoil layer
beneath compacted sand.

Trench 2 revealed the composition of the earthwork bank to be compacted layers of

pebbles and sand, which may have contributed to the rare acid grassland that grows
in the area. No dating material was recovered from the contexts representing the
road or driveway. A layer of buried ploughsoil was uncovered in the north of the
trench and ran part way under the sand layers. Dating material from the ploughsoil
is pending specialist analysis but will also provide a relative date for the later feature.
The part of the trench immediately adjacent to the well contained complex
archaeological layers and features that will require a good deal of further analysis to
allow more comprehensive interpretation. In areas a gravel surface was revealed,

which gave way to a demolition layer composed of large amounts of ceramic roof
tiles. This in turn came down onto a rough wall foundation made of re-used
medieval stone packed together with clay. Adjacent to this was a fragment of a clay
floor, containing sherds of medieval pottery, coal, and fragments of woven copper
alloy wire. Trench 2 also contained reused dressed sandstone of possible medieval
date, but it is not clear at this stage whether these were part of a structure.

Fig 10: The wall

foundation uncovered in
Trench 2 adjacent to the

Fig 11: Fragments of

woven copper alloy wire.


7.0 Conclusions
The excavations from 2014 have shown that the archaeological remains survive in
good condition within at least some parts of the Scheduled Area, and that in some
cases they are complex and can yield a lot of hitherto unknown information about
the site.
Trench 1 produced substantial wall foundations, possibly of differing dates, which in
places contained reused stonework of 12/13th C date (Coppack,G., and Harrison, S.
pers comm). It is thought that some of these were medieval foundations that have
been reused at a later date. Investigation of the relationship of these foundations to
the standing ruins at present suggests they are not in the correct place to be part of
the church structure, provided that current understanding and interpretation of the
standing remains is correct.
It is possible that some of the foundations are remains of a previously-unknown
early post-dissolution house, but further excavation would be required to investigate
this idea. Some of the foundations may make use of earlier features, but it was clear
that the excavation did not provide answers about the layout or phasing of the
abbey church. The consensus is that a larger area would have to be excavated to
provide satisfactory answers to these questions.
The earthwork bank revealed in Trench 2 is likely to be a driveway depicted on a
map of 1835, although it is not possible at present to suggest a construction date for
it given that no dating material was recovered from it or associated contexts.
However further analysis may provide relative dating against other contexts within
the trench.
The archaeological remains adjacent to the well are complex and interpretation will
depend upon the dating of the artefacts and upon analysis of the subtle changes of
the contexts. It is clear that the well is not an isolated structure, and that there
certainly were medieval buildings in its immediate vicinity, as evidenced by the roof
tiles, floor surfaces, and wall foundation. The makeup of the floor levels suggests
that the associated structure or structures may have been fairly flimsy outbuildings
or workshops.
The fragments of copper alloy weaving may all represent pieces of the same single
item; perhaps a piece of jewellery or clothing fixing.
Further processing and analysis will refine the initial interpretations offered here.


Arrow Geophysics, 2005, Ground Penetrating Radar Survey at Rufford Abbey in
Gilyard-Beer, R., 1965, Rufford Abbey, Nottinghamshire, In Journal of Medieval
Archaeology Volume IX, 1965, pp 161-163
Gover, J.E.B., Mawer, A. & Stenton, F.M., 1979, The Place Names of
Nottinghamshire, English Place-Name Society Volume XVII.
Knight, D, Vyner, B., & Allen, C., 2012, East Midlands Heritage; An Updated Research
Agenda and Strategy for the Historic Environment of the East Midlands.
Masters, P., 2006, Gradiometer Survey; Abbey and Long Meadows, Rufford Abbey
Masters, P. & Bunn, D., 2006, Resistivity Survey; Abbey Lawn, Rufford Abbey, Notts.
McGee, C. & Perkins, J., Rufford Abbey, undated document
Nottinghamshire County Council Archaeology Site Book 6 (p25); held by
Nottinghamshire Historic Environment Record.