Kent Archaeological Review extract

Major Saxon Building Discovered at Dover.
by Brian Philp.


One of the most important Saxon buildings to be found in South East England since the Second World War is being uncovered in the centre of Dover (June October 1978). It lies very close to the Market Square in an area being excavated by the Unit ahead of the ambitious town-centre redevelopment plan. In the past few years this area has produced more than 50 major structures of Roman, Saxon or medieval date including the famous Roman Painted House, two fine Roman forts and a large Roman bath-house consisting of about ten rooms and still standing in places 14 feet high. Altogether Dover contains just about the richest ten acres of buried archaeology anywhere in Britain.

The Saxon Building.

By June 1978 perhaps half of the great Saxon building has been uncovered, but already it is clear that it was at least 30 feet wide and at least 40 feet in length. The continuing work should reveal most of the eastern end by August 1978, when the public will be able to see it for the first time. Its great size is immediately unusual and it must be that this structure is of major importance to Anglo-Saxon studies.

Complex Excavation.

The excavation of this building has been a slow and difficult process. This is because it was built entirely of wood all of which has since rotted, leaving only delicate traces in the soil. The team have had to use very considerable skill to locate and excavate the wall-trenches and to pick up the positions of wooden posts. This careful work has shown that the method of construction and the techniques employed by the Saxon builders are virtually unknown anywhere else in South East England. Whereas a few timber buildings of normal post-in-pit construction are known in the region the Dover Saxons employed a system of large vertical planks (or studs) set in a deep trench. The studs themselves are spaced at regular intervals along the trenches on at least three sides of the building. The timbers were cut to a rectangular section. It seems likely that daub was packed between the uprights or that horizontal 'weather boarding' was attached.

Many Periods of Construction.

As the work progressed it has become clear that there were in fact at least six periods of building, including several major alterations and at least one total rebuild. Most of the early periods must have had earth floors. However, at one stage a very substantial mortared floor was inserted across the whole area. This fine floor is one of the major architectural features of the building and is exceedingly rare in buildings of this date. There is also evidence that the building was destroyed by fire.

DRAWING: Sketch showing vertical stud technique used in newly discovered Saxon building at Dover.

Sketch showing vertical stud technique used in newly discovered Saxon building at Dover.

Dating and Function of the Building.

The precise date and function of this great building are amongst the exciting problems yet to be fully resolved. The small amount of glass and pottery from the area suggests dates in the 7th-9th century range and it clearly seals Roman deposits below. It is unlikely that the building survived the Norman Conquest.

As regards function there are still several possibilities. Perhaps the most important is the prospect that this formed part of the long-lost monastery of St Martin's. This is known from records to have had a very early foundation, but its site has never been known and some writers have suggested that it lay within the area covered by the later castle. If it can be proved that the new building was part of the lost monastery this will be one of the most important discoveries in Kent since the War, ranking only with the discovery of the Dover forts. Significantly, the building lies within the limits of the late-Roman shore-fort and also within the shadow of the Norman St. Martin-le-Grand Church.

It is, however, possible that the new Saxon building had a domestic function. Even so it would rate as a major building, on size alone, and perhaps reflect a great hall. It is perhaps important to note that the Anglo-Saxon Palace at Cheddar measured about 78 feet by 20 feet and the Great Palace at Yeavering about 90 feet by 40 feet.

Open to the Public.

The excavation is to be opened to the public during the latter part of August (20th 31st) by which date it is hoped that the whole of the new Saxon building will be exposed and more known about its function and form.

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