Changing Interpretations: A Tale of Two Valla

Archaeological interpretation on an active site is constantly evolving; as new evidence is unearthed, we can come to new conclusions about the past underneath our feet, and reassess old interpretations.

As we dig down to the Anglo-Saxon layer in Trench 8, we have been reassessing our interpretations of several ditches across the trench. In 2006, we discovered several ditches near the Church Tower which were thought to be part of the boundary of an Anglo-Saxon minster. This minster formed a rectangular enclosure, with its south edge along Berkeley Castle's private drive way, its west edge behind the back gardens of the houses along High Street, its north edge running behind the Berkeley Arms Hotel and returning through the castle gardens that now contain the Yurt Restaurant and its remaining side cutting across the Castle car park and St Mary's Church Yard. This suggests that Trench 8 and area containing the High Street houses were all within the Saxon minster, while Berkeley Castle was built by the Normans just on the edge of the existing minster enclosure. Now, we believe that the two ditches which cut across Trench 8 are valla monasterii; boundary markers for monasteries, which separated the monastery from the outside world, and the sacred from the profane. These valla would instead form the edge of the Saxon minster, meaning that some of the houses along High Street are not part of the Saxon precinct. 

The route of the previous interpretation of the Saxon minster boundary
vallum took the form of long ditches with a bank, stone or clay wall or hedge inside. These have been found through excavation at abbeys in Whitby and Glastonbury, and the  D-shaped earthwork vallum monasterii of the famous Iona Abbey in Argyll are still extant (Christie and Hodges, 2015). Although some valla may have resembled early bank and ditch fortifications, it is likely that they were designed as a symbolic separator of those inside the monastery from the outside world, rather than as actual defensive measures (Neuman de Vagvar, 1996: 65). Sometimes new valla were not constructed when a monastery was built, and existing boundaries were instead utilised, such as at St. Fursey's Monastery at Burgh Castle, which is enclosed by Roman fort walls. Valla monasterii were primarily used in early Anglo-Saxon monasteries but their use continued into the High Medieval period.

The first phase of construction of our vallum
At Glastonbury, the valla are associated with the earliest layout of the monastery, but were changed several times as the boundaries of the Abbey precinct were moved and expanded. The vallum at Glastonbury were first recorded by Dr. C.A. Ralegh Radford, who excavated the site from 1951-1963. The boundary was thought to surround the earliest Saxon church on the site, known as the vetusta ecclesia or Old Church, destroyed in the fire of 1184. The profile of Glastonbury Abbey's vallum bears a striking resemblance to our own, with similar vertical sides and a flat bottom (Rahtz, 1993: 93). Other similar valla can be seen at the Saxon Abbey at Whitby. Here, the vallum surrounding the 7th century monastery has been found to contain similar material cultural to that found in the Anglo-Saxon layer of Trench 8 surrounding our vallum. Upon excavating the ditches now thought of as the vallum in 1943, Sir Charles Peers suggested they may have formed part of a roadway, passing between the monastic and the non-monastic buildings on site. This feature has subsequently been reinterpreted as a monastic boundary wall, and the presence of monastic structures outside of the vallum indicates later expansion of the precinct (Daniels, 1988: 208).

The second phase of construction
There are two known Anglo-Saxon monastic structures near to our trench in the grounds of Berkeley Castle, one under what is now St. Mary's church, and another under the separate church tower. It is possible that these two monasteries were separated to keep male and female residents separate, one for monks and one for nuns. The area covering Nelme's Paddock and Trench 8 would have been scattered with cells in which members of the religious order would have lived.

Of the valla monasterii at Berkeley we can identify three possible phases of construction. The first phase is evident at the top of the trench, consisting of a shallow stone filled ditch which is thought to have fallen out of use by the late 7th or early 8th century. The second phase a little further down the slope  consists of another, much narrower ditch. The ditches of the first and second phase of construction have an identical terminal, suggesting that despite a 10m expansion of the minster boundary, the entrance into the monastery complex remained the same. The entrance would have been east facing, and would likely have led between the two Anglo-Saxon minster churches, which would today be between St. Mary's Church and the Tower. The alignments of these two ditches both mirror the alignment of the Church, likely due to it having been built on the foundations of an original Saxon minster building. This alignment follows the natural contour of the small hill Trench 8 is cut into, although the hill contour we see today is slightly different, due to topographical changes to this area made in the Civil War. The third phase of boundary construction takes place within the ditch of the second phase; this ditch was backfilled, and a fence was constructed within it, which was eventually replaced with a stone wall which shows evidence of the reuse of Roman masonry. 
This reassessment dramatically changes what we know about the shape and size of the Saxon minster - it would have been about half the size of our original estimate, and encompassed a somewhat different area. 

Christie, N. and Hodges, R. (2015). Anxious Abbots? Questions of monastic security and insecurity in early medieval Europe. In N. Christie and H. Herold (eds) Fortified Settlements in Early Medieval Europe: Defended Communities of the 8th-10th centuries. Oxford: Oxbow Books.
Daniels, R. (1988). The Anglo-Saxon Monastery at Church Close, Hartlepool, Cleveland. Archaeological Journal. 145 (1): 158-210.
Neuman de Vagvar, C. (1996). Saints and companions to saints: Anglo-Saxon royal women monastics in context. In P. Szarmarch (ed.) Holy Men and Holy Women: Old English Prose Saints' Lives and Their Contexts. New York: New York Press.
Rahtz, P. (1993). Glastonbury. London: English Heritage.


  1. I'm interested to hear if you have expanded on your view since June 2018. I'm carrying out research into the siting of Gloucestershire churches in the landscape. i.e. on sites of pre-Christian habitation.

  2. Hi Neela - we have just returned back to Berkeley and are excavating the fills of the narrower ditch which is the one you see in the photo above, full of water! We are sieving the fills to maximise our artefact retrieval, and so far have found two small tail bones from a porpoise in the backfill of the wall that was later cut along the same line of this ditch. To the east of where we are digging is a church, which may have been sited on a pre-christian site, but it's impossible to excavate closer!


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