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Holywell Priory, Shoreditch Village, Hackney

PCA undertook an archaeological investigation at Holywell Lane in advance of redevelopment for the basement of a hotel. Excavations revealed that the basement footprint covered important structural elements of Holywell Priory necessitating a rapid influx of staff from all regional offices to help undertake the work. Our investigations revealed a continuous stratified sequence of archaeological deposits, features, and structures extending from the Roman period to the early 19th century.

During our initial phase of work we found many important architectural features of the church, which was founded on the site the 12th century, including the portico entrance, column bases between the south aisle and the nave, and an impressive, extensive section of Westminster tile floor. A total of 45 medieval skeletons were exhumed; 16 to the south of the church with the rest buried within. The burials in the south aisle resulted in the raising of the floor, with at least 3 phases of floor discernible in this part of the church.

Excavations in the southern part of the site showed how the original bank and ditch perimeter was replaced by a curtain wall, and that the original gatehouse was expanded and altered over hundreds of years. The gatehouse was clearly a very important building in its own right, and included a bastion to the west of the gate, with the doorstop still visible, where the roadway passed through. A ‘holy’ well was also constructed against the outside of the curtain wall, presumably as a gift from the priory to the people of Shoreditch.

The south wall and portico-entrance of the priory church at our site were incorporated into a large 16th century building with the two columns defining the south aisle of the priory built into an internal wall. A notable feature of this building was a large fireplace with a base of glazed tiles; a second phase of fireplace floor was formed with brick and tile in a herring bone pattern. The fireplace faced west, suggesting the building had at least two adjoining wings set at right angles to each other.

By the 18th century both the priory church and 16th century house had been subsumed into the backyards of properties. Excavated features of this date include domestic rubbish pits, wells, cess pits and small ancillary buildings. The priory gatehouse, however, appears to have remained standing until at least the 18th century. Cellared rooms were added to the rear, the wall between adjoining medieval rooms was knocked down to create a single room and brick floors were laid.

Between 2019 and 2020 several further phases of excavation on the eastern side of the site revealed the eastern end of the medieval Holywell Priory church and further parts of the cemetery. A total of 220 medieval skeletons were exhumed from an area thought to be a cemetery associated with the priory church. All the graves were orientated east-west which suggests that they were Christian burials as expected on a medieval priory cemetery site. The assemblage of human remains included both adults and juveniles, men and women, and included the skeletons of three further priests recognised by a mortuary chalice placed within their graves.

With the post-excavation work well underway, the osteology will be an important part of ongoing research into the community in the cemetery and the significance of burials within the church and chapels within the priory.

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