Excavations at Vale Priory – Philip de Jersey

Fig. 1. The prehistoric structure (in the base of the trench), viewed from the west. In the foreground is the thick layer of windblown sand, also seen in the section on the right.

The development of the Sunday School building for the Vale Church has provided a welcome opportunity to investigate the site of the Vale Priory, and this article summarizes the results of our archaeological excavations on the site.

Relatively little is known about the nature and extent of the Priory, although we do know that it was in existence by 1156. The ‘Treasure Seekers’ building is believed to represent one of the last upstanding elements of it, perhaps dating from the fourteenth century (John McCormack, Channel Island Churches (1986), p. 277). The upper part of the south gable wall of this building was demolished in 1928 and the arch on its western side – still visible today, and to be retained in the new building – was filled in, prior to its use as a packing shed for three greenhouses constructed in this field. The greenhouses were demolished by the late 1960s, along with a row of cottages which extended northwards from the packing shed up towards the east end of the church.

Our excavations focused on the area immediately west of the Treasure Seekers building, covering an area of about 20 square meters. At a later stage in the project we also recorded the results of the contractors’ excavations within the building itself. The results were somewhat unexpected, revealing a much longer history of occupation than we had anticipated. We identified five main phases of occupation, as follows:

Phase I (prehistoric)

Between 1.7m and 2.2m below the present ground surface, just to the west of the Treasure Seekers building, there is a layer of dark brown soil, sloping quite steeply downwards from north to south, which contains a small amount of prehistoric pottery, perhaps c.1000 BC. Set into this ground surface is a loose, linear assemblage of stones, in three courses, extending roughly north-west/south-east along a narrow ridge of the dark brown soil (Fig. 1). The purpose of this structure is unclear. Although the lower stones are quite large, the upper courses in particular are flimsy and it cannot have formed any sort of barrier, or provided any defence. It might perhaps have simply marked a boundary, or perhaps been part of an attempt at terracing or revetting the slope to aid agriculture.

Fig. 2. Paving outside the west wall of the Treasure Seekers building.

Phase II (first millennium AD?)

At some point the prehistoric soil horizon and the associated stone structure were entirely covered by a deposit – a metre or more – of windblown sand. The sand is very fine and appears to be entirely devoid of finds, which may suggest that this episode took place over a relatively short period. This event is difficult to date precisely, but evidence from other sites and documentary records suggest that it may have occurred between c.1000 & 1200 AD.

Phase III (12th/13th centuries AD?)

Above the fine, clean wind-blown sand is another sandy horizon with a ‘dirtier’ appearance, indicating the presence of human occupation. As well as charcoal flecks, numerous fragments of animal bone, and small pieces of slate, there is a fairly substantial quantity of medieval pottery. The great majority of these sherds are of ‘Normandy Gritty Ware’, the standard medieval pottery type found on Guernsey in the 12th and 13th centuries AD. There are a few finer sherds, probably imported from Normandy or elsewhere in north-west France, usually in a whiter fabric & with a green glaze.

Phase IV (14th century AD?)

The sandy horizon of Phase III is sealed in several areas by a layer of paving, formed predominantly of a single course of stones. The paving has been very carefully constructed: smaller stones are packed tightly into the gaps between the larger pieces, which seem to be a mixture of quarried stone with sea-worn beach stones.

The paving butts up against the lowest courses of the wall with the arch (Fig. 2), which suggests that it is broadly contemporary with this phase of the building. It also continues under the wall which now forms the boundary with the road. Somewhat to our surprise, however, it does not continue under the arch itself, although it does reappear within the walls of the Treasure Seekers building (Fig. 3). It is not clear why there is a gap below the arch. It is possible that there were some particularly large, flat threshold stones here, which were re-used elsewhere after the Priory fell into disuse.

Fig. 3. Paving inside the Treasure Seekers building

Phase V (post-medieval – present day)

There is a documentary reference that the Priory was at least partly ruinous by 1406, and several areas of the paving must have been removed in the fifteenth century or later; the stone would have provided a convenient source of building material for the cottages, or perhaps for other nearby structures. Some time after the removal of the sections of paving – but before the development of the greenhouses in the early twentieth century – a considerable quantity of rubble, mortar and demolition material was tipped across the eastern part of the site, including the area within the Treasure Seekers building. The source of this rubble is uncertain but it may reflect the demolition of a part of the cottages in this area, perhaps in the nineteenth century.

Some small degree of raising and levelling of the site probably took place after 1928, associated with the construction of the greenhouses. Their demolition in the late 1960s has left relatively little archaeological trace in the area of the excavation, other than some glass. Otherwise the uppermost levels of the soil contain a typical mix of nineteenth and twentieth century pottery; the presence of the Church fête on the site no doubt continues to add to this mix on an annual basis!

Summary

The Vale Priory excavation has revealed an intriguing sequence of occupation covering – admittedly with significant gaps – some three thousand years. The prehistoric structure, even if we cannot be sure of its purpose, was an unexpected discovery. The identification of the wind-blown sand horizon is potentially important for many other sites on the island, particularly as the layer immediately above it will be accurately dated with the help of the pottery it contains. Last but by not least, the discovery of the stone paving has added an unexpected element to our knowledge of the Priory site.

Acknowledgements

We are grateful to the Rev’d Kevin Northover, the architects, Lovell Ozanne, and the contractors, Dave Goddard and Son, for facilitating the archaeological investigation of the Vale Priory site.

Philip de Jersey