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Ruins of Old St Helens Church

The ruins of Old St Helen's Church

Old St Helen’s yields its secrets

Following an archaeological dig in April of this year, new discoveries have been found at the Old St Helen’s Church site at Ore Place, thought to be one of the oldest buildings in Hastings, reports  Zelly Restorick.
The community excavation was commissioned under the supervision of Chris Butler Archaeological Services Ltd on behalf of Sussex Heritage Trust. Over 100 enthusiastic volunteers participated in the dig, many of them local to the area, washing, cleaning, digging and recording all the finds.

The church is a Scheduled Ancient Monument and a Grade II Listed Building and the site is locally and nationally significant in the world of archaeology. Some elements of the original church and churchyard survive today and suggest it dates from the 12th century. The tower was added later in the 12th century and a chancel in the 13th, with further building work taking place over the next four centuries. The building was finally abandoned in 1868 and allowed to fall into disrepair, when the new church was built on The Ridge.

Removing recent topsoil, worked stone, a screed ‘floor’ and rubble, the archaeological team of professionals and volunteers saw their first glimpses of some of the church’s original features. This included ceramic tiles set in a diamond pattern and two small stone memorials. As work continued, the foundations of the original south wall emerged, including a section of the original south wall of the nave.

Was the church originally a single celled building? Possibly. Further research and analysis is needed. Mortar samples were taken from all the walls, which will establish dates and construction connections. Both south aisles had been built on what was originally part of the graveyard – and numerous disarticulated and partly articulated burials were found. Six brick-built vaulted tombs, all probably dating from the 18th century, were discovered in the interior of the nave and the chancel, with another built into the east end of the south aisle.

A single burial in the central aisle of the nave may be very early. One intact burial of an adult and one of an infant were the only ones to be lifted. All other human remains were left undisturbed.

A canopy tomb was found in the north wall of the chancel, which, it is believed, is the Easter Sepulchre, where the crucifix and other sacred items would have been placed during the Easter period to commemorate Jesus’ entombment and resurrection.

Some beautiful examples of medieval pottery were discovered in the graveyard area, plus some complete floor tiles and small fragments. In addition, a number of furnaces were discovered, believed to have been used for melting lead, as small fragments of non-ferrous metal, possibly lead, were found. An archeomagnetic date of 1310-1425AD was confirmed.

All the volunteers involved in the dig agreed it had been a very enjoyable month, some learning new skills such as how to draw plans and sections and how to record finds, whilst others added to their existing knowledge and experience. The excavation was seen as a huge success, greatly enhancing existing knowledge of the history and archaeology of the church.

An interim summary report of all the findings is now available at the Hastings Archaeological and Research Society [www.haarg.org.uk].

The church and churchyard have been owned by Sussex Heritage Trust since 1991 and are on The Heritage At Risk register run by English Heritage. Following a successful Lottery bid, the church is now undergoing conservation work. This work will ensure the long-term stability of the ruins and the churchyard and its contents.

Bronwyn Griffiths, education co-ordinator from the Sussex Heritage Trust, said that they would love more members of the community and schools to get involved in the conservation project. “We want to let people know where we’ve got to on the project so far – and more information will become available as further reports are published. If you’re interested in doing some family research, they have information about the graveyard and all the names of the people buried there.”

As part of the conservation work, access for visitors will be improved, information boards posted and a new internal staircase added within the tower. The church will be open to the public on the next Heritage Open Day on 8 September and everyone is welcome to the open-air church service on 9 September.

For further information about this project, please check out the website : www.oldsthelenschurch.org.uk

 

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Posted 11:50 Wednesday, Aug 8, 2012 In: Home Ground

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