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Left; One of the trenches during the excavation of the medieval palace in Scotland. Right; Previously dug walls at the site. Source: HARP /Ancrum Heritage

Medieval Palace Unearthed: Archaeologists Swarm Scottish Borders

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Thirty years ago, a dowser identified lines of stones beneath a harvested field outside the village of Ancrum, in the Scottish Borders. Now, a team of archaeologists and students from around the world are excavating the site, which turns out to be a lost medieval bishop’s palace.

Located in the Scottish Borders near Jedburgh, and surrounded by bounty rich fields, lush forests, and freshwater streams, in medieval times, the village of Ancrum was an important agricultural hub. Comprising stone-build thatched cottages clustered around a central market square, at the heart of Ancrum was its castle, symbolizing feudal authority over the farming population.

Previous archaeological digs near Ancrum, at the Mantle Walls site, identified the foundations of “a substantial medieval building,” but its purpose has, until now, never been determined. According to an article in the BBC, Archaeologist, Ian Hill, said historical records show that the Bishop of Glasgow, William de Bondington, had a summer residence near Ancrum which he used between 1230s until his death in 1258 AD. The researchers suspect that the site is this lost Bishop’s palace.

The walls of the palace are emerged at this previous dig. (Ancrum Heritage)

The walls of the palace are emerged at this previous dig. (Ancrum Heritage)

When Magic Penetrates Science

Like many ancient structures around the world, over the centuries, most of the stones from the Mantle Walls structure have been pillaged. Many of the original ashlars have been identified in 18th and 19th century buildings in Ancrum. Notwithstanding, farmers ploughs have unearthed medieval and post-medieval pottery, as well as human bones, and local folklore associates the site with a palace, where in 1236 AD King Alexander II signed “at least three charters.”

Historians and archaeologists generally dismiss the work of ‘dowsers,’ who claim to have the ability to locate water, buildings and lost items below ground using birch branches and bent coat hangers. However, according to the Ancarum Heritage Society, in the 1990s a local called Alistair Munro, dowsed the Mantle Walls site several times looking for underground water sources and successfully identified the first stonework beneath a harvested field, which sparked the interest of archaeologists.

Abundant Evidence, But No Proof

In 2011, and again in 2019, geophysics surveys found a large part of Munro’s dowsing-based mapping was highly-accurate. Having since revealed substantial stone walls and medieval ironwork, the site archaeologists are now “confident that the Mantle Walls structure was the residence of the Bishop of Glasgow.”

Having found so much evidence, the researchers are “confident,” but they have not yet discovered irrefutable “proof” to determine that this was indeed the residence of the Bishop of Glasgow. Furthermore, this proof may never be found, as not only did 17th and 18th century builders rob most of the ornate stones, but metal-detectorists have worked this areas for three decades.

Archaeologist taking part in the excavation and uncovering evidence of a substantial medieval building of ‘high statuses. (Ancrum Heritage/ Facebook) and (Ancrum Heritage/Facebook)

Fourteen International Archaeological Students, Flew In

The site has already been listed as a scheduled monument of national importance, and the current digs are being conducted by HARP Archaeology. They are focusing on a series of pits surrounding the main area and will last until 16 September.

Munro, representing a rare example of a dowser who actually found something, said “each survey and dig reveals more information, and hopefully over the coming weeks we'll be able to get closer to being able to say for definite what was here.”

Ian Hill from HARP Archaeology told the BBC that “fourteen archaeology masters students from across the world” have joined the two-week excavation. He added that while a substantial medieval building has already been identified “we don't know the extent of the site or if there were more buildings.”

Students have also taken part in the dig. After some days more evidence of a medieval palace structure is being revealed. (Ancrum Heritage/ Facebook)

Students have also taken part in the dig. After some days more evidence of a medieval palace structure is being revealed. (Ancrum Heritage/ Facebook)

The Man Behind the Building

Who then, was William de Bondington, the medieval Bishop of Glasgow who lived in this rural building during summers? It is known William served as the bishop from 1233 AD to 1258 AD, at a time the Bishopric of Glasgow experienced rapid growth and influence, expanding its ecclesiastical reach across southern Scotland.

William de Bondington was a key player in the ecclesiastical expansion and administrative affairs of the diocese, and he personally worked to strengthen the church's influence, and to expand its reach. During his tenure as Bishop, William made improvements to the magnificent Glasgow Cathedral and his contributions left a lasting impact on the church and its operations in Glasgow during the Middle Ages.

Top image: Left; One of the trenches during the excavation of the medieval palace in Scotland. Right; Previously dug walls at the site. Source: HARP /Ancrum Heritage

By Ashley Cowie

 
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Ashley

Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of... Read More

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