I’m Taking Part In The Big Athelstan Dig

Posted on July 1, 2024 by Categories: Uncategorized

Residents, volunteers and businesses of Malmesbury are getting ready for Athelstan 1100 – 27 events over 24 days which started this last weekend. 

These events  mark the 1100th anniversary of the accession of King Athelstan – the first King of England. Back in 1924 there were many events in the town to mark the 1000th anniversary and this year it’s going to be bigger and better.

During the period of 24 days, there will be four weekends of events, and many of them free.  The events involve more than 100 local businesses and community organisations.  Tickets are available for talks and performances and the town are expecting 1,000s of visitors. Some talks sold out within days. 

All are focusing on the history of Malmesbury and its relationship with King Athelstan.

One of the main events is The Big Athelstan Dig which will take place this weekend on July 6 and 7. There are community archaeological sites around the town, some even in people’s gardens. Visitors will be able to follow the trail and meet professional archaeologists who will help interpret finds. 

While I’ve done the media relations for this project on a part-paid, part-sponsorship basis, attending this weekend is a voluntary thing because, for me and my husband Steve, is the chance of a life-time. 

I’ve always loved archaeology and wanted to take part in a dig and being able to be at the heart of such an event as a volunteer is fantastic – I just hope the weather holds up!

What is The Big Athelstan Dig?

The project aims to find buried Anglo-Saxon artefacts in and around the community which speak to the history of the town when it was of huge importance as a community in that period. With much focus around the famous Abbey, it was also home to a road which was a main travel thoroughfare of its day.

The town volunteers have won support from the National Lottery Heritage Fund with a grant of £14,500 to help fund the two days of the archaeological dig and this means all finds must be registered, logged and available for the community to see. My husband Steve will be filming some of this to provide a short film to evidence the event in its aftermath and for any community groups unable to attend in person. 

It’s known the Anglo-Saxon king is buried within the grounds of Malmesbury Abbey, although the exact location still remains a mystery. A few hundred years after his death, his remains were moved so there’s no knowledge of where he’s now buried. Only that it’s somewhere around Malmesbury, probably around the Abbey from a time when the Abbey was much much bigger than today. 

Malmesbury has an amazing history. People have been living in the hilltop of Malmesbury for over 2,800 years, so there is a great deal of history beneath the residents’ feet!

There is a great opportunity for a whole range of people to be involved in the Big Athelstan Dig, including students from local schools and clubs.

People taking part in the project will be led by the guidance of Cotswold Archaeology, and the volunteers will have an amazing and rare opportunity to be involved in something like this. They will participate by recording and cleaning any finds.

You usually only see this on TV, on something like Time Team, so for members of the community to be involved will be very special. And talking of Time Team, Phil Harding will be attending on one day of the weekend to look at and talk about any finds, from any era.

Any finds from the dig will be displayed for the public after the excavations, along with a report explaining more about each of the exhibits.

Who was King Athelstan?

He was the son of Edward the Elder and grandson of Alfred the Great, and at the time of his birth he was illegitimate, although later, his mother (originally the King’s mistress), became Queen.

Although records show that the king was very fond of Athelstan, when King Edward died in 924, initially Athelstan was proclaimed king by the Mercians. However, the West Saxons proclaimed Aelfweard, Edward’s second eldest son as king. But Aelfweard followed his father to the grave only a month later. This meant in 924 Athelstan became King. 

A year later, in September 925, Athelstan was officially crowned King of Saxons and Angles, at Kingston-upon-Thames.

During his reign, he displayed great qualities that enabled him to unite England, and he was able to lay claim to be king of All England. Among other things, he oversaw the translation of the Bible into English. He forged links with Europe by marrying his four half-sisters to European royalty.  He reformed the currency which had become badly debased, and his head was cast on silver pennies. (Athelstan Museum bought a coin at auction from Athelstan’s reign, in 2023 which will be one of the amazing Anglo Saxon artefacts on display from July 2).

Malmesbury remembers Athelstan for the grant of land – which is still held by the Warden and Freemen of Malmesbury to this day.

Athelstan died on 27 October 939 in his palace in Gloucester, after only 14 years on the throne. His wish was to be buried in Malmesbury Abbey. 

Other events taking place are:

29/30 June: The opening of the Athelstan Pilgrim Way – 100 miles of footpaths and cycleways linking churches across North Wiltshire. This went so well with 100s attending. 

6/7July: The Athelstan Big Dig.

13/14 July: Drama performances at Malmesbury Abbey about how Athelstan became the First King of England.  Plus, there will be a child-focused Big Athelstan picnic and an immersive Anglo Saxon food, drink and craft fair.

20/21: Anglo-Saxon Malmesbury – a re-enactment village with hands-on experiences in the river-side park at St Aldhelm’s Mead. 

I’ll  be blogging about my Athelstan experiences in a future post!  In the picture are the committee of volunteers who have been responsible for the whole Athelstan 1100 project. All power to them and I’m humble to be a small part of this amazing celebration. 

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