Today, the town of Crowland in England has ruins from an old abbey. But local stories say long ago there was a small hut used by a guy named Guthlac that lived there alone in prayer.

Guthlac died in the year 714, and after he passed, people thought he was special because his body did not rot. So a small group of monks made the hut their home to remember Guthlac and because many people liked Guthlac when he was alive, after he died, more came to pray where he lived.

In the 10th century, an abbey was built in Crowland to honor Guthlac. Historians learned about Guthlac from a book written by a monk named Felix, but while they don’t know much else about his life, people think Guthlac made his hut at a place called a burial mound that had been emptied before.

Crowland's location on the western edge of the marsh, with other key locations mentioned in the text
Crowland’s location on the western edge of the marsh, with other key locations mentioned in the text. Credit: Duncan W. Wright & Hugh Willmott

For years, archaeologists tried to find where Guthlac’s hut was. They thought a field called Anchor Church Field was most likely, but they couldn’t dig there or learn more because farms covered the land.

Then a team including professors from the University of Sheffield dug at Anchor Church Field and surprisingly, they found the area was used long before Guthlac. Their first discovery was a big circle of earth and stones from long ago, called a henge, that was one of the largest ever found in eastern England.

As a place people could see from miles away, the henge would have been important for special ceremonies back then, and though no one used it for a long time, earthworks from old times still visible in Guthlac’s day meant he may have picked the spot for its history. Artifacts show people were at the henge again during Guthlac’s life.

Above: Satellite images of the Anchor Church field in 2004 and 2005. Note the recently backfilled evaluation trenches. Below: Plan of the location of the trenches and archaeological features in the Anchor Church field
Above: Satellite images of the Anchor Church field in 2004 and 2005. Note the recently backfilled evaluation trenches. Below: Plan of the location of the trenches and archaeological features in the Anchor Church field. Credit: Maxar Technologies and Infoterra Ltd & Bluesky / Duncan W. Wright & Hugh Willmott

While old buildings were destroyed, things like pots and combs found give a little picture of how the henge was a place people went in Anglo-Saxon times. It’s rare to find a henge was used then, so finding items from Guthlac’s time supports the field always being somewhere revered.

The clearest signs the archaeologists uncovered were ruins of a hall and church from the 12th century, likely built by Crowland’s abbots to honor holy men who lived there before. A well and possibly a flagpole base or big cross were also discovered.

Draining the wetlands later changed how the land looked through time. Even so, the field kept its sacred past into the 1700s when the landowner continued going there to pray. The archaeology reveals Anchor Church Field was considered very special through many eras.


Sources

Newcastle University | Wright, D. W., & Willmott, H. (2024). Sacred Landscapes and Deep Time: Mobility, Memory, and Monasticism on Crowland. Journal of Field Archaeology, 1–20. doi.org/10.1080/00934690.2024.2332853


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