Dig is on for Ancrum palace

ARCHAEOLOGISTS could unearth a 12th-century palace in a field east of Ancrum.

Glasgow University experts are on mission to find out what is below the surface of the long-suspected important medieval site.

The dig may uncover a bishop’s palace – or a stronghold of the crusading Knights of Malta, says Scottish Borders Council which has commissioned the work.

Local traditions dating back to at least the 18th century suggest that the then ruined building was a stronghold of the Knights of Malta.

But the Bishop of Glasgow’s lands stretched to Ancrum at one time and speculation has grown over the last two years that the local field called Mantle Walls (also known as Maltan Walls) is the probable site of a bishop’s house or palace dating back to the 12th or 13th century.

SBC’s archaeology officer, Dr Chris Bowles, said: “One of Glasgow’s bishops – Bishop de Bondington who was responsible for building Glasgow Cathedral – actually died in the village after dictating his last writ to the Pope.

“Ancrum, it seems, was at the very centre of medieval religion and politics until the Wars of Independence.”

Some sources say the Mantle Walls are the remains of a preceptory – community – of the medieval Maltan Knights, while others dismiss the claims as unfounded.

The Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS) says aerial photographs suggest they were part of a castle or palace. Human bones were found there by a ploughman in 1794. And the torso of a larger-than-life medieval statue was found in the field, part of Copland Farm, around 1956 by the farmer who had also previously removed foundation stones from there.

On its website, RCAHMS stated: “The only historical evidence which could apply to this site is contained in 12th and 13th century charters of the Bishops of Glasgow, dated from Ancrum, in which mention is made of the Bishop’s house and his chapel, which was independent of the parish church.”

A map from the 1770s depicts a ruined building on the site, but every map thereafter shows a blank field.

Dr Bowles believes the ruins were most likely brought down around the turn of the 19th century to make way for agricultural improvement.

The investigations have come about after a member of the public contacted Dr Bowles in 2010, concerned about possible illegal metal detecting in the field.

In the light of the threats to the site, Dr Bowles proposed a research project to determine what, if anything, survived of the supposed medieval building.

He then gained support from Historic Scotland, Treasure Trove Scotland and the National Museums of Scotland, and the project got under way in November 2011 with a geophysical survey.

Dr Bowles said: “From the geophysics results we obtained last year, Mantle Walls looks to be an extraordinary site.

“I am very hopeful that we can not only show that this is an important medieval site, but that the added awareness will bring some measure of protection against illegal metal detecting.”

The project is moving into its second phase on Monday (October 1) when, for five days, professional archaeologists, with help from Ancrum residents, will dig small excavation trenches to test the geophysics findings.

Dr Bowles said: “It is hoped that this will further reveal features and strong dating evidence that will prove this to be a medieval site of regional and possibly national importance.”

Daily site tours from Monday to Thursday are planned for the public at 4pm.