While excavating the area around a tiny, Greek Orthodox church in the English town of Shrewsbury, a team of archaeologists unearthed two crumbling wooden posts—a relatively mundane find, or so the experts believed. Lead archaeologist Janey Green assumed that the objects, like other artifacts discovered at the site, would date to the Anglo-Saxon period, which began around 410 A.D.
Her estimate was off by about 2,400 years.
Recent carbon dating of the posts suggests that they were placed in the ground in about 2033 B.C., during the late Neolithic period, ShropshireLive.com reports. And the advanced age of the discovery isn’t the only reason experts are intrigued; the presence of the posts suggests that the little Shrewsbury church sits on the oldest site of continuous worship in Britain.
Rumors of prehistoric activity in the area had swirled among experts, who referenced an archaeological dig that reportedly took place during the 1960s and '70s. So when Green learned that the finds from her dig had been dated to the late Neolithic period, she set out to track down reports from the original excavation—“detective work,” as she puts it.
“[T]he way that archaeologists legally have to report things was very different back then,” Green explains in an interview with Smithsonian.com. “So the chap who had done the excavation is reported to have died without publishing his results … I couldn't really count [those results] until I had located the documents, which I now have.”
The earlier excavation, which took place on the opposite side of the church to the dig that is currently underway, had in fact unearthed a series of wooden posts similar to the ones found by Green and her team. “They interpreted this as a processional way, some sort of religious walkway to a ritual site,” Green says. “[W]e don't understand it, and we may never understand the exact nature of these Neolithic rituals, but this is what it is.”
The site’s Neolithic occupants came and went, but the area continued to be used as sacred ground. According to Green, the original excavation uncovered artifacts from the early Bronze Age, Middle Bronze Age, Iron Age and Roman era that suggest the site had been consecrated. The recent dig turned up the remains of an Anglo Saxon church, which was subsequently covered by a Medieval church. That structure was about three times larger than the little red-brick church that stands on the site today, ShropshireLive.com reports.
It is not unusual to find Christian churches built on sites of pagan worship. What makes the Shrewsbury site special is that it has continuously functioned as a sacred space for at least 4,000 years.
Starting in the Reformation period, the building was used as an Anglican place of worship, according to the website of the Shrewsbury Orthodox Church, which purchased the property for £50 in 1994. The church was not used for much of the 19th and 20th centuries, but the community would periodically congregate there. “I'm told by the parishioners that once a year they held a service there in order to retain its consecrated status,” Green says. “Although it was in a poor state of repair, a service was still conducted there. So it was still for all intents and purposes a functioning church.”
While a window has been opened into the site’s expansive history, the area remains mysterious. Recently, for instance, archaeologists unearthed a series of animal graves containing the remains of a calf, several birds, a pig and a dog that appeared to have died while giving birth. Based on their location within the stratigraphy, Green believes that these bones date to the medieval period. And that makes them a highly unusual discovery; animal remains are not typically found on consecrated grounds.
With more secrets to unlock, Green is itching to get back to the field. “We admit at the moment we don't understand the site fully,” she says. “But it's incredibly special and interesting, and there's a lot, lot more to discover.”