During the construction of Whitefriars, the Canterbury Archaeological Trust undertook the largest excavation programme ever seen in the city.
Known collectively as THE BIG DIG, this immense project saw an almost continuous series of minor investigations, evaluations and watching briefs, as well as three major open-area excavations. What they discovered has helped reshape our understanding of the city’s history.
The Roman wall bastion was another fascinating and unexpected find. Built in AD 270-90 against the line of the Roman wall, it was discovered with masonry walls intact to a height of 1.5m, and has provided valuable information about the town's defences during the Roman period. This tower, together with a video presentation and BIG DIG artefacts, are on permanent display in a specially constructed facility alongside the cycle centre in St George's Lane.
Perhaps the most intriguing Roman discovery, however, was a line of eight bodies buried unceremoniously within a shallow ditch. The bodies had been placed in the ditch at different times, since the burial of some of the later had cut away parts of the earlier. They also appeared to have been buried with little care - one lay face down, another with its limbs tucked under the body. Their nature and location suggests scant regard for normal Roman burial practices.
Highlights of the Anglo-Saxon period included the remains of cobbled roads, perhaps the origins of Canterbury's street plan today, and a number of sunken-floored, timber-built structures. Interestingly, these were nearly always positioned along or adjacent to the former Roman roads, suggesting some form of continuity for these early routes well beyond the end of the Roman era. A particular Anglo-Saxon feature of note, probably of tenth century date, was a cellared structure containing the body of a young woman.
The medieval remains were dominated by the Austin friary founded in 1324. The church, main cloister, infirmary cloister, kitchen, refectory and dormitory were all identified, with walls standing 2m high in places, plus superb fireplaces and beautifully carved stonework. An impressive latrine was also excavated, formed from a barrel-vaulted structure set down into the ground to a depth of some 5.5m. It was found to contain a large collection of medieval pots and jugs probably thrown into the latrine when the friary was cleared out at the time of the dissolution.