Bones and 1,000 year old cross discovered by builders working at historic Sheffield landmark

They only expected to be digging to make a historic Sheffield church more accessible for disabled worshippers.

Monday, 13th September 2021, 7:28 am

But builders at St Mary’s Church, Ecclesfield, found more they bargained for when they stumbled across seven bodies and part of a buried cross which experts think is 1,000 years old.

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Now the local community is hoping to discover what the cross was for and how important their village once was.

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Sections of the cross being dug up by builders at St Mary's Church, Ecclesfield

The cross is due to go on display to the public, as one of Sheffield’s Heritage Open Days events.

It was first discovered in late November last year, near the site where another historic cross was discovered in 1892.

The 1892 cross was found after Victorians dug a couple of feet down so they could use the church’s western door.

No one had any idea what lay below it until workers from Bridgetts Builders, in Tickhill, Doncaster, began digging six feet down for the latest work.

Dr Hugh Willmott of the University of Sheffield’s Department of Archaeology, looks at the cross in situ after its discovery

Historian and St Mary’s churchgoer Dr Julie Banham, who has organised the heritage day at the venue, said the finds were completely unexpected, with no records of the bodies or the cross.

She said: “We think 200 years ago, they stopped using the west entrance and blocked it. They put in extra burials, but didn’t tell anyone, and it was not recorded. The bodies will be re-interred, with a funeral service.”

The cross shaft was found in three parts. and carefully removed by the builders, who have been praised by the church for their work. The shaft was decorated with symbols on all four sides.

An archaeologist was already on site, because the church is a grade one listed building, and immediately called to supervise the scene.

The sections of the cross after being cleaned up. Picture Dr Hugh Willmott

At first, some thought the cross may be linked to that found in 1892, but that was discounted because of their relative sizes.

Dr Banham said: “To find this cross here is jaw dropping. It has real significance for Ecclesfield as a historic location. We were all mighty surprised – no one was expecting anything like that.

“Now we need to conserve, interpret and display it. That is going to be the next challenge.

“The discovery places Ecclesfield as an important location in Saxon times. St Mary’s is an ancient Grade One church whose heritage reflects almost 1,500 years of history.

The age of the cross is not yet certain, but University of Sheffield archaeologist Dr Hugh Willmott believes it may date from 1000 to 1200, and could be Saxon or even Celtic.

He said: “I think we can safely say that this is one of the most significant finds of early sculpture to have been found in the region for quite a while.”

Archaeologists from York Archaeology Trust were on hand and saw how the broken fragments had been placed to form part of a floor of an earlier, long vanished building. The burials, all facing east and comprising children and adults, are currently under investigation at the University of Sheffield’s Department of Archaeology and will be reburied with a service close to one they would have known.

St Mary’s is taking part in the Heritage Open Days. The story of the cross shafts and their discovery will be on display 10.30am until 4pm from September 16 until September 18.

Local journalism holds the powerful to account and gives people a voice. Please take out a digital subscription or buy a paper. Thank you. Nancy Fielder, editor