Paul Bennet

One person has done more than anyone else in the last four decades to discover and preserve the archaeology of Canterbury and the nearby area. Paul Bennett retired as Director of the Canterbury Archaeological Trust in late September 2020 — having presided over a remarkable number of archaeological projects. Paul is the Canterbury Society’s Civic Champion for 2021 and talks to Neasa MacErlean about his work and his ‘retirement’ — an inaccurate description of the busy writing life he has just embarked upon.  (The photographs are explained in a note at the bottom.

Which projects stand out most for you in your 45 year long career in Canterbury?Every single project the Trust has undertaken has produced something of significance which adds to the cumulative story of Canterbury and Kent. But there was a brief period, an annus mirabalis, when a series of spectacular, internationally important discoveries were made, one after another. The period began in September 1992 with the discovery of the perfectly preserved remains of a middle Bronze Age rope-sewn boat, found 7m beneath Bench Street, Dover. The boat is now on display in a, purpose-built, Lottery-funded gallery in Dover Museum, which opened in 2000 and the legacy of the discovery of the 3,500 year old boat continues to this day. In the first four months of 1993 the Trust embarked on a unique excavation beneath the 1787 floor of the cathedral nave, which culminated with the discovery of St Augustine’s first church, built in the early years of the Christian Mission after AD 597. The footings of an Anglo-Saxon cathedral developed in stages over the site of the first church, ending with the building of a great westwork (a western apse) probably by Archbishop Athelnoth, during a period of rebuilding following a Viking siege and sack of the city in 1011, making the cathedral church at Canterbury one of the glories of Anglo-Saxon England. The cathedral was destroyed by fire in 1066 and rebuilt by the first Norman archbishop, Lanfranc from 1070-77. The foundations of the Norman nave were found in our excavations underpinning the present nave, with the scars of the original Norman paving preserved beneath the late eighteenth century paving.  Then, in June 1993 we commenced work on a 3 k long stretch of new road between Monkton and Mount Pleasant on the Isle of Thanet. Discoveries here included ten prehistoric ring-ditches (burial mounds), a Roman settlement with unique sunken buildings, set against major and minor intersecting Roman roads, an Anglo-Saxon cemetery with interesting early seventh-century burials, some with grave goods, and a twelfth-century farmstead complete with enclosures for domestic and farm buildings. At the same time in Dover, an early Anglo-Saxon cemetery containing 244 graves was found in advance of the building of a new housing estate at Buckland. The cemetery provided exceptionally rich and important grave goods and weaponry, now held at the British Museum. It was a very exciting and busy two years for the Trust, but it is the case that rarely a day goes by when one or more excavations are in progress and important finds are being made. 

How important is Canterbury as an archeological site?

Canterbury has been an important provincial centre since the late Iron Age, with continuous settlement from the mid-first century BC to the second or third decade of the fifth century AD. For the greater part of that period into the present day, all the major roads in the SE converge on Canterbury, which by the late third century had been provided with a defensive wall. It was a gateway city next to the shortest crossing to the continent and a hub for trade and the defence of the SE. After a short gap in the early Anglo-Saxon period when the city may have been abandoned, Canterbury became one of a number of royal centres. As one of the earliest of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in the post-Roman era, during a golden age for Kent, Canterbury became a cosmopolitan place and with the arrival of a Christian Mission led by St Augustine in AD 597, the home of Mother Church. Canterbury is one of the best documented Anglo-Saxon towns in England and it is the combination of documentary and archaeological evidence, continuing into the medieval period with the marvellously informative rentals and charters of the monks of Christchurch Priory, that makes Canterbury such an exceptionally important resource for archaeologists and historians. But the city is more than that. Most of our streets are 1,000 years old. Sections of our Roman walls still survive, fossilised or incorporated within the later walls built in the late fourteenth century. The cathedral precincts contain one of the best preserved Benedictine Houses in England, with an exceptional number of well-documented buildings and our rooftops cover an amazing collection of historic buildings. Canterbury is a great place to live and work in and as an archaeologist or a historian, it is a focus of endless interest, curiosity and inspiration. 

Is there more to discover?

There’s a lot more to discover. Some of the most exciting projects have yet to happen.  One area coming up for development for example is around White Horse Lane and Jewry Lane, adjoining High Street. In the Roman period this area formed part of the Forum and Basilica, the administrative beating heart of the Roman town. In the medieval period it was the Jewish quarter. White Horse Lane was called Moneteria or the Mint because of the number of moneyers living nearby and a parallel section of Stour Street was called Heathenman Lane. But every new development site within the walls is of interest and there is much to be discovered in the suburbs of the city where there are plans to build thousands of new houses in coming years. 

How does Canterbury compare to other UK locations in terms of doing the best by its archaeology?

For archaeology and history Canterbury is up there in anyone’s short list of historic towns. But in other ways Canterbury falls way short of other ancient centres. One of the great disappointments of my time here (and I was born in Canterbury) was the closure of the Canterbury Heritage Museum in the Poor Priests’ Hospital. The museum, opened by her majesty the Queen in 1987, and at the time of closure with over 10,000 objects on display (many of them from Trust excavations), was the only place where it was possible to experience the history of the city in objects – and it was a very beautiful museum housed in the best preserved medieval hospital surviving in Canterbury. Canterbury no longer has a museum dedicated to its history, unlike most historic towns in this country and across Europe and the loss of the museum is still a huge disappointment to me and to all those who love the city.  

What would you say about the Canterbury Archaeological Trust — and I have heard you describe it as “one of the foremost professional archaeological units working in the south of the UK”?

It is people who make a business and charity like Canterbury Archaeological Trust successful. It is the quality and dedication of the Trust’s professional staff and the strength of support the Trust enjoys within the community through our volunteer cohorts and particularly from the Friends of Canterbury Archaeological Trust.   

How much does our archaeology shape our present? 

In a historic city like Canterbury, I would argue that the past shapes the present. We are immensely privileged to live and work in a place filled with historic buildings and traditional architecture. We have lost a great deal to warfare and bad planning decisions but the topography of the city remains largely intact and we have inherited a significant stock of heritage buildings of a certain scale, using traditional materials. Whilst modern architecture and materials have their place it is important for us now and in the future to value and protect our heritage assets through wise planning decisions that are biased towards retaining Canterbury’s character and preserving its vernacular heritage. Canterbury is living history in its ancient streets, city walls and heritage buildings and I have spent a significant part of my professional life recording both buried and standing remains. Most of the Trust’s work has involved preserving remains by recording them before new development destroys all trace. In a few rare occasions we have preserved important remains in situ by floating the new development over them but by and large archaeological work involves systematic destruction and the creation of a complex, elaborate and multi-facetted record of the resource, thereby preserving the resource by record for the future. We have also worked with the city planners and conservation staff recording standing historic buildings to ensure that new schemes are informed by research and analysis, leading to long-term preservation of the asset.  For each and every development archaeology has an important role to play to ensure that we preserve the past by record or in situ for present and future generations to understand and enjoy. So yes, the past does shape the present … and the future.  

What will you be doing now that you have retired from the Archeological Trust?

I will be catching up on all the projects I’ve left behind during my period as Director of the Trust. In the early days we had a great deal of trouble encouraging developers to fund archaeological work. More often than not finance for the excavation was raised but we failed to obtain funding to write the work up fully and publish the results. So after an exceptionally busy forty-five years I have retired at seventy to address the Trust’s backlog, which directly or indirectly I see as my responsibility. I am nearing completion of a volume on excavations and building recording projects in the cathedral precincts for which I am presently seeking funding to produce a book. Also on the list are excavations on the Roman Temple Precinct between Castle Street and Stour Street; excavations at the Poor Priest’s Hospital before it became a museum; excavations during the development of Longmarket and on a number of smaller sites including Church Lane, Duck Lane and St John’s Lane. 

Can you tell us a bit about yourself? What got you into this field? 

I’m a local boy, born in Canterbury. My family background was in mining and home was the village of Snowdown. My maternal grandfather originally from Staffordshire was a master sinker who helped to establish Snowdown and Betteshanger pits; my paternal grandfather, a mining engineer from Yorkshire, was under Manager at Tilmasnstone and Snowdown. My father was a locomotive fitter at Snowdown Colliery. He looked after three Avonside Engine Company (of Bristol) shunting locomotives, named St Martin, St Dunstan and St Thomas, all made for use at Snowdown. St Martin in 1931 and the other two in 1927. St Martin was broken-up for spares in 1971 and replaced by an ‘Austerity’ (called No 9), built by Hudswell Clarke of Leeds in 1943 and transferred from Holditch Colliery at Chesterton, Staffordshire in 1966. Dad tried diesels, transferred from Betteshanger in 1976, but hated them, and steam continued to be used at Snowdown until August 1979 when St Thomas was fired-up for the last time. The colliery closed in 1987 but many of the buildings survive as substantial ruins, including the old man’s locomotive shed. It would be wonderful to see most of them retained as a form of Kent Coalfield Museum – even better, with running locomotives! Austerity No 9 went to the West Coast Railway Company HQ at Carnforth Lancashire, but the remaining Avonsides are nearby; St Dunstan on the East Kent Light Railway at Shepherdswell and St Thomas at the Dover Transport Museum. I trawled the slag heaps of Snowdown for fossils as a schoolboy, broke many a window with a good throwing arm, but a bad aim, and was exceptionally fortunate to have a supportive family, with a sister, three brothers and a hard-working dad, who when not with his steam engines, ran a taxi business at evenings and during weekends, using a much-loved and polished Humber Limousine. He was often chided by old friends at the Snowdown or Rattling Workingmen’s Clubs for providing the wedding car, ending many a freewheeling batchelor life. My mother, a former nurse was a pillar of support for the whole village. I attended a really good primary school, St Joseph’s, at Aylesham, led by a charismatic headmaster Mr O’Donovan, who introduced me, aged seven, to Richborough Roman fort and the role of an archaeologist. I never looked back.  

And how will the Trust go ahead now?

Despite the pandemic, the Trust is in fine shape with wonderful staff, great support in the community and with the Friends of the Trust. I have no doubt that they will do well.

In 2021, I hope to assist the Trust with a scheme to convert the Trust’s finds store into a Public Resource Centre, to provide student and public hands-on and virtual access to our Canterbury archive. I will also be working with the Dover Bronze Age Boat Trustees to develop and raise funds to upgrade the Dover Bronze Age Boat Gallery in Dover Museum. All this office work needs to be tempered with physical activity and I hope to work with others to mount a new research excavation on the cliff-top at East Weir Bay, between Dover and Folkestone. 

One last question: I was asked to mention the name Boris Becker to you, in contact with the replica Dover Bronze Age Boat. What is that about?

I look after a half-scale replica of the Dover Bronze Age Boat. The replica was built as part of a trans-Manche project with the University of Lille and the University of Ghent in 2012. The project celebrated cross-channel connections 3,500 years ago with a travelling exhibition, conferences, publications, schools work and the building of a half-scale replica of the rope-sewn Dover Boat using replica bronze tools and identical materials. Although the replica was the centrepiece of each exhibition it was built to be used – an archaeological experiment. The replica went on display in France and Belgium and on its return to Dover it was dismantled re-caulked, stitched and successfully launched. The boat has been in the water ever since, kept in Granville Dock and regularly paddled in Dover Harbour. Occasionally we have displayed the boat at home and abroad (most recently at Ostend); we have undertaken sea trials between Folkestone and Dover and competed in two Great River Races on the Thames. We hope to cross the Channel one day. I was towing it through London for the second of the Great River Races and took a wrong turn, ending up on the Embankment. A black, four-wheel drive, Mercedes came up alongside and tried to cut in as I was turning left. The trailer hit the side of the Mercedes and did a fair amount of damage to his shiny paintwork. We parked up a little way on to exchange details. The driver of the Mercedes was Boris Becker. I got his autograph and his telephone number, and his insurer’s number. It had been his fault as my co-driver informed him rather forcefully. Boris never followed it up. I would like to think that it was because he was impressed with the boat! 

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