|In 2007, the Department of Archaeology at the University of Winchester initiated the Magdalen Hill Archaeological Research Project (MHARP) with the aim of studying the history and development of the former medieval hospital and almshouse of St Mary Magdalen, Winchester. Despite its importance and our lack of knowledge relating to early hospital foundations, little work had formerly been carried out on the site.
In 2000 it was the focus of a small excavation televised by Channel Four's Time Team. In late 2007 and early 2008, the department carried out an evaluation and desk-based assessment of the site, including field and geophysical surveys, together with an assessment of primary and secondary documentation. This was combined with a reanalysis of the Time Team material. The results of the assessment and evaluation located the existence of several structures as well as evidence for a precinct wall and earlier boundary ditches. With reference to 18th-century drawings, these structures were identified as the former chapel, almshouse range, master's lodge and gatehouse, as well as other ancillary structures. This work provided further basis for a planned five-year excavation by MHARP, directed by Dr Simon Roffey and Dr Phil Marter.
Early history of the site
The first documented use of the site of St Mary Magdalen's hospital in Winchester was as a leper hospital sometime in the mid-twelfth century. By the fourteenth century the hospital was reformed and partly rebuilt. By the late sixteenth century the masonry hospital was largely demolished to make way for brick-built almshouses (although the medieval chapel survived). These were later used as a base for troops during the Civil War and a prison for Dutch prisoners in the wars of 1660/70. The buildings were ruinous and by the 1780s were demolished by order of the Bishop of Winchester. The site was later used for one of Hampshire's largest First World War Bases. Today nothing survives above ground.
Lepers in Winchester
The high standard of site preservation presents a rare opportunity for the excavation of a complete leper hospital and precinct. We know very little about these foundations when compared with other monastic institutions. The survival of leper hospitals is rare and contemporary descriptions are few. At Winchester, for the first time there is the potential for the study of a complete hospital and precinct through the various phases of its development.
The unique survival of the site presents a number of specific research questions. Traditionally, medieval hospitals, and in particular leprosaria, have been viewed as being the 'poorer cousins' of other monastic foundations. However, more recent documentary research has suggested otherwise. A key question therefore is to what extent is this supported by archaeological evidence. Here, the archaeology may inform us about how the occupants lived; their accommodation arrangements and personal possessions. The religious life of the hospital may also be investigated, as this receives scant attention in contemporary documents. Current excavations are also revealing important aspects of institutional life such as evidence for segregation, water management and burial customs, as well as the nature of the buildings and their layout.
The excavations also form the Department's undergraduate and MA training project. Taster Days are provided for students intending to study archaeology at Winchester. Alternatively, students/volunteers can take part for a longer period of time. In particular we would welcome applications from:
- students taking A-level Archaeology, History, Geography or Classical Civilisations;
- students who are just about to begin studying Archaeology at university (whether at Winchester or elsewhere);
- students presently at university who have to undertake fieldwork;
- residents of Hampshire who want to experience an archaeological excavation.
MHARP and the community
MHARP's discoveries have generated much interest in the wider community, with well-attended Open Days and articles in theregional and national media, such as BBC's The One Show (explore the links in the right-hand side column).