JUBILANT campaigners launched a ten-week excavation at the ruins of Pontefract’s former St Richard’s Friary after winning a battle to explore the site.
Members of Pontefract and District Archaeological Society (PDAS) started to dig trenches at the site of the 13th century Dominican friary this week after bosses at the Mid Yorkshire Hospitals NHS Trust, which owns the site, granted them access.
Pontefract Friary Action Group had feared the ruins of the site would be “destroyed” as former Pontefract General Infirmary buildings were ripped down – and were initially told demolition would go to a metre below ground level. But now the trust has said contractor Balfour Beatty will demolish the buildings to slab level at areas with “high or uncertain potential for archaeological survival” and allowed the group to start an excavation.
Adrian Pope, of the group, said: “We never dreamed we would be doing an excavation at this stage. We are extremely grateful to the trust and Balfour Beatty for allowing us to do this – and to everyone who supported our campaign.”
The dig is being led by site manager Simon Tomson, with help from archaeological experts, volunteers and people with learning difficulties from Real Life Options.
At its peak, the Dominican establishment housed 40 friars. The original friary buildings were probably made of wood, but archaeological digs in 1963 suggest that by the middle of the 14th century some had been reconstructed in stone with a roof of stone slabs fixed with iron nails. The friary was dissolved by order of Henry VIII in 1538, the buildings demolished and the land sold.
Mr Pope said: “We don’t know what we’ll find, but it’s very exciting. We’ll be reporting back on our findings during the excavation.”
More than 2,000 residents signed a petition launched by the group, urging the trust to preserve the friary, the town’s Grade I listed hermitage and the former dispensary building on Southgate.
Gordon Walker, acting director of estates, facilities and the hospitals development project, said: “As a result of a recent desktop archaeological survey that we carried out, we have agreed a series of measures where additional care will be taken during and after the demolition works of the old PGI to protect archaeological remains.
“We have been working closely with the PDAS and we are pleased with the positive outcome that has been agreed with all parties to protect the heritage of Pontefract.”