Archaeological excavations at Exeter Cathedral

26th July 2023

Exciting new archaeological discoveries at Exeter Cathedral.

Archaeologists at Exeter Cathedral have made some exciting new discoveries from their latest investigations in the Quire area of the 900-year-old building.

Experts at the site say they are now certain they have uncovered the foundations of the cathedral’s original high altar, which would have featured in the original build of Exeter Cathedral in the early 12th century.

Beyond the Norman high altar, a sunken area has been revealed, which archaeologists now believe indicates a crypt beneath the building. Thought to have been filled in around 1300AD, this new discovery changes our understanding of the original Norman building, which was thought to have been built without a crypt.

Archaeological excavations at Exeter Cathedral

Important stone-lined tombs have also been revealed in the excavation. One has been identified as that of the 13th-century Bishop of Exeter, William Brewer. Another tomb is believed to be that of 12th-century Bishop, William Warelwast, a nephew of William the Conqueror.

As well as the traces of the site’s Norman origins, archaeologists have also uncovered fragments of medieval tiles, tiles from the Victorian pavements that were designed by 19th-century architect Sir George Gilbert Scott and newspaper clippings.

The discoveries come as the archaeological investigation period draws to a close. Next week, specialist contractors will continue work in the area, to complete essential building conservation, reduce the Cathedral’s carbon footprint with a more efficient underfloor heating system, and lay a new ‘Jubilee Floor’ tile design based on Sir Gilbert Scott’s original Victorian designs using locally-sourced Devon stone.

The Quire project is funded by Exeter Cathedral’s 2020s Development Appeal which will see essential building conservation and improvements taking place to secure a more sustainable future for the cathedral.

Read about Exeter Cathedral’s Roman past.

This will include installing a more efficient underfloor heating system and help reduce the cathedral’s carbon footprint. Once the new heating system is in place, a new Jubilee Pavement floor tile design will be installed based on Scott’s Victorian designs.

The Development Project is supported by the Valencia Communities Fund. It aims to raise £10 million in the coming five years. With support from generous grant-giving Trusts and Foundations, donations and legacy gifts the Cathedral has been able to complete the first phase of Chapter House refurbishment works with a new glass lobby, underfloor heating and a new lighting scheme.

Archaeological excavations at Exeter Cathedral

The next phase will renovate and conserve the East End of the Cathedral  (2022-2025), build the Cloister Gallery, raise funds for the Exeter Cathedral Music Foundation Trust and undertake other works to the estate as needed.

A further appeal, estimated at some £8 million, will follow in the next five years to 2030 to complete the works to the Cathedral Nave and entrances at the West End, and to further improve its facilities, to deliver effective working, increased exhibition capacity and the long-term viability of our other key buildings.

The Dean of Exeter, the Very Revd Jonathan Greener, said:

“Exeter Cathedral is one of Europe’s great medieval cathedrals; the most significant building in Devon. But it needs urgent investment to safeguard our heritage and improve our welcome. The Cathedral, its stories and many treasures belong to the people of Devon, but we are currently failing to receive and engage them effectively.

“People are unable to use and understand the building because our facilities are failing and our interpretation is inadequate and outdated. This project will bring new and different people through our doors, address many problems in the East End and the adjoining Chapter House, interpret these parts of the building afresh, and improve the visitor experience. The new cloister gallery will improve access for all to disparate parts of the building, and enable our treasures to be displayed so new people can discover and enjoy their heritage.

“We love our visitors and volunteers, but we would like to broaden our demographic — we long to reach out to new people, especially those who think this cathedral is not for them, and let them experience its mystery, its well-being and its beauty,” he added.

To support Exeter’s Development Appeal click here.