Archaeologists have discovered a previously unknown family vault in the north transept of Gloucester Cathedral. The vault contains well preserved coffins belonging to the Hyett family dating from the 17th and 18th century. Burial vaults are not unexpected finds within our churches and cathedrals, however the undisturbed condition of this vault is perhaps surprising. The vault was found when building work -part of the Project Pilgrim refurbishment of the cathedral- meant a ledger stone set into the transept floor had to be moved, and a void under the slab allowed access into the vault.
Most interesting however is that the ledger stone which overlay the vault bore the same name as the coffin plates within the vault. Richard Morriss, cathedral archaeologist comments "the name plates actually match up with the names on the ledgers above, which is remarkable."
Ledger stones are found in many -if not most- of our churches and cathedrals, however many ledgers have been moved or destroyed during repairs and renovations to the floors. That a ledger survives over the vault that it marks, and that the vault is so well-preserved is quite remarkable in a busy cathedral. However it does remind us that many of the ledgers and other memorials we see set into the floors of our parish churches and cathedrals would have been set directly above the tombs or vaults which contained the burials they commemorate.The ledgers hint at the underground topography of memorial and burial; with a complex sequence of individual burials, tombs and vaults all occupying the space under the quiet of the church floor.
Medieval cross-slabs were the precursors of ledger stones, and they would have been used in much the same way: as visible memorials to the deceased. It is known that some at least directly overlay tombs or stone coffins, and some cross-slabs explicitly name the person they commemorate. The inside of many medieval churches would not have looked so different from their post-medieval incarnations: with numerous cross-slabs set into the floor, whilst there would have been a similarly complex underground topography of burial.
Whilst most surviving medieval cross-slabs have been moved from their original position during subsequent rennovations, the Gloucester cathedral discovery does remind us of their original function, and what may still lie beneath some cross-slabs.