Burnham Norton Friary has two doors. The first door is perfectly ordinary: situated at the front of the gatehouse. Its purpose is also obvious: to let people through, into the friary that was connected to it. But the other door was more peculiar. It is much smaller, and situated on the side wall, at the top floor of the gatehouse.  

For decades, this design feature was inexplicable to archaeologists. There was nothing that this wall connected to: the only structure on this side was the perimeter wall. Additionally, there are no stairs, ladders, or anything that would allow somebody to travel between the door and the ground. This confusion was only compounded by a lack of physical evidence for any potential structure, leading many to dismiss this door completely. 

To solve this mystery, some archaeologists decided to work backwards. They began with the assumption that the top door had led out to something. To explain what could have happened to it, they proceeded to look back at Burnham Norton’s past. 

Burnham Norton Friary gatehouse

Photographed by Steve Clipperton

Despite its dignified history as one of England’s earliest Carmelite houses, its inhabitants eventually ended up on the wrong side of history. In 1536, the Dissolution of the Monasteries was underway. Two of Burnham Norton’s friars were caught in a mass arrest and baselessly accused of treason. One of these men was hung a year later, and Henry VIII passed Burnham Norton into the hands of Sir Richard Gresham.  

While the friary itself was torn down, the gatehouse was left to stand. For the next two centuries, it was used to store crops. But with nobody living in it, there would not have been as much need to access the top floor. When this floor was easily accessible from indoors, outdoor access would certainly have been superfluous. 

As such, it was entirely possible that the top door used to have a means of access, which was simply neglected. Based on this, excavations were carried out around the sidewalls, and sure enough, a flint staircase was uncovered.  

Burnham Norton Friary Gatehouse

The story of the top door reflects the complexities of scientific research. Most people believe that science always operates on an evidence-first basis. In this outlook, evidence is gathered first and used to develop different hypotheses. However, it is just as common for scientists to form a hypothesis first and use it as the basis to search for evidence. A lack of new hypotheses can be stifling for scientific research, since it can mean some potential discoveries are neglected. In this case, people had to propose the existence of an outside staircase at Burnham Norton friary, so that they could eventually discover it.