Friday, 1 September 2017

Exploring Brookwood Cemetery


A couple of weeks ago, we had an unexpected visit to the great cemetery at Brookwood in Surrey. Originally, designed as an overspill cemetery for the corpses piling up in Victorian London, it is perhaps best known for its ‘Necropolis Railway’ that ran straight from London Waterloo to the cemetery itself. What I found most fascinating though was not the earlier phases of the cemetery, but the more recent areas, which contained burial zones dedicated to a complex mix of different religions and ethnicities. As I’ve done a lot of work on early medieval burial, in which the role of ethnicities and religious beliefs are so much at the front of people’s thoughts, it was a useful exercise to see how these aspects of identity were played out in a more contemporary setting.

The first area we explored was the Catholic zone – itself a reminder that Christianity comes in more than one flavour and that certain communities felt the need to spatially differentiate themselves from others (although there was no formal boundary between this area and the burial zones of other traditions). Strikingly, although whilst the individuals within this area were all buried within the same faith tradition, there were other identities being signalled in their burial, particularly ethnicity. There is clearly a significant Italian diaspora community in this part of Surrey - and they were marking themselves out in death. They were doing in this in a number of different ways. First, there was a clear physical clustering of graves with Italian names in a certain part of the Catholic zone. In some cases, particularly in the slightly older burials, Italian was used in the epitaphs, but often most of the text was in English , although often the place of birth was often indicated down to the level of the town or village in which the person had been born in. Another feature, distinctive to these was the use of photographs of the deceased. Such photographs are not a particularly British tradition (although it is starting to become more common), so the consistent use of photographs in this area certainly marked out the occupants as ‘not British’ even if not specifically Italian.

It is tempting to see the declining use of Italian on the graves as an indicator of some level of assimilation by the Italian community. However, in other aspects of the burial tradition of this community there seemed to be in more recent years a very pronounced revival of a very distinctively Italian burial tradition – the construction and use of columbaria. Columbaria are upstanding constructions containing multiple compartments for individual cinerary remains. Anyone who has travelled abroad will have seen these used widely in the Mediterranean, particularly in Italy, often rather resembling banks of marble filing cabinets. Often groups of compartments are dedicated to the use of a specific family. Their use is certainly alien to the English tradition. However, here at Brookwood, columbaria only seem to be start being constructed in the 21st century, where they only seemed to be used by the Italian community. In this sense, the Italian population are seemingly becoming more rather than less Italian in death as time goes by.

It would be interesting to find out more about how this has come about. One possibility is that as direct links with their overseas origins ebbs away as older generations pass, the younger community feel a need to signal their loyalty to their roots in other ways even if only in death. There are though other issues at play here though I’m sure. I’d be interested to get a better understanding of two factors. Firstly, how far do changes in cemetery regulations at Brookwood influence what is acceptable and permissible? Most cemeteries have very tight regulations about the range and design of burial memorials that are acceptable. Brookwood is a private cemetery, run on a commercial basis, rather than a municipal cemetery or a Church of England graveyard; thus they need to be savvy to attract clients. I can see this resulting in a pressure to allow more experimentation and unorthodoxy in memorial types – it is possible that columbaria only became acceptable within the cemetery relatively recently and that before that, even though the desire was there, people were simply not allowed to build and use such unorthodox (in a British context) memorials. Another hypotheses that would warrant further consideration is the pragmatic issue of the availability of the necessary skills and technologies to construct columbaria. Presumably, traditional UK undertakers in the past only offered a defined and limited range of burial monuments, which did not include columbaria. Potentially, it took some time for there to be enough demand, and presumably access to plans and exempla for commercial undertaking concerns to be able to move beyond simple head and kerbstones to being able to construct more complex memorials.

Both of these explanations are just working hypotheses – it is quite possible that that one, neither or both may be relevant, as well as other alternatives. Pleasingly, as these are contemporary burial traditions rather than archaeological case studies, it should, in theory, be possible to drill down deeper into the choices being made here. As archaeologists we spend a lot of time thinking about agency and the active decisions being made by people to express identities- this is a useful reminder that no matter what people might desire, there are also often pragmatic limitations (procedural, economic and social) that limits what people are actually able to do in practice.

The second area we explored was the substantial Muslim area of the cemetery. This was a real experience, as whilst I’ve seen plenty of non-British cemeteries before, this was a tradition I was not really familiar with. Handily, we got talking with a local man from the Pakistani community was really interested in talking about his religions approaches to burial and was frank about how some decisions were made. I am indebted to him for this time and willingness to report.

However, more widely, the same patterns that could be seen within the Catholic area to differentiate individuals and communities could be seen at play in this area. Groups were particularly differentiating themselves in terms of national origin, which although ultimately subordinate to religious identify was clearly an important structuring principal. Again, language was used as a differentiating strategy – some used just Arabic script, others used English script, and some a combination of the two. The place of birth was also mentioned regularly. In some cases, such as amongst the Turkish and Turkish Cypriot communities, national flags also often appeared on graves.

As with the Italian Catholic burials, the role of family tombs seemed much more apparent than in traditional British cemeteries. This may be a reflection of the differing significance of family groups in burial traditions in their native countries, but I wonder how much being part of an immigrant community may amplify or emphasise the importance of the family as a structuring principal in death and in life.

Obviously, Islamic burials are meant to broadly conform with a number of obligations – although obviously I’m aware there is huge variation here. A common requirement though is that the body should be at right-angles to the direction of Mecca. Interestingly, there was a surprising variety in alignment- sometimes even within the same burial compound or enclosure. The gentleman we were speaking to also said that often the precise choice of alignment might be constrained by pragmatic issues- for example, they were sometimes offset slightly if correct alignment would mean that the grave would intersect with one of the curved cemetery paths or roads. In other cases, the correct alignment might also result in a grave impinging onto a neighbouring plot. We were told that in this case the cemetery management company would charge for both plots in such cases, so sometimes economics came into play to prevent the ideal alignment being used.

Within the grave, we were told that coffins weren’t used, but in theory a barrier was meant to be placed between the body and the fill of the grave – stone or wood- but again we were told that this was also sometimes not used for reasons of cost. Presumably, this kind of price cutting was particularly easy as it was not visible after the interment itself and would only be known about by a small number of people.

Overall, it was a really thought-provoking visit – a distinct change from the many UK cemeteries and graveyards I’ve visited before. As I noted above archaeologist tend to be very interested in agency and choice in the mortuary process – particularly in the construction of ‘identities’ (whatever we might mean by that). The Brookwood experience has made me think a little more carefully about the constraints and limits that are also in place within any society. When looking at early medieval burials sometimes we tend to think about religious identities replacing ethnic and other identities- Brookwood was a reminder of how intermeshed and overlapping these identities can be in practice (and I didn’t even start to explore the issue of gender distinctions…).












Sunday, 27 August 2017

Iken: A Suffolk Scene


I’ve just come back from a holiday in Suffolk. It’s an area I’ve been to several times and one of the places I always come back to is Iken, an isolated hamlet on the River Alde. Its church, dedicated to St Botolph is almost certainly the location of Botolph’s monastery of Icanho founded in the mid-7th century. But for once, I’m not going to dwell on early medieval archaeology. I’ve got a bit of a soft spot for the particular tradition of ruralist and agrarian writing that emerged in the 1930s – the best known figures of this movement are people such as HJ Massingham and Adrian Bell. However, the cottage where we were staying had a copy of a book I’d not come across before, Suffolk Scene by Julian Tennyson (great grandson of Alfred, Lord Tennyson). It was a recent edition of the 1939 original and had a forward by Ronald Blythe, which is usually an imprimatur of good writing. The book itself is very much a period piece and contains paeans of praise to Suffolk wildfowling and contains some lengthy passages of rather awkward, light-hearted anecdotes in phonetic Suffolk accent, which seem a little twee to the modern reader. However, the morning before we went to Iken I lay on the beach and read this rather beautiful passage about the church:
“The loveliest part of the whole river is at Iken, where the church and rectory stand lonely on a little wooded hill at the head of the bay that curves sharply back beneath the bracken and oak trees and steep sandy cliffs. There is something very restful about this place; very old and very friendly; there is no church in England which gives you in quite the same way such a feeling of security and changelessness. Behind it our fields, woods and heaths stretching down to Orford, to the right of it are the marshes and distant sea. A huge expanse of river lies before you when you lean over the graveyard wall; the long, dark pinewood of Blackheath and the bay in the corner where the widegeon gather in thousands on winter nights, seem at least two miles off; but wait till low tide and you will see the whole river fall away and it becomes a flat shining ocean of mud with the channel a thin thread through the middle of it. Whimbrel, curlew, redshank, dunlin, shelduck, mallard all the birds of the river come up to feed around Iken flats and their din sets the tame duck quacking raucously in the decoy at the back of the marshes. The noise of the birds is all that you will hear at Iken, except when the east wind drives across the marsh and lashes at the thatch of the church. When I was a child I decided that here was the place for me to be buried. I have not altered my mind. Everyone wants to lie in his own country: this is mine. I shall feel safe if I have the scream of birds and the moan of wind and the lapping of water all round me, and the lonely woods and marshes that I know so well. How can anyone say what he will feel when he is dead? What I mean is that I shall feel secure in dying”

I didn’t know much about the author at that point beyond the fact that he had been killed in Burma,
far away from the Suffolk he loved, at the age of 30 during the Battle of Arakan in 1945. It was moving then, when we got to Iken, to find his grave in the churchyard. It seems to be a relatively recent monument, unlikely to be more than a decade or so old. It was really rather touching having read his words about the church to discover that he did, as he hoped, end up there, where he must have lain submerged and unmarked in the turf before someone (who? Family? Friends?) placed a stone for him there.
We placed some shells taken from the beach near the mouth of the river on his gravestone and left him to listen to the wind in the trees and the birds on the river.
 
 
 










 


Monday, 21 August 2017

"There is sorrow on the sea": Maritime memorialisation


There is no escaping the sea on Holy Island. From our trenches we could look out across the harbour and beyond towards the Farne Islands; the wind brought in rain from the North Sea and the cries of seabirds and seals was a constant accompaniment to life on the island.

But the sea is not just a constant as a natural phenomenon. It also appears repeatedly in a materialised form in monuments and memorials that are found across the island, particularly in and around the parish church. Not surprisingly, on an island which has produced many sailors, death by drowning was a real threat, and deaths by drowning are recorded on several graves – interestingly several have nice depictions of boats on them. For example, the grave of John Stevenson (d1875) who died in a wreck off nearby Bamburgh has his stone decorated with a fine carving of a typical local fishing boat known as a coble, and the edge of his grave is finished with rope-like cable twist moulding. Imagery of the sea can be found on other, such as the anchor symbol – a not uncommon image on 19th century graves, but a particularly potent image on an island such as this.

But in death, the sea didn’t only take people away; it also brought strangers to Holy Island. One burial plot, placed in a prime position just by the entrance to the churchyard, is the last resting place of nine members of the crew of the SS Holmrook which sank just off the island in 1892 . A now almost unreadable stone also records the burial site of 13 year old Field Flowers who died in the wreck of the Pegasus on his journey back from school in Edinburgh in 1843. 

A particularly noticeable feature of the burial traditions on the island is the importance of recording
if the departed has been involved in the lifeboats that operated from the island. Since the foundation of the lifeboat service, there have been five lifeboat houses which operated from the island (or on the immediately adjacent mainland). Not surprisingly, given the notorious rocks and reefs off the nearby Farne Islands, as well as the rocks on the north side of Holy Island itself, there have been many shipwrecks in the islands’ waters. These included both local vessels, as well as those from further afield. The role of working on the lifeboats, a volunteer role taken by fishermen and other resident seafarers, was incredibly important- and clearly purveyed a sense of corporate identity amongst its membership, which seems to have transcended many other possible social roles on the island. George Kyle who died in 1960 is recorded on his grave as Assistant Motor Mechanic of the Holy Island lifeboat for 29 years – another George Kyle (d. 1912) is noted as having been both Second Coxwain and Coxwain Superintendent of the boat. Even now there are no lifeboats operating from the island anymore, the boards listing the rescues the lifeboat crews from the island had assisted in are still carefully maintained and displayed, just outside the churchyard.

Mercifully, Holy Island never saw any lifeboat disasters such as that at Aldeburgh (Suffolk) in 1899 which resulted in the deaths of seven lifeboatmen, who are memorialised by an impressive suite of monuments in Aldeburgh churchyard and a brass plaque in the church itself – both laden with maritime and nautical images and symbols.

Central element of burial plot for Aldeburgh
lifeboat men lost in 1899
disaster

I’ve spent a lot of time by the coast this summer – in Northumberland, Yorkshire and currently Suffolk. And wherever I’ve visited, the importance of the sea in forming and maintaining a distinctive tradition of memorialisation and commemoration is apparent. The seafaring experience, and its incredible dangers and regular fatalities, is something that seems to have particularly impacted on post-medieval (particularly 19th and 20th century) commemorative practices. The only other employment sectors that I can think off that have been particularly and specifically highlighted in burial practices are the military (obviously) and mining (I’m thinking particularly of the tradition of pit disaster memorials). Even in relatively recent times, there is a strong thread of modern monument making related to seafaring deaths- just close to where I’m writing this in coastal Suffolk, there is a relatively recent memorial plaque to a group of coastguards drowned in a wreck on the coast between Orford and Shingle Street, despite its distance from the coast, there is an RNLI monument at the National Memorial Arboretum, and most powerfully in Hull, a city which lost 6000-8000 men to the North Sea there are a number of recent monuments to these losses, including “The Last Trip” in Zebedee's Yard and for my mind most powerfully, a monument depicting trawlermen in silhouette on St Andrew’s Quay.
I don’t know of any large-scale study of maritime monumentality, but ultimately that the study of these kind of maritime monuments deserves to be resituated, and not just seen as part of the study of burial practices, but as an integral element of industrial archaeology, which should be recording all aspects of the lives and deaths of workers and their families

Lost Trawlermen monument, Hull (C) Creative Commons http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/5289389


Fisherman's memorial altar, Holy Trinity, Hull  three trawlers St Romanus, Ross Cleveland and Kingston Peridot, all lost within a month- also plaque to the crew of the notoriously lost FV Gaul





Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Buddha in the potato patch: adventures in comparative monasticism





We’ve now spent two weeks on the island, busy living and working on top of each other, with the last couple of days particularly cramped due to some awful weather. As today was our day off, it was no surprise that I chose to strike out alone off inland. I followed my nose westwards across Islandshire, off past Yeavering and into the Scottish Borders. Then I struck out up Ettrickdale, followed the valley of the Tima Water and soon crested over into the valley of the White Esk in the heart of Eskdalemuir Forest. Here stands, more than a little incongruously, the Tibetan Buddhist monastery of Samye-Ling.

Having been spending a lot of time thinking about Anglo-Saxon monastery it was thought provoking to explore a living monastery, albeit one of a very different tradition. Despite, or even because of, the huge differences between 7th century early medieval Christianity and 21st century Tibetan Buddhism, my exploration of this beautiful, peculiar, welcoming site at Samye-Ling got me thinking about cross-cultural commonalities in monasticism; some that are identifiable in the archaeological record and some that may not be.

There are some obvious similarities visually- the vivid use of colour found at Samye-Ling was probably also a feature of Anglo-Saxon monastic sites. We know that early medieval stone sculpture was often painted and that church interiors would have been decorated with elaborate fabric wall hangings and many lamps. Exactly the same scheme occurred in the prayer hall at Samye-ling which was adorned with figurative thangkas, fabrics, food offerings and oil lamps. This must have been very much how the interior of early churches appeared – incredible, sensory experiences which would have been particularly pronounced in a world before electric lights.
The first thing that struck me about Samye-Ling was the relationship between boundedness and the wider landscape. Whilst there was nothing like a monastic vallum of the kind we usually associate with medieval monasteries, there were elaborate ceremonial entrances to the site – marked by gateways and temples. Yet, despite the clear importance of these boundary markers, there was also an interplay with the wider landscape beyond these defined edges. Visually, the monastery was clearly a landmark- in particular its burnished gilded rooflines and prayer flags meant that its impact bled out into its hinterland. I wasn’t there for any ceremonies, but there were large cases of Tibetan trumpets and bells in the main prayer hall, so presumably the noise of worship, music and chanting, would also have been audible beyond the confines of the sacred centre.




This permeable nature of the boundaries was not just one way. I don’t know much about Tibetan monastic traditions, but the landscape location of the monastery was clearly important and engaged with the views beyond the enclosure. In a general sense, the remote rural location seems to have been important- perhaps echoing (in a small way) the mountainous landscape of Tibet. But more immediately, I noticed the careful placing of a small monument on the edge of the river White Esk that bounded the eastern edge of the monastery at the confluence of the river and the Mood Law Burn – it had clearly been located there with a view to framing this natural feature which lay outside the monastic enceinte. Obviously, from my Lindisfarne perspective it made me think of the architectural elaboration of key observation points within the monastery, particularly along the rocky outcrop known as the Heugh. Here recent excavations by another project have revealed a church and a possible cross base, to add to another cross base already known up there. The Heugh commands views not only to Bamburgh, but also Cuthbert’s cell on Inner Farne, as well as looking down on the monastery interior; its ritual importance seems to have come as much from its wider views as its immediate context within the monastery.

A second thing that struck me was the casual combination of the mundane and the ritual. There were clearly marked edges to the site and also well-defined areas of particular religious intensity, such as the prayer hall and the Victory Stupa prayer-wheel house. These nicely echo traditional Durkheimian notions of the sacred and profane; but in practice the situation was more complex. The Samye-Ling complex integrates lots of practical, day-to-day elements within it- as much space is given over to the vegetable garden as the prayer hall. Yet, even in these areas, the sacred intrudes – prayer flags flutter over the green beans and a figure of a buddha stands grandly over the potato patch. The boundary between the holy and the practical is a muddy one (quite literally after this weekend’s weather) – we tend to think of Anglo-Saxon crosses marking out holy areas – wells, boundaries and cemeteries. Perhaps we should also think about them imbuing cabbage patches, stables and barley fields with blessing. After all even Cuthbert on his island fastness on Inner Farne had to miraculously ensure his crop of barley succeeded when his crop of wheat had failed. It also recalls the crosses carved on querns from Dunadd and the cross-marked fishing net weights from Hartlepool. Yet again, despite the importance of inscribing boundaries, there is, in practice, in both monastic traditions a real overlap between sacred and profane.

A further aspect of the monastic experience that Samye-ling brought home to me was the importance of the monastic ‘body’ and comportment – both Buddhist monks and nuns, like Anglo-Saxon monks, are marked out by distinct robes and haircuts that separate them from the lay presence in the monastery. But there were more subtle aspects to bodily discipline that crosscuts the lay-monastic divisions. For example, at Samye-Ling, entry to the prayer hall required removal of footwear. Presumably originally a requirement to keep the inner sanctuary clean and as a mark of respect, but in a culture where we are not used to removing our shoes in public areas (as opposed in a domestic context) I found it provoked a surprising sense of vulnerability (particularly when wearing a pair of walking boots which required quite some getting on and off). The importance of the contextual significance of dress can still be seen today in some Christian churches – men are meant to remove their hats in church (unless they are a priest) whilst there are often demands for women to cover their heads in some traditions; having been brought up a catholic I’m old enough to remember seeing women wearing mantillas over their heads in church and in a completely different tradition, it’s worth watching the occasional broadcast of Free Presbyterian Psalm singing on BBC Alba as a reminder that the tradition of the Sunday church hat is still alive and kicking (check out the FP Church website for their ‘fun’ doctrine on gender and physical appearance and deportment).
Within the prayer hall itself, it was also interesting how visitors responded to the space in terms of their bodily posture. Many lay visitors reacted to being in a sacred space by holding their hands carefully, either clasped behind their back or in front of them and there was a noticeable reluctance by visitors to turn their back on the central focus of the hall (roughly equivalent to the position of the altar in a Christian church) – intriguing that people from a Christian background were interpreting the space of the Buddhist shrine in terms of the use of space in a church particularly in terms of how they physically held their body and oriented themselves within the structure. Whereas, the Buddhhist monks acting as what seems to have been vergers were far more business-like in their engagement with the holy space

Given the adoption of monasticism as a mode of life in a number of religious tradition – Christian, Hindu, Jain and Buddhist – and the use of other forms of collegiate religious life such as madrasah in traditions such as Islam - it would be interesting to explore the comparative aspect of this kind of communal religious experience more


PS: Finally, and slightly at a tangent, archaeologists are particularly prone to talk about technologies of commemoration or technologies of worship – usually as a metaphor. However, in some Buddhist traditions, prayer wheels are used to say prayers- each rotation of a wheel being equivalent to saying a prayer or a mantra. Usually these are hand-held wheels spun manually. But in some cases, the rotation can be mechanised, with the wheel attached to a water-drive wheel or even powered by an electric motor. At Samye-ling they had a rank of these electric powered prayer wheels – fantastic examples of real rather than metaphorical technologies of worship – they also reminded me of Douglas Adams’ ‘electric monk’ in Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency– “The Electric Monk was a labour-saving device, like a dishwasher or a video recorder. Dishwashers washed tedious dishes for you, thus saving you the bother of washing them yourself, video recorders watched tedious television for you, thus saving you the bother of looking at it yourself; Electric Monks believed things for you, thus saving you what was becoming an increasingly onerous task, that of believing all the things the world expected you to believe.” But don’t get me on to the agency of inanimate objects…



Thursday, 20 July 2017

Notes from a small island #4: The Shadow of the Cross



We’ve come to Lindisfarne to search for Saint Cuthbert, but we’re not the only ones. The island attracts many pilgrims, also on the tracks of the saint. Holy Island has always lured visitors in pursuit of the sacred, but many of the modern pilgrims are looking at the island through a particular lens. This can be summed up in one word: Celtic. There are Celtic crystals, Celtic liturgies and Celtic crosses. The modern pilgrimage movement casts the religious past of monastery of Lindisfarne as part of the Celtic world. Academics have worked hard to dismantle the notion of a unified “Celtic” church which encompassed the diverse and varied religious traditions of Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Cornwall and Brittany, but it still casts a spell on many who come to visit Lindisfarne or who try to follow a putative Celtic path in their Christian faith. For them, the idea of a Celtic church embraces a lack of hierarchy, an inclusive approach to women, an ecumenical perspective and an ecological awareness. These are all laudable and aspirational approaches to a faith-based life or indeed a non-faith based life. Whilst, few of these qualities seem to have been actually present in the Insular church, I am not so much interested in an exegesis of the tenets of Celtic Christianity.

I’m more interested in thinking about how the movement has engaged with the heritage and archaeology of Lindisfarne itself. If we want to take a strict historical perspective, whilst the monastery was certainly founded by monks from the great Western Scottish monastery of Iona in 635, its direct affiliation with the Ionan tradition came to a pretty abrupt end in AD664 when after failing to persuade King Oswiu to maintain the Ionan tradition in Northumbria, Colmán and many monks from Lindisfarne left and returned first to Iona and then further westwards to Western Ireland. Although, the Northumbrian church continued to maintain some links with churches to the north and west, after this point it was firmly part of the mainstream of Anglo-Saxon “Roman” Christianity.

Assuming that ecclesiastical activity ended on the island in AD875 (an admittedly debateable assumption), this means that of the 240-year life of the early medieval monastery, it was under direct Ionan influence for less than 10% of its existence. Yet, it is this brief Celtic introit to the monastic history of the island that has seized peoples imagination. I suspect that the non-hierarchical “Celtic” church gets implicitly contrasted with a perceived hierarchical and authoritarian ‘Roman’ Anglo-Saxon church – the word ‘Roman’ in particular for many people is particularly redolent with the notions of Empire and repression; whilst the modern ‘Celtic’ world has often embraced nationalist movements against Anglo-Saxon (English) political control (or in the case of Brittany the centralised political dominance of Paris).

There may also be an element of ‘landscape determinism' at play. Much of the English North Sea littoral is low-lying and marshy, dominated by salt marsh, sand banks and fens. Up in North Northumberland though, the coastline is different. The presence of the rocky outcrops and crags of the whin sill on which Bamburgh, the Farne Islands and the Heugh and Castle crag on Lindisfarne itself give a very different structure to the landscape. The presence of the Farnes provide an archipelagic dimension that is more like the West of Scotland than East Anglia. The stone vernacular architecture, and even the wildlife – treelike fuschias and stone walls covered with valerian and stonecrop – combine to make a landscape that feels as much part of the Irish sea world, Pembrokeshire or Western Brittany, as part of the North Sea. Although only an hour from urban Tyneside, it is easy to imagine you are looking out into the Atlantic.

Given this sense of being in the “Celtic West” it is perhaps not surprising that the symbol most regularly deployed to evoke “Celtic” Lindisfarne is the wheel-headed Celtic cross, a design most associated with the high crosses of Ireland and Iona. Reproductions of these types of crosses can be found in souvenir shops, whilst a giant ring-headed cross looms over the statue of St Aidan that stands in the parish churchyard.


The Celtic Christian tradition has seized on a very particular, and relatively brief, period of the monastery’s history, and seemingly capitalised on the physical evocation of a western landscape in the north-east of England. The irony is that although we have a considerable body of early medieval sculpture from Holy Island, there is only one ring-headed cross amongst these stones, and this is most likely dateable to the 11th century and probably the sculpture most distant from the period of direct Irish influence. Rather than engaging with the actual archaeology and material culture of monastery of Lindisfarne itself, an external and more clearly Hiberno-Scottish ascetic has been imported to stand as a metaphor for the Celtic world that is hard to materialise directly from the physical remains on the island. In the 7th century Oswald and Aidan created Lindisfarne as a Northumbrian analogue for Iona, the  20th and 21st century pilgrims to the island seem to have done exactly the same thing.












Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Notes from a small(ish) island #3: back in the trenches


We’re back on Holy Island- Lindisfarne for a new season of excavation. It’s been a funny old week for anyone interested in early medieval monastic archaeology in Northern Britain. First, another team working on the island as part of the HLF Peregrini project uncovered what is clearly an early medieval church on the nearby Heugh, overlooking our trenches. Then, yesterday the Iona research team at Glasgow announced the results of a suite of C14 dates that placed a small wattle hut excavated at a location on the island traditionally associated with Columba as more or less exactly contemporary with him. So, no pressure there then…
Image may contain: sky, cloud, mountain, outdoor and nature

I blogged last year about the inevitable pressures (external and internal) to find something of significance on an excavation like ours. This year it’s different, last year we identified clear early medieval remains and now we’re focussing in on the most productive area. So, in one respect we’re off the hook- we know there are going to features of the date we’d like. However, these other discoveries have not surprisingly upped the ante for us, and now there is an element of professional pride at play, which is of course, a silly reaction, but not one that can be ducked. As we started opening our new, larger and more ambitious trenches, there was as much nerves as last year.

The area we are looking at this year is an expanded area encompassing the trench where last year we found several fragments of Anglo-Saxon sculpture as well as lots of disarticulated human bone, which when dated gave an early medieval date. Towards the end of the dig, having removed areas of rubble we also identified a series of small stone features, which we took to be stone-lined graves. Indeed, there were traces of a skull visible at the ‘head’ end of one of them. However, we didn’t have time to excavate them.
IMG_9372


We’ve now opened a larger area, and already last year’s interpretations are being challenged by new data. First, our possible stone-lined graves are looking less grave like. They seem to be too long, and interesting there are hints that some of these stone settings may extend some distance with some stone linears visible in one half of our two-part trench seemingly aligned on our ‘graves’ which lie on the other side of the baulk. Are these something structural rather than graves? Or is it just a case of several graves on exactly the same alignment? Too soon to say. Certainly, more generally there are a number of stone ‘settings’ (lots of use of quote marks here) which are on the same orientation. However, there is nothing we can currently see that I can, hand-on-heart, point at and say with certainty that it is a grave. We also seem to have other possible stone settings on a slightly different alignment. These look to be slightly structurally different – perhaps dry-stone walling (although that is speculative in the extreme at this stage). Do the different alignments imply some kind of phasing? Possibly, sites such as this often go through multiple phases of functionally different activities.

We’ve got two other interesting features. First, we’ve a discrete, and not insubstantial, assemblage of charnel or disarticulated human bone fragments. We’ve not looked at it in detail yet, but there seem to be bones from several individuals here including limbs and at least one skull element. We’ve found human bone scattered across the site previously, but this is the first clearly deliberate deposit. It’s not quite clear whether it is in a deliberate cut or pit yet. Nonetheless, the material does seem to have been placed in a very discrete area. Presumably the bone is also early medieval, but the date of the gathering together and placing of this material is not clear yet.

Finally, we do see to have a possible small rectilinear stone feature in the north-west corner of the trench. It’s only scatters of rubble and one or two larger stones, but on the well-attested two-stones-in-a-line-make-a-wall-and-three-stones-make-a-building principal, it might be structural. It’s not large, although it may well extend beyond our trench edges. At this point my only observation would be that it shares an alignment and orientation with the parish and priory churches. Just saying…


Monday, 26 September 2016

Staweford: Routeways and meeting places in North Northumberland

View looking northwards towards Staweford (near the trees in
the middle distance). Image (C) Google Earth
Over the last couple of years, due to my involvement with the Gefrin Trust, I've been increasingly thinking about the Anglo-Saxon palace site at Yeavering, which lies on the River Glen in North Northumberland. It is usually described as being on a side valley opening out onto the fertile soils of the Millfield Basin. However, I've always had a bee in my bonnet about the importance of Glendale itself as routeway. Today, almost all visitors to the site arrive from the east driving down towards Kirknewton having turned off the A697. Very few people keep on travelling past Kirknewton following course of the Glen, which becomes the Beaumont Water in its upper reaches. Ultimately, this routeway crosses the Scottish Border and reaches Kirk Yetholm. From here it is easy to strike north-west towards the Tweed at Kelso or head westwards along the course of the Kale Water to the River Teviot and Jedburgh (site of an important Anglo-Saxon monastery). It is clear that despite appearances when viewed from Yeavering, Glendale is very much not a dead end

Yet, although I've always been convinced of the importance of this routeway up Glendale, I must admit, I've never been able to take this beyond a vague hunch. However, recently whilst researching something entirely different I've come across evidence that seems to corroborate the importance of this Beaumont Water axis. I've been reading up about the landscape of Northumberland during the 16th century, a period that was the high-tide of the endemic lawless border reivers. At this time, the Anglo-Scottish borders saw endemic livestock raiding and feuding between various extended families that lay both sides of the frontier. This violent society, despite its lawless nature, did have its own rules and regulations. Amongst these were formalised meeting and assembly points, where business and legal proceedings could be conducted under a temporary state of truce.

I've been trying to identify and understand these locations, partly because I'm interested in the 17th century landscape of the region, but also because I'm interested in whether a better appreciation of the Tudor landscape of assembly and gathering might provide a window into similar practices in the region during the early medieval period. I obviously owe an appreciation of the potential of this approach to work that has been done in Durham on early medieval assembly places by Sarah Semple and Tudor Skinner.

Anyway, I've been working my way through the wonderful, but dense, Calendar of Letters and Papers relating to the affairs of the Borders of England and Scotland preserved in Her Majesty's Public Record Office, London (1894), which brings together much of the important and extensive document record from this region. Amongst these documents are repeated references to an meeting place at a site called Staweford or Stawford. These meetings were between the English and Scottish wardens of the Border Marches and where Warden courts were held. An initial search via the OS Gazetteer produced no location for this site. However, a bit more poking around showed that Staweford was recorded as a point on the Anglo-Scottish border in a survey of 1604; and it was clear that it lay close to where the Halter Burn met Countrop Sike, close to Yetholm Mains (NT884 292) – which lies, pleasingly, on precisely the routeway between Yeavering and Kirk Yetholm. The presence of an important meeting location at this site does seem to imply that this was an important communication route and not an isolated backwater. Certainly, other known meeting sites of this type were also on major routeways, such as Carter Bar, still one of the main crossing points between England and Scotland.

 
Location of Staweford. Map (C) Ordnance Survey / Edina Digimap
The obvious next question is the antiquity of Staweford as an assembly point. It had its importance in the 16th century as a location where England met Scotland. Given this point only emerged as national border some time before the 13th century, it might at first seem unlikely that it was important in the Anglo-Saxon period. During the Anglo-Saxon period, this area seems to have been part of a composite estate comprising a series of townships lying along the Beaumont Water that probably had its estate centre at Kirk Yetholm. These vills were recorded as gifts to the monastery at Lindisfarne given by King Oswiu in the later 7th century. The overall estate seems to have been split up in the 12th or 13th century with most vills staying in England with a western rump ending up in Scotland. It seems then that the boundary on which Staweford sits was not originally of a large estate or early ‘shire’ but may possibly have been a boundary between two vills within a putative ‘Yetholmshire’ (see Colm O’Briens paper in Archaeologia Aeliana 2002 for more discussion of this).

There is one more piece of information to bring into play. Whilst, Staweford may have been a crossing point over a relatively small stream, possibly dividing two units within a larger early medieval estate, it was not an entirely isolated location. There are records of a small chapel standing close to the site, although this has now disappeared. Intriguingly, it was recorded as being dedicated to Ethelreda – this is probably the same as Etheldreda, better known as Ã†thelthryth, a 7th century Kentish princes, who married Ecgfrith, King of Northumbria, in 660, but subsequently returned south to found a monastery at Ely. On her death she became an important Anglo-Saxon saint. It is just conceivable that the dedication of this chapel could go back to a relatively early period in the centuries after the land was gifted. This might indicate some early importance to the site, although the dedication may of course be much later.


So in conclusion, the presence of a 16th century meeting place at Staweford does seem to vindicate my hunch about the importance of the Beaumont Water as a routeway into the Tweed and Teviot valleys from the Yeavering area. However, it is not easy to be certain how much earlier the importance of that particular location can be pushed as an assembly point. A most likely origin date is the 12th/13th century when it became the Anglo-Scottish border. The Ethelreda dedication of the chapel might just hint at an earlier origin, although its importance may have been far more local at this earlier stage.