Aebbe (AD 615-668) was instrumental in the early spread of Christianity along the north east coast of Britain, and an example of a powerful Anglo Saxon woman who helped shape British history. Born a pagan princess, she became an abbess, established a monastery at Coldingham, and was later made a saint. For decades, archaeologists have tried to locate her monastery at Coldingham, which was destroyed by Viking raiders in AD 870.
Now, excavations led by DigVentures have found traces of a vast, but narrow circular ditch, which is likely to be the ‘vallum’, the boundary surrounding Aebbe’s religious settlement.
“The section of boundary ditch we found links up with two other ditch sections, and together they seem to encircle Coldingham Priory, meaning that the heart of Aebbe’s monastery is somewhere underneath it,” said Manda Forster from DigVentures.
In the area just outside the boundary, where small-scale industries like metalworking or pottery production would usually have taken place, the team also uncovered a huge pile of butchered animal bones which radiocarbon dating has just confirmed date to AD 660 – 860.
“This is pretty much exactly when Aebbe’s monastery was in existence. Originally built around AD 640, it is said to have burned down shortly after her death, but was then rebuilt and thrived until it was destroyed once again by Viking raiders 200 years later” she added.
Previous attempts to find Aebbe’s monastery had followed traditional claims that it was probably on the headland, at a cliff-top location overlooking the sea, but no hard evidence consistent with an extensive, wealthy Anglo-Saxon monastery was ever found. This time, archaeologists looked further inland, to where Coldingham Priory is now located.
“We based our search on a geophysical survey which revealed the outlines of several possible archaeological features, plus a series of individual finds including fragments of an Anglo Saxon belt fitting and sculpture, all of which seemed to centre on the later medieval priory in the heart of the village – and it makes sense that the later Benedictine monastery was built on the site of its Anglo Saxon predecessor!” she said.
It wouldn’t have been possible to dig the whole site, so the team drew up a shortlist and took the bold step of asking their followers to help narrow down the choices. Nearly 700 people pored over maps and descriptions before giving their vote.
“We collaborated with the public on choosing where to dig, and they made a very smart decision, shunning some of the more glamorous suggestions we put forward in favour of a big, dark splodge on the map. We might not have excavated that particular spot if it hadn’t been their top choice, but it turned out that this is where we found the material that allowed us to get a very secure radiocarbon date” she said.
In total, the team excavated four different trenches, balancing the public’s choice with their own expertise.
“It is brilliant to finally be able to announce that we’ve found Aebbe’s monastery, and to confirm that part of it is probably underneath Coldingham Priory. Aebbe is an extraordinary figure – an example of a powerful Anglo Saxon woman who played a big part in establishing Christianity in the region during the 7th century. Now that we’ve got evidence to pinpoint exactly where her monastery was, we can help bring her story back to life,” she added.
The excavation was crowdfunded by DigVentures, with support from the National Lottery Heritage Fund and Friends of Coldingham Priory. You can read more about the discoveries at digventures.com
Notes to editors:
Images can be downloaded here. Credit to DigVentures / Aerial_Cam
Additional information about Aebbe, princess, abbess and saint
Additional information on the animal bone and radiocarbon dates:
DigVentures crowdfunds archaeological excavations that anyone take part in, online or in the field. Over the last few years, they have crowdfunded in-depth investigations at a number of the UK’s most iconic sites, including the Bronze Age settlement at Flag Fen, the Anglo-Saxon monastery on Lindisfarne, and one of the earliest Roman settlements ever discovered in East Yorkshire. DigVentures is registered with the Chartered Institute for Archaeologists, and runs the UK’s only accredited fieldschool.
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