In AD635, King Oswald founded a monastery on the tiny island of Lindisfarne. From humble beginnings, it soon became the religious powerhouse at the heart of the great Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria, and the wellspring of England’s Christianity.
The joint project between DigVentures and Durham University has now located some of its remains.
Made famous by chroniclers like Bede and Alcuin (and more recently by the popular TV show Vikings), it’s where the Lindisfarne Gospels were illustrated, where the treasures that adorned the altars of early Medieval Europe were forged, and where thousands of miracle-seeking pilgrims came to seek healing. Lindisfarne’s power and influence reached deep into the heart of continental Europe, and was described by Alcuin as ‘the most venerable place in Britain’.
But then, an AD793, the monastery was attacked by the Vikings, an event that marked the beginning of the Viking Age. Following years of repeated attacks, the monastery was abandoned. The later Priory which still stands on Lindisfarne was built in the early 12th century after the threat of further raids was over. But what of the remains of the original monastery?
From early maps and other documentary evidence, we can assume that most of the early monastery is likely to lie underneath the modern Holy Island Village. But there are still some very big questions to answer: where exactly was it, and does any evidence still survive?
In 2014, Dr David Petts of Durham University carried out geophysical surveys which indicated substantial remains just beneath the field immediately in front of the Priory: could this be the evidence of the monastery? Our job was to ground-truth the geophysics and find conclusive, dateable evidence from the monastery of Oswald, Aidan and Cuthbert.
Over the last two years, hundreds of crowdfunders have helped us find some tantalising evidence, including several early Christian burials, Anglo-Saxon sculptures and monumental buildings very similar to those at other important early Medieval monastic sites like Hartlepool.
Some of the discoveries our team have made are so significant that they featured in the Guardian, The Times, The Daily Mail and on BBC4’s Digging For Britain programme – this was the very first time any crowdfunded discovery had been featured on the show. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
We’ve found several Anglo-Saxon burials, a namestone, a monumental wall, the outline of several early medieval buildings, plenty of pottery, and a silver coin minted during the reign of King Eadberht, as well as some curious bone artefacts which seem to be proof that some people continued to live on the island long after the monastery was supposedly abandoned.
We know there’s so much more to discover, and the archaeology we’re poised to unearth in 2018 has the potential to offer huge insight into the world of those who lived through Lindisfarne’s golden age, endured the Viking attacks and witnessed this transformative period in English history.