Etched in Stone

Explore a rare collection of early medieval namestones that are unique to North East England

This exhibition is all about Anglo-Saxons in the North East of England, as seen through a rare set of 31 sculptures called 'namestones'.Each one is unique, and commemorates an individual who lived through the height of the Viking raids.Typically carved with a name and a cross with a cavity that may once have held a relic or a jewel, their style, shape and design is unique to the region.

Today, the namestones are scattered in museums across the country, and even overseas, but by creating 3D models, we've been able to re-unite many of them to display as a single online collection for the very first time. The sculptures are being displayed alongside other artefacts that have recently been discovered during ongoing excavations on Lindisfarne, a tidal island that was once home to the first community in Britain to be attacked by the Vikings in AD 793. Together, they tell the story of the Anglo-Saxons who lived in North East England during the height of the Viking raids.

Highlights

Osgyth's namestone (Lindisfarne, AD 650-750)

Belonged to a woman

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Ythfrith's namestone (Lindisfarne, AD 650-750)

Ambiguously named

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Beannah's namestone (Lindisfarne, AD 650-750)

Painted in bright colours

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Edilwine's namestone (Hartlepool, AD 650-750)

Friendly by name, friendly by nature

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'Pray for us all' namestone (Billingham, AD 700-750)

Decorated with words

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Aud's namestone (Lindisfarne, AD 700-750)

Double sided with runes

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Ha-'s namestone (Lindisfarne, AD 700-750)

Runes and Anglo-Saxon capitals

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Unknown's 'triquetra' namestone (Lindisfarne, AD 700-800)

Decorative knotwork

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Beorhtgyd's namestone (Hartlepool, AD 650-750)

Alpha and Omega

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Osgyth's namestone (Lindisfarne, AD 650-750) Belonged to a woman

This stone is carved with a cross with a circle in the centre, and a hollow right in the middle of the cross. These hollows may have been used to hold a stone, or jewel of some kind. This stone is among the best laid out from the collection of stones found on Lindisfarne; the cross is proportioned well in relation to the frame of the stones, and the runic and Latin inscription are carved confidently with good spacing. The upper quadrants are carved with runes, and the lower quadrants bear the same name in Anglo-Saxon capitals. The name inscribed is OSGYTH, an Old English feminine name. The layout of this stone is similar to others found on Lindisfarne and at Hartlepool.

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Ythfrith's namestone (Lindisfarne, AD 650-750) Ambiguously named

This namestone belongs to the ambiguously named ‘Ythfrith’. yþ (pronounced ‘uth’), is very rare and the only known instances are associated with female names, while FRIÐ (prounounced ‘frith’) means peace, fealty or stately beautiful, is usually associated with masculine names, although it can – albeit rarely – also be used to form female names, of which one recorded example is Eadfrið.

Regardless of gender, and whoever Ythfrith was, the limited timeframe in which these namestones are used means we can be fairly confident that Ythfrith lived during the earliest phase of the monastery, and was someone important who may even have known its founders Oswald and Aidan, or some of its later historical figures like Eadfrith or Cuthbert.

The central cross is engraved with a sun-like disc at the end of each arm, and a central cavity that may once have held a relic or jewel. Above the name, you can also just about make out the letters ‘A’ and ‘W’, representing alpha and omega – a clear reference to the Bible, Revelations XXII, 13 which says ‘I am alpha and omega, the beginning and the end’.

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Beannah's namestone (Lindisfarne, AD 650-750) Painted in bright colours

This stone is beautifully decorated with a well proportioned cross and semi-circular decoration in the outer corners of the two lower quadrants. The inscription in the top two quadrants is written in runes, although damage to the stone means that we can only make out some of the letters which spell OIN. In the lower two quadrants, the stone is inscribed with the latin alphabet in Anglo-Saxon capitals with BEANNAH, interestingly, the ‘E’ is carved inside the ‘B’. Beanna is an Old English masculine name. The runes may spell out Coina or Coena, which are forms of an Old English masculine name. It’s unclear whether this namestone has been carved for two people, or just one person who took a new name when entering into religious life on Lindisfarne. The centre of the stone is decorated with a petal-like design. Traces of pigment suggests it was probably painted in bright colours.

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Edilwine's namestone (Hartlepool, AD 650-750) Friendly by name, friendly by nature

This namestone was likely made to commemorate someone called Edilwine. Its rectangular shape is typical of those from Hartlepool, where many of the namestones found commemorate women. This one, however, was probably made for a man. Although the inscription is hard to read, it has been reconstructed by expert Elizabeth Okasha as probably being ‘Ediluini’, a form of the masculine name Edilwine. ‘-uini- or ‘wine’ is a fairly common ending, derived from the Old English for ‘friend’, and can also be seen on several examples from Lindisfarne.

The design is a very simple border and cross, but stands out from the rest (literally!) because the cross is in relief with unusually large roundels at the end of each arm.

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'Pray for us all' namestone (Billingham, AD 700-750) Decorated with words

Some namestones have decorated borders, but this one is pretty unique; it is filled with text. Reading clockwise, you can make out part of a Latin phrase II ORAT EPRO II F.— —.]INIB’ I. Originally, it probably read ORATE PRO FRATRIBUS NOSTRIS ET PRO CUNCTIS CHRISTIANIS HOMINIB(US), which means something like “Pray for all of us, our Christian people”.

The triangular or pyramid-like symbol is an ‘Alpha’. Many of the namestones are inscribed with Alpha and Omega, shorthand for a phrase from the Bible, Revelations XX II 13, which says ‘I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end”. The Omega has broken off on this namestone, but these symbols are found on stones from Lindisfarne and Hartlepool, linking the three sites.

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Aud's namestone (Lindisfarne, AD 700-750) Double sided with runes

This stone is another roundheaded namestone which is typical of the stones found on Lindisfarne. It is carved on both faces, with the design on each face being very similar. It has a border and a cross, and the round shapes at the end of the cross arms are deeply sunken into the stone. There is an inscription on each face, and the inscriptions on both sides of this stone are written in runes and read ‘AUD’ in the upper left quadrant of the first face, and ‘LAC’ in the upper right quadrant of the second face. ‘Lac’ is associated with Old English masculine names. Being carved on both sides suggests that the stone was set upright, perhaps being used for a double burial. Alternatively, it may have been reused.

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Ha-'s namestone (Lindisfarne, AD 700-750) Runes and Anglo-Saxon capitals

This namestone has a runic inscription in the top quadrant, although the only clear letter that can be made out is an ‘H’. The lower quadrant is more deeply inscribed with Anglo-Saxon capitals, and may be either HA or BA. We can’t make out the rest of the lettering, so it’s impossible to tell if it’s a masculine or feminine name. The layout is slightly unusual, both in the proportions of the cross, and the plus-sized letters on the lower inscription. This stone was found during excavations in 1920 below the doorway in the south wall of the priory.

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Unknown's 'triquetra' namestone (Lindisfarne, AD 700-800) Decorative knotwork

This namestone is beautifully decorated, with four ‘triquetras’ – the circular roundels filled with interlacing knotwork at the ends of each of the surviving cross arms, and in the centre of the cross. These triquetras show the close ties that Lindisfarne had with Dal Riada, the kingdom that included parts of Ireland and western Scotland. Many of Lindisfarne’s leading figures, including Aidan, came from the kingdom’s most famous monastery on Iona which was founded by Saint Columba. This kind of ‘Irish-influenced’ artwork is a reflection of that early history.

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Beorhtgyd's namestone (Hartlepool, AD 650-750) Alpha and Omega

The name is a form of the female personal name Beorhtgyd; the letters BERCHT II GYD are clearly inscribed in ‘insular majuscules’ – Old English Latin capital letters. The upper half says A II Ω – shorthand for a phrase from the Bible, Revelations XX II 13 which says ‘I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end’.

Insular script includes several different scripts (or what we might call ‘fonts’), each used for a different function. Majuscules, which took longer to write, were usually reserved for the most important documents and religious scripts. Various different ‘minuscule’ fonts (lowercase) were used for things like letters, accounting records, and other non-religious tasks.

This namestone is in such good condition that when you look carefully, you can still see the lines from the straight-edge from which the arms were ruled.

What is a namestone?

Namestones are a type of small grave marker, emblazoned with a name, usually written using runes or Latin characters, but sometimes in both. Dating from AD 650 – 850, this was a time when the first Northumbrian kings converted to Christianity, when artists fused decorative styles from the Irish, Anglo-Saxon and Mediterranean worlds, and when the Viking raids began.

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Video transcript: What is a namestone?

Namestones are a rare type of Anglo-Saxon sculpture specific to the North East of England. Only 31 have ever been discovered, and all from a small handful of sites in the once great kingdom of Northumbria.

Dating from AD 650 – 850, this was a time when the first Northumbrian kings converted to Christianity, when artists fused decorative styles from the Irish, Anglo-Saxon and Mediterranean worlds, and when the Viking raids began.

Each one is like a small burial marker, emblazoned with a name, usually written using runes or Latin characters, but sometimes in both.

They are all unique, but most of the namestones are also engraved with a cross, usually with a sun-like disc at the end of each arm, and a central cavity that may once have held a relic or a jewel.

Some are decorated with elaborate knotwork, while others are eye-catchingly stark. There is even some evidence that they might originally have been painted with bright reds, yellows and blues.

Of the 31 that have been discovered, about half come from Lindisfarne. The rest come from Hartlepool, Monkwearmouth, Billingham, Birtley and Hart. These were all important religious sites at the heart of Northumbrian power.

But how did namestones come to be so specific to this region? Who made them? And why? There are so many questions still to be answered about these enigmatic objects.

What we do know is that each one commemorates a man or woman, most of who lived in the mid 7th to 9th centuries, and that despite their strong geographical focus this is the very first time they have all been displayed together as a single, complete collection.

Runes & Artwork

Northumbria was a melting pot of different artistic influences, from Ireland to the Mediterannean, and they fused together to produce a distinctive new style. This video examines some of the different motifs.

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Video transcript: Anglo-Saxon runes and artwork

We might think of places like Lindisfarne as being remote and isolated, but far from it. Today, just as it was in the early medieval period, the North East of England was a melting pot of different cultural influences.

Many of the Anglo-Saxon namestones are inscribed with runes, often with the same name spelled out in the Latin alphabet as well.

Known collectively as futhorc (or fuþorc), these Anglo-Saxon characters were gradually replaced by the Old English Latin alphabet introduced by Irish missionaries.

Runic inscriptions served a range of purposes, from names written on personal items to seemingly more religious uses. The fact that they’re found on namestones, and on the coffin of Saint Cuthbert (one of the most famous religious figures of the time), suggests they remained particularly important for commemorating Northumbria’s early Christian ecclesiastical classes.

Likewise, much of the artwork on the namestones is influenced decorative traditions brought over from Ireland and the west of Scotland, including painting and calligraphy featuring bold curvilinear motifs and elaborated initials.

Meanwhile the Anglo-Saxons, who had no tradition of painting or calligraphy, excelled in metalwork bursting with colour and complex zoomorphic interlacings.

A third influence was Mediterranean art. Places like Lindisfarne were also in direct contact with Rome and, for a while, many of Northumbria’s great monastic centres were in turmoil about which way to look; west towards the Irish world, or east towards continental Europe and Rome. In AD 664, at the Synod of Whitby, they chose Rome.

Well connected, and close to many of the great sea routes, influences came from further afield too. Over time, motifs taken from Irish calligraphy, Anglo-Saxon metalwork, Roman floor mosaics, and Coptic book pages were blended together to produce a new, distinctive style that can be instantly recognized in many of the great manuscripts like the Lindisfarne Gospels (AD 698), the Book of Durrow (AD 650-700) and the Book of Kells (AD 800-900).

The connections weren’t just one-way either; this fresh new style went on to influence medieval art throughout Europe. And the kingdom of Northumbria was absolutely pivotal in its formation.