This exhibition is all about Anglo-Saxons in the North East of England, as seen through a rare set of 31 sculptures called ‘namestones’ whose style, shape and design is unique to the region. Today, they’re scattered in museums across the country, and even overseas, but by creating digital 3D models made from photographs, we’ve been able to re-unite them online and display them as a single, complete 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.
It’s all part of Etched in Stone, a National Lottery Heritage Funded project to collect and curate a Virtual Museum of all the Anglo-Saxon namestones discovered in the North East. Let’s get started!
These iconic Anglo-Saxon sculptures are unique to the North East of England, and commemorate people who live through the height of the Viking raids. DigVentures' archaeologist Chris Casswell explains...
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.
So far, only 31 namestones have ever been found, and all from a small handful of sites including Lindisfarne, Hartlepool, Billingham, Monkwearmouth, Hart and Birtley. Each of these locations was once an influential monastery in the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria.
Namestones are clearly a way of commemorating members of the Northumbrian church, or those with close ties to it, are strongly influenced by its particular ‘flavour’ of Christianity, which at times was quite distinct from that of other English regions.
Many of Northumbria’s monasteries were founded by early missionaries who came over from Iona – part of Dal Riada, a kingdom that included parts of north eastern Ireland and western Scotland, and are often described as being ‘Irish-influenced’. There were also Roman-influenced missionaries with close ties to the Mediterranean world, and the particular mix of Anglo-Saxon, Irish, and Mediterranean influences gave the Northumbrian church its own unique identity, which you can see in the lettering and decorative motifs used on the namestones.
Many of the sites where namestones are found have direct links to King Oswald (who created Lindisfarne) and Aidan (his favourite bishop), so they may even be specific to a particular ‘sub-culture’ within the Northumbrian church.
Northumbria was a melting pot of different artistic influences, from Ireland to the Mediterannean, and they fused together to produce a distinctive new style. DigVentures examines some of the motifs.
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.