Life and death in Northumbria’s Golden Age
Two decades of archaeological research have shed vivid light on an Anglo-Saxon community that lived at Bamburgh 1,400 years ago, revealing a surprisingly diverse population. With the findings now presented in a detailed ‘digital ossuary’, what has been learned about these pioneering people? Carly Hilts spoke to Jessica Turner to find out more.
In the winter of 1816/1817, violent storms tore at the beach below Bamburgh Castle, scouring away centuries of accumulated sand and creating the vast dune fields that surround the castle to this day. This was not the only surprising side-effect of the dramatic weather: in exposing the earlier land surface, the storm had also laid bare a number of graves tucked into a depression called ‘Bowl Hole’. Who were these individuals laid to rest beside the North Sea? In the 19th century, Victorian romantics interpreted the skeletons as the remains of Viking raiders – indeed, on the first edition of the Ordnance Survey map for the area (1860), the site is labelled ‘Old Danish Burying Ground’. This attribution was more wishful thinking than historical fact, however, as the area around Bamburgh remained in Anglian hands even as Norse invaders annexed the southern part of Northumbria and conquered York. Instead, modern archaeological science would hold the key to unlocking the identities of the Bowl Hole burials.
In 1998-2007, the cemetery was excavated by the Bamburgh Research Project (BRP), who wanted to assess whether the graves in their ever-shifting sandy setting were at risk of erosion. This long-running project confirmed that Bowl Hole was no Norse burial ground, but was one of the most northerly Anglo-Saxon cemeteries yet found, used for generations across the 7th and 8th centuries. Some 99 skeletons were excavated, together with the disarticulated bones of several more individuals – together representing the remains of at least 110 men and women, adolescents, children, and infants, offering a complete cross-section of the community who had once lived on this part of the coast.
Interestingly, there was considerable variation in how these people had been laid to rest: some were stretched supine on their backs with their heads to the west, reminiscent of Christian tradition, while others harked back to much earlier practices, lying in a crouched position on their side, or being placed face-down. What do these varied customs mean? While some of the graves appear to reference pagan practices, the skeletons are nonetheless thought to represent some of the area’s earliest Christian inhabitants, interred at a time when burial traditions were still fairly fluid. Nor does the presence of (albeit scarce) grave goods – simple domestic items like knives, buckles, and bone and copper-alloy pins, as well as bone combs, perforated shells, and a few glass beads – rule out Christian beliefs, which in the early Anglo-Saxon period did not proscribe furnished burials (see CA 285).
The 7th century was a time of momentous religious change in Northumbria, when the exiled king Oswald returned to Bamburgh following his victory at the AD 633/634 Battle of Heavenfield, and worked to promote Christianity in the region throughout his eight-year reign. To this end, he invited the Irish bishop Aidan to join his court and aid in converting his people. Oswald granted Aidan the nearby island of Lindisfarne as a monastic base and (according to the chronicler Bede) acted as his interpreter as the monk preached, having learned Irish in exile. The people buried at Bowl Hole would have witnessed what is known as Northumbria’s ‘Golden Age’, a period of remarkable cultural flowering between the mid-7th and mid-8th centuries. But who were they?
Even before analysis of the skeletons (by experts at the BRP and Durham University) began, it was clear that, as a population, the Bowl Hole individuals were unusually tall and robust, with few signs of malnourishment and relatively little evidence for disease (though some had suffered poorer health in early life), suggesting that these were high-status individuals who had enjoyed a privileged life. But while their bodies largely spoke of good health, their teeth were terrible. Cavities, plaque, and abscesses were common, even in young people, suggesting that many of these individuals would have suffered from persistent toothache and foul-smelling breath. This decay probably stemmed from the community’s rich diet (something also hinted at by evidence of gout recorded in some of the skeletons’ toe bones) and excessive consumption of sugars, perhaps through drinking quantities of wine or mead.
It has been suggested that these apparently privileged individuals may have been associated with the royal court at Bamburgh: the Anglian fortress occupied the rocky promontory where the 11th-century castle now stands – a mass of dolerite where digging graves would have been near-impossible. The softer sands of Bowl Hole, though, just 300m away, would have been a much more practical location for a cemetery. Indeed, ground-truthing and probing suggests that the burial ground may be much larger than the excavated area, with perhaps hundreds more graves lying beneath the dunes. Given the depth of sand covering them, though, and the fact that the dunes are today protected as part of a Special Area of Conservation and a Site of Special Scientific Interest, further excavations are extremely unlikely.
If the Bowl Hole individuals had lived at the fortress, evidence from previous archaeological work at the castle also testifies to a lavish lifestyle: analysis of animal bones suggests that the community’s diet was dominated by beef and that they were not making much use of the easily available local marine resources – further hints of prosperity.
In the two decades following their excavation, the Bamburgh skeletons have undergone extensive scientific study, illuminating the lives of the individuals they represent. Perhaps the most surprising discovery, however – the result of isotope analysis (studying chemical signatures preserved in the bones and teeth that can be linked to specific geologies) – was how diverse the population was. Of these individuals, less than 10% came from the immediate Bamburgh area. The others had grown up mainly in the wider British Isles, particularly on the west coast of Scotland and in Ireland, but others bore witness to much longer journeys from continental Europe and even further afield.
A case in point was a man in his 60s who had been laid to rest in a crouched position c.AD 559-677. At 5ft 10in (177cm) tall, he was above average height for the period, and had been in generally good health and well-nourished at the time of his death, at least as far as his bones can attest (though he had suffered the tooth decay seen in so many of the skeletons, including evidence that he had lost some teeth during his lifetime, as well as a well-healed fractured rib and some fusion of the joints in his spine). Isotope analysis suggests that this man had spent the early years of his life far from Northumbria, across the North Sea in Scandinavia. In AD 793, Scandinavian newcomers had arrived off the coast of Bamburgh in the first documented Viking raid on Lindisfarne. What had drawn this man – as well as at least four other Scandinavian men, women, and children identified among the cemetery population – to settle in Britain as much as two centuries earlier?
An equally tall but rather younger man, aged 23-25, is thought to have spent his childhood in Spain or Italy, and before his death c.536-647 he would have cut an imposing figure with his robustly muscular build. His muscle attachments had been particularly pronounced, leaving clear marks on his bones, suggesting that he was a strong individual who had led a physically active life – the project team suggests he may have been a metalworker. Although there are no skeletal clues to what caused his early death, we can tell that this man did not enjoy perfect health in life. The root of one of his lower molars had become infected, which would have caused serious toothache, while his right big toe showed signs of damage consistent with gout. It would have been swollen and felt hot and very tender, making it difficult to walk or to have anything touch it during an attack.
Ambitious journeys like these were also reflected by the remains of the very young, particularly children who had both their milk and adult teeth. Milk teeth are formed in utero, meaning that isotope analysis can determine where their mother was living at the time that they were conceived, while adult teeth provide information on where they spent their early years. One such child, aged 9-10 at the time of their death, tells a story of their mother living somewhere far to the south of Bamburgh in a hot climate – possibly southern Spain or even North Africa. She did not remain there for long, however, travelling with her child to a cooler but still warm climate, perhaps the Mediterranean region or the south of France, where they spent their early years. Yet, in their short life, the child had evidently travelled at least once more, crossing the Channel to end their days at Bamburgh. They were not alone: the teeth of another child, 8-9 years old, preserves the journey of their Mediterranean mother, who had raised her child in France before moving them to western Scotland or Ireland and finally travelling to Northumbria.
What attracted such disparate people to this part of the Northumbrian coast? The fact that so many seem to have made their way to Bamburgh from Ireland and the west of Scotland is surely significant: perhaps the excitement of new religious ideas flourishing at this burgeoning Christian centre was a draw – and the site’s links to the Irish church could have been an important factor in this. Spearheaded by Bishop Aidan, Bamburgh’s religious practices very much followed the Celtic tradition, while his monastery on Lindisfarne took its lead from Iona in the Inner Hebrides. This latter abbey, where Aidan had served as a monk from an early age, and where the exiled Oswald had sought refuge in AD 616, had been founded by another Irishman, Columba, in AD 563 (see CA 292).
It is possible that this Hebridean connection was also reflected in the Bamburgh community: among the excavated skeletons were the relatively poorly preserved remains of a man of around 45, with arthritis in his spine and the joints of his left toes. He had been interred in a crouched position, with a knife and a buckle at his waist, c.574-660, and isotope analysis suggests that he might have spent his early years in the Hebrides. Could he have travelled to Bamburgh with Aidan or Oswald?
Above all, the skeletons tell a story of a cosmopolitan, outward-looking community with close ties both to the rest of Britain and to continental Europe. They speak of migration and far-reaching journeys that, 1,400 years ago, brought people from far and wide to live, work, and form a flourishing creative centre – a melting pot that produced such virtuosic (and culturally diverse) manuscripts as the Lindisfarne Gospels. Probably made at the eponymous island monastery c.AD 720, this lavishly illuminated book combines Mediterranean, Anglo-Saxon, and Celtic elements in its spectacular decorations.
A DIGITAL AFTERLIFE
After years of research, in accordance with the project’s exhumation licence, the Bowl Hole skeletons were reinterred – not among the unstable dunes but in Bamburgh’s parish church, a location that the Anglo-Saxon individuals might have been familiar with. The present St Aidan’s was built in the 12th century, on the same site as the wooden church constructed by its namesake c.AD 635. It is perhaps best known as the final resting place of the celebrated lighthouse keeper’s daughter and local heroine Grace Darling (1815-1842), but in 2016 the medieval crypt gained dozens of new occupants. The Bowl Hole human remains have been placed in 110 individual zinc charnel boxes (imported from Italy, where charnel is still practised as a funerary tradition), which are today neatly stacked in a special enclosed area. Until recently, access issues meant that the crypt was only open by prior arrangement, but now – following a £355,600 grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund – the crypt’s unsafe stairs have been replaced and the space has been opened to the public.
Within the crypt, visitors can view the ossuary boxes and watch a short film with linocut animations telling the story of Anglo-Saxon Bamburgh and the Bowl Hole burials. In the church above, trained volunteer guides are on hand to explain more, while the project (‘Bamburgh Bones’, a collaboration between the Northumberland Coast AONB Partnership, St Aidan’s Parochial Church Council, Durham University, and Bamburgh Heritage Trust) also aims to provide more in-depth information through links to academic papers and plans for art installations.
As for the Bamburgh dead themselves, the Bowl Hole skeletons are able to tell their own story through an interactive ‘digital ossuary’, a resource that can be accessed while visiting the church and also online (see ‘Further information’ below). At the time of writing, details for 99 skeletons had been recorded on the website, and more information is set to be published in the future, together with insights into the community’s diet provided by isotope analysis. Each entry includes photographs, osteological data, and interpretive descriptions outlining what we can deduce about each individual from their remains.
Among these stories is that of an older woman of around 65. One of the few local individuals excavated at Bowl Hole, she seems to have spent her whole life in the Bamburgh area. Standing 5ft 1in (156cm) tall, she had osteoarthritis in her spine and typically bad teeth, with many missing. She would have been a distinctive figure – the fact that most of the empty sockets were closed over suggests that the teeth had been lost well before the woman died, and the roots of some of those that remained were infected.
Some of the skeletons also have secrets to reveal about how these individuals spent their lives: several of the women seem to have been weavers or basket-makers. To take an example, one such individual was a young woman of 18-25 who had spent her childhood in Ireland or western Scotland. She had ‘squatting facets’ – bony extensions at the end of both tibias – suggesting that she had spent much of her time in a squatting position, but the key clue to her occupation was the fact that, like the other women in this group, she had distinctive notches in some of her teeth. This suggests that she may have used her mouth as part of her work, perhaps routinely gripping threads or basket materials between her teeth, or holding needles in her mouth.
There was one individual whose remains speak of rather more violent aspects of early medieval life, however. While evidence for physical trauma (other than a small number of well-healed fractures that most likely reflect everyday accidents) is rare among the Bowl Hole dead, one young man had evidently met a bloody end. Aged 18-24 at the time of his death, this individual had suffered a devastating injury from a single blow of a sharp bladed weapon such as a sword, which had cleaved through his left shoulder, ribcage, and pelvis. Such a wound would undoubtedly have proved fatal, but little more is known about this individual and his relatively short life. His skull was missing at the time of excavation – as his neck vertebrae show no sign of decapitation, it may have been lost through disturbance from a later grave – meaning that no teeth are available for isotope analysis, so at present it is not known where he came from.
ECHOES OF THE PAST
The Bowl Hole graves had no markers to disclose the names of their occupants, and the zinc boxes that now contain their remains are similarly anonymous, but – mindful of the humanity of their research subjects – the project team did not want the digital ossuary to be an impersonal catalogue of skeleton numbers. Nor did they want to impose a name arbitrarily on the individuals, though – and so they have instead randomly assigned a codeword in Old English to help distinguish each skeleton in the record, such as Sol-Mo¯na› (‘February’, literally ‘mud-month’), Orsorg (‘carefree’), Hrycg (‘ridge’), and Sunnan-‹a¯æg (‘Sunday’), all sounds that would have been familiar to the Anglo-Saxon community, and representing one of the many languages that would have been spoken at this cosmopolitan coastal settlement.
While the precise identities of these people of the 7th and 8th centuries will never be known, archaeological science has illuminated many details of their lives, as well as revealing their remarkably diverse origins. Through the information recorded in the digital ossuary, their experiences are being brought to light, and their stories told, once more.
TEXT: Jessica Turner is Project Officer for Accessing Aidan, the initiative behind improving access to the crypt.
St Aidan’s Church crypt is open to the public from 9am until dusk, and guided tours are available (see the website below for details). For more information on visiting the church and on the Bowl Hole cemetery and Anglo-Saxon Northumbria, and to explore the digital ossuary online, visit www.bamburghbones.org.