Furness’ mystery Cistercian

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A team from Oxford Archaeology North, called in by English Heritage to excavate at a Medieval abbey ahead of emergency repair work, have uncovered the grave of an as-yet unidentified abbot.

Aged around 40-50 when he died, the man had been laid to rest in the presbytery of Furness Abbey, Cumbria— founded in the 12th century and once the second-richest Cistercian monastery in England. This was the holiest part of the abbey church, housing the high altar, and alongside the skeleton archaeologists found the silver-gilt head of a crosier or ceremonial crook, the first to be excavated in this country in 50 years and a clear sign of the churchman’s status.

‘Decorated with discs embossed with an image of St Michael fighting a winged dragon, and with a wonderfully-realised dragon’s head on the finial, this staff of office marks the man out as an abbot or bishop,’ Oxford Archaeology North’s Stephen Rowland said. ‘Indeed, amongst the generations of abbots who were buried here over the 400-year-history of the site, two Bishops of Mann are known to have been interred at Furness.’

The iron foot of the staff, as well as fragments of painted wood that may have formed part of its pole, were also recovered, together with a piece of silk cloth — perhaps a vestige of the sudarium used to stop the crosier being handled directly.

On his right hand the man wore a silver ring set with a white stone, which x-rays suggest might have covered a hollow containing a piece of bone, possibly a holy relic. Its design may have been intended to keep the clergyman’s faith constantly — if uncomfortably — in his thoughts; the lower part of the setting forms a point, perhaps to mortify the flesh and remind the wearer of his lowliness before God.

Stephen Rowland added that religion and humility might not always have been foremost in an abbot’s mind, however.

‘The Furness abbots were enormously powerful, holding vast estates across the North West, Ireland, the Isle of Man, and into Yorkshire,’ he said. ‘They acted as sheriff, appointed coroners, nominated the Bishops of Mann and entertained kings. The abbey was a significant player in the iron industry and wool trade, and controlled mines, quarries, fisheries and even a harbour at Barrow. In effect, an abbot had many guises: politician, businessman, feudal lord, and sometimes, a man of God.’

Radiocarbon dating may help suggest when the man died, but some clues have already emerged. Cistercian rule forbade burial within the presbytery before the late 13th century, and English Heritage curator Susan Harrison believes the crosier could be a composite of pieces from the 12th-14th century. The ring is thought to be 14th century in style.

Analysis of the man’s remains has also shed light on some personal details, indicating a portly man who suffered from joint disease.

Standing about 5’7” tall in life and with a large frame, his stoutness is suggested by bony growths fusing several of his vertebrae, giving a ‘candle wax’ appearance (a condition called DISH — Diffuse Idiopathic Skeletal Hyperostosis). Associated with obesity and middle-age onset Type-2 diabetes, this is frequently seen in excavations of Medieval monastic groups.

The location of the man’s grave might also suggest he came from a privileged background, Stephen Rowland added.

‘Abbots were generally interred in the chapter house,’ he said. ‘The presbytery was reserved for wealthy patrons who effectively paid for their place next to the high altar with generous donations. The presence of an abbot here suggests he may have stemmed from such a family, or that he was highly revered during his time.’

 This article is published in CA 268, on sale 1 June

More information:

Furness Abbey is open  Thursday to Monday, 10am – 5pm.

Oxford Archaeology  Website:  www.thehumanjourney.net

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