From rings and rare Anglo-Saxon namestones, to coins and a medieval oven, this year’s excavation on Lindisfarne has provided a new glimpse at life on the island before, during, and after the 8th-century Viking raid that struck its monastic community.
A view of one of the trenches in this summer’s excavations on Lindisfarne.
A view of one of the trenches in this summer’s excavations on Lindisfarne. [Image: DigVentures]

This September, archaeologists from DigVentures and Durham University returned to Lindisfarne, where the team has been excavating the remains of the island’s early medieval monastery founded by King Oswald of Northumbria and famously attacked by Vikings in AD 793. The excavation, now in its fourth year, has been entirely crowdfunded by the public and has made a series of significant discoveries.

While investigating an area that includes part of a cemetery associated with the early monastery, the team unearthed fragments of three beautifully decorated namestones, bringing the total found in the last few years to seven. One is inscribed with what the team has called ‘one of the most beautiful examples of early medieval knotwork found in recent years.’ Another is inscribed with runes, which the team is hoping to decipher. ‘Runes were particularly important to the Northumbrian church. These small, commemorative markers are unique to the 8th and 9th centuries, and each one gives us the name of a real person who lived on the island at or around the time of the Viking raids,’ said Dr David Petts, from Durham University, who is working in collaboration with DigVentures on the site.

A fragment of a namestone inscribed with intricate knotwork.
A fragment of a namestone inscribed with intricate knotwork. [Image: DigVentures]

‘We’re starting to see that there’s quite a variety of people buried here, and differences in the way they were buried, which is direct evidence of the community living around and supporting the monastery,’ said Brendon Wilkins from DigVentures.

Analysis of human remains found in previous years shows that men, women, and individuals of all ages were buried at the site, indicating that the graves probably include the lay population rather than monks. Some were local, but isotope results indicate that others came all the way from western Scotland. Although some lived in good health, other skeletons show evidence of pathologies that may have brought them to the island hoping to be healed.

A pair of plain, copper-alloy rings were also found, which is the first time any jewellery of this period has been discovered on the site. Other interesting artefacts include Anglo-Saxon coins, some minted in Northumbria, but others had come all the way from Wessex, providing a helpful reminder that Lindisfarne was extremely well connected, and that monasteries were a place of trade and exchange.

The team also continued to investigate the remains of an early medieval building, which seems to have been constructed on top of an even earlier industrial oven and which could provide evidence of copper- or glass-working on the island.

‘It has been an eventful excavation and has produced a lot of new evidence about life on the island during this tumultuous time, and we’re already looking forward to coming back next year so that we can continue our investigation and find out more about what was happening at this important site,’ said Brendon.

DigVentures will launch Dig and Finds Room opportunities for the 2020 season on 1 December. To read more about the discoveries so far and to find out how to join the project, visit digventures.com.

Text by Maiya Pina-Dacier, DigVentures


This news article appears in issue 357 of Current Archaeology. To find out more about subscribing to CA magazine, click here.

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