Island’s exciting archaeology

Holy Island
Holy Island

Mitford Historical Society

Members and visitors of the Mitford Historical Society held their annual Christmas meeting in the Village Hall.

Our guest speaker was Newcastle University archaeologist Richard Carlton, who gave a succinct and informative insight to the ongoing excavations on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne.

The talk began with an overview of the project, which covers Lindisfarne and part of the ‘Islandshire’ coastal plain from Spittal to Bamburgh.

Here, the archaeological team had looked at lime kilns, farms and cottages. Although many are now demolished, they were still in use in the 1950s. Many stories had been recorded from visitors who had lived and worked in this area.

Richard then talked about some of the older buildings on the island, many dating back to the 11th and 12th centuries.

He then devoted the rest of the talk to the major excavation dig on The Heugh.

Here, with the help of maps, photographs, drawings and previous archaeological evidence, he showed us what was thought to have been there and where they were to concentrate the dig.

As the dig commenced it was evident that they had unearthed the foundations of an early church. The archaeological evidence found so far suggests that the style of building is a primitive one and may date from the second half of the seventh or early eighth century.

The excavation to date has yielded more than 40 pieces of broken masonry, including crudely worked window surrounds.

Another potential indication of an early date is the placing against the east chamber wall of a base for an altar.

The building, measuring 16m long by 7m wide, stood on the exposed rocky promontory called The Heugh, near the cliff edge known as ‘the precipice’. It faced directly towards Bamburgh, the great royal palace of the Bernician Kings of Northumbria.

The church was thought to be constructed of white sandstone so that it would have reflected sunlight, thus being seen from afar and also a reminder to Bamburgh of the importance of the ‘Holy Island’ as a centre for Christianity within the kingdom.

Further investigations into carbon dating of seeds and other organic matter will give a precise date of the building.

The excavation has also yielded important evidence of a signalling tower some metres from the dig. The tower might have been up to 12m high. It would probably have been used to communicate with Bamburgh and with monks living on the Farne Islands. It is known from historical accounts that it was used to receive a beacon signal from the monks when St Cuthbert died there in 687.

Richard concluded the talk by saying this was probably the most important archaeological find on Lindisfarne to date and the team was looking forward to next year’s dig on the island.

The next meeting is on Tuesday, January 9, at 7.30pm, when Kim Bibby-Wilson will be talking about Northumbrian Identity.