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Dig may shed light on Lindisfarne Gospels

11 March 2016


Against a wintry sky: Lindisfarne, pictured at the end of last month

Against a wintry sky: Lindisfarne, pictured at the end of last month

ARCHAEOLOGISTS are hoping to shed new light on one of the greatest works of early English Christian art: the Lindisfarne Gospels.

In excavations due to start this summer, archaeologists from Durham University, led by the early-medieval specialist Dr David Petts, will be searching for indications that there was a book-production industry on the island at the time the Lindisfarne Gospels were crafted.

They will be looking for writing implements (bone, copper, or iron-stylus “pens” and horn inkwells), copper-, lead-, and arsenic-based minerals (used to make green, red, and yellow pigments), and crescent-shaped knives (used to scrape the calfskin to make the vellum).

Scholars have never had conclusive proof that the Anglo-Saxon illuminated Gospels book was made on Lindisfarne. The only evidence comes from a cleric who was writing three centuries after the book was crafted. It was known as the Lindisfarne Gospels only from some time in the late 19th century. Before that, it had been known as the Durham Book.

To prove that Lindisfarne was a significant centre for illuminated-manuscript book production, the archaeologists would have to find rough drafts of relevant illuminated motifs, potentially scratched on stone or bone.

Made of the finest calf vellum in about AD 715, the book consists of the four Gospels, and background material from the Fathers. It fuses Irish, Anglo-Saxon, Pictish, and Middle Eastern artistic styles, but is written in the pure fourth-century Latin of St Jerome’s Vulgate edition of the Gospels.

The history of the book’s jewel-encrusted gold cover is not known. It is possible that it was stolen by Viking raiders in AD 793; to remove it, they would have had to tear off the cover — an act that may have led to the loss of some jewels and gold fragments. It is possible that such material could be found by the archaeologists.

Equally important would be the discovery of inscribed, illuminated, or plain vellum fragments used in Anglo-Saxon book production. It is conceivable that offcuts, or pages discarded because of error could have been preserved at the bottom of some rubbish pits.

The archaeologists also hope to find out to what extent Lindisfarne was occupied by monks after the Viking raids in the ninth, tenth, and 11th centuries. In the past, some fragments of fine sculpture from these centuries have been found on the island, and archaeologists now hope to find more artefacts from that era — and possibly the remains of the seventh-century monastery.

Geophysical survey work, carried out in 2012, provided evidence of at least three buildings. One may be the remains of the so-called Green Church — an Anglo-Saxon place of worship for women only — which disappeared some time in the medieval period.

The excavations will be carried out and funded primarily by members of the public from the UK and abroad. Although the dig is being led by Dr Petts, most of the diggers are being recruited from around the world by a British social-enterprise company, Dig Ventures, which is also arranging most of the finance for the project through worldwide crowd-funding.

“This summer’s excavation will be an unparalleled opportunity to explore and more fully understand the heart and soul of Anglo-Saxon Christianity,” Dr Petts said.

Professor Michelle Brown, of the University of London, an expert on the Lindisfarne Gospels, said: “It will use new technologies and produce new evidence, which will complement recent scholarship and new ways of looking at ancient monuments.”


David Keys is Archaeology Correspondent at The Independent.


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