ARCHAEOLOGISTS excavating the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, off the Northumberland coast, have discovered what may be one of the oldest churches in Britain.
The archaeological evidence found so far suggests that the building may date from the second half of the seventh, or from the eighth, century (or possibly from the tenth, when the Vikings controlled the region).
The construction style is a primitive “pre-architectural” one that hints at a very early date. So far, the excavation has yielded more than 40 pieces of broken masonry, including crudely worked window surrounds, in a style that suggests that the builders were more accustomed to working in wood than stone.
Another potential indication of an early date is the placing against the east wall of the possible base of what may have been an altar. It is thought by some scholars that changes in the English church-layout tradition after the mid-seventh century meant that altars tended no longer to be located up against a church’s east wall, but several metres further west.
The location of the church also suggests an early date, possibly in the seventh century. The archaeological dig has revealed that the monks selected the most difficult and challenging place to construct their church — which may have been for seventh-century politically symbolic motives.
The 16-metre-long, seven-metre-wide building stood on an exposed rocky promontory, often buffeted by storms and high winds, and yet facing directly towards Bamburgh, the great royal palace of the monks’ initial patron and benefactor, the seventh-century St Oswald of Northumbria, north-east England’s most significant early Christian king.
The church was constructed just three metres from the cliff edge, in a location known in the Anglo-Saxon period simply as “the precipice”.
PEREGRINI LINDISFARNE PARTNERSHIPExcavation: a drone-shot of the dig
The church was constructed of gleaming white sandstone that would have reflected sunlight, giving the impression that it was quite literally radiating the purest white light. The gleaming building, perched above its 20-metre high precipice, would have been visible from the royal palace, four miles away, as a glistening white structure surrounded by sea.
Only further investigations will open up the possibility of determining a more precise date for the newly discovered early church.
The excavation has also yielded important evidence of a probable signalling tower, some 50 metres from the church.
The eight-metre-square tower (with walls 2.5 metres thick) might have been up to 12 metres high. It would probably have been used to communicate with the King’s palace at Bamburgh, and with monks living on the Farne Islands, seven miles away. It is known from historical accounts that a tower on that promontory was used, for instance, to receive a beacon signal from those monks when St Cuthbert died there in 687.
The archaeological investigation into the newly discovered church is being directed by the Newcastle University archaeologist Richard Carlton, of the Newcastle-based company the Archaeological Practice.
David Keys is Archaeology Correspondent of The Independent.
Prayer again, then back to nature. IT WAS the first service to be held within those bounds for more than a millennium.
At the archaeological dig where the foundations of a seventh- or eighth-century church have been discovered, the Vicar of Holy Island, the Revd Dr Paul Collins, led prayers with a group of about 60 people, including 30 children, last month.
Northumberland County CouncilArtefact: part of a stone trough which, it is suggested, may have been a piscina
“It was a wonderful experience to hold the service there,” he said, “and to remember the people who worshipped in the church all those years ago. The children had spoken to the archaeologists before the service, and so had an understanding of what was going on.”
The leader of the dig, Richard Carlton, director of The Archaeological Practice, Newcastle, said that the building pre-dated the Norman Conquest.
Peter Ryder, of the Newcastle diocesan advisory committee, described the discovery as “probably the most important archaeological find ever on Holy Island. . . . The pick tooling is very distinctive, and probably very early. There are early records of a wooden church around this site. It may be that this church was encased in stone, perhaps before AD 870, when the monks fled the Viking invaders.
”However, the Vikings were rapidly Christianised, and they may have built a stone church to replace the older, wooden one.”
Because the church is on a Site of Special Scientific Interest, it had to be returned to its natural setting after the service.
The Bishop of Newcastle, the Rt Revd Christine Hardman, said: “I am truly delighted that Paul Collins has been able to hold a prayer service to celebrate the place as a church again. It feels like absolutely the right thing to do before the site is returned to its original state.”