Life and death in Northumbria’s Golden Age
Two decades of archaeological research have shed vivid light on an Anglo-Saxon community that lived at Bamburgh 1,400 years ago, revealing a surprisingly diverse population. With the findings now presented in a detailed ‘digital ossuary’, what has been learned about these pioneering people? Carly Hilts spoke to Jessica Turner to find out more.
In the winter of 1816/1817, violent storms tore at the beach below Bamburgh Castle, scouring away centuries of accumulated sand and creating the vast dune fields that surround the castle to this day. This was not the only surprising side-effect of the dramatic weather: in exposing the earlier land surface, the storm had also laid bare a number of graves tucked into a depression called ‘Bowl Hole’. Who were these individuals laid to rest beside the North Sea? In the 19th century, Victorian romantics interpreted the skeletons as the remains of Viking raiders – indeed, on the first edition of the Ordnance Survey map for the area (1860), the site is labelled ‘Old Danish Burying Ground’. This attribution was more wishful thinking than historical fact, however, as the area around Bamburgh remained in Anglian hands even as Norse invaders annexed the southern part of Northumbria and conquered York. Instead, modern archaeological science would hold the key to unlocking the identities of the Bowl Hole burials.
In 1998-2007, the cemetery was excavated by the Bamburgh Research Project (BRP), who wanted to assess whether the graves in their ever-shifting sandy setting were at risk of erosion. This long-running project confirmed that Bowl Hole was no Norse burial ground, but was one of the most northerly Anglo-Saxon cemeteries yet found, used for generations across the 7th and 8th centuries. Some 99 skeletons were excavated, together with the disarticulated bones of several more individuals – together representing the remains of at least 110 men and women, adolescents, children, and infants, offering a complete cross-section of the community who had once lived on this part of the coast.
Interestingly, there was considerable variation in how these people had been laid to rest: some were stretched supine on their backs with their heads to the west, reminiscent of Christian tradition, while others harked back to much earlier practices, lying in a crouched position on their side, or being placed face-down. What do these varied customs mean? While some of the graves appear to reference pagan practices, the skeletons are nonetheless thought to represent some of the area’s earliest Christian inhabitants, interred at a time when burial traditions were still fairly fluid. Nor does the presence of (albeit scarce) grave goods – simple domestic items like knives, buckles, and bone and copper-alloy pins, as well as bone combs, perforated shells, and a few glass beads – rule out Christian beliefs, which in the early Anglo-Saxon period did not proscribe furnished burials .
The 7th century was a time of momentous religious change in Northumbria, when the exiled king Oswald returned to Bamburgh following his victory at the AD 633/634 Battle of Heavenfield, and worked to promote Christianity in the region throughout his eight-year reign. To this end, he invited the Irish bishop Aidan to join his court and aid in converting his people. Oswald granted Aidan the nearby island of Lindisfarne as a monastic base and (according to the chronicler Bede) acted as his interpreter as the monk preached, having learned Irish in exile. The people buried at Bowl Hole would have witnessed what is known as Northumbria’s ‘Golden Age’, a period of remarkable cultural flowering between the mid-7th and mid-8th centuries. But who were they?
Even before analysis of the skeletons (by experts at the BRP and Durham University) began, it was clear that, as a population, the Bowl Hole individuals were unusually tall and robust, with few signs of malnourishment and relatively little evidence for disease (though some had suffered poorer health in early life), suggesting that these were high-status individuals who had enjoyed a privileged life. But while their bodies largely spoke of good health, their teeth were terrible. Cavities, plaque, and abscesses were common, even in young people, suggesting that many of these individuals would have suffered from persistent toothache and foul-smelling breath. This decay probably stemmed from the community’s rich diet (something also hinted at by evidence of gout recorded in some of the skeletons’ toe bones) and excessive consumption of sugars, perhaps through drinking quantities of wine or mead.
It has been suggested that these apparently privileged individuals may have been associated with the royal court at Bamburgh: the Anglian fortress occupied the rocky promontory where the 11th-century castle now stands – a mass of dolerite where digging graves would have been near-impossible. The softer sands of Bowl Hole, though, just 300m away, would have been a much more practical location for a cemetery. Indeed, ground-truthing and probing suggests that the burial ground may be much larger than the excavated area, with perhaps hundreds more graves lying beneath the dunes. Given the depth of sand covering them, though, and the fact that the dunes are today protected as part of a Special Area of Conservation and a Site of Special Scientific Interest, further excavations are extremely unlikely.
If the Bowl Hole individuals had lived at the fortress, evidence from previous archaeological work at the castle also testifies to a lavish lifestyle: analysis of animal bones suggests that the community’s diet was dominated by beef and that they were not making much use of the easily available local marine resources – further hints of prosperity.
In the two decades following their excavation, the Bamburgh skeletons have undergone extensive scientific study, illuminating the lives of the individuals they represent. Perhaps the most surprising discovery, however – the result of isotope analysis (studying chemical signatures preserved in the bones and teeth that can be linked to specific geologies) – was how diverse the population was. Of these individuals, less than 10% came from the immediate Bamburgh area. The others had grown up mainly in the wider British Isles, particularly on the west coast of Scotland and in Ireland, but others bore witness to much longer journeys from continental Europe and even further afield.
A case in point was a man in his 60s who had been laid to rest in a crouched position c.AD 559-677. At 5ft 10in (177cm) tall, he was above average height for the period, and had been in generally good health and well-nourished at the time of his death, at least as far as his bones can attest (though he had suffered the tooth decay seen in so many of the skeletons, including evidence that he had lost some teeth during his lifetime, as well as a well-healed fractured rib and some fusion of the joints in his spine). Isotope analysis suggests that this man had spent the early years of his life far from Northumbria, across the North Sea in Scandinavia. In AD 793, Scandinavian newcomers had arrived off the coast of Bamburgh in the first documented Viking raid on Lindisfarne. What had drawn this man – as well as at least four other Scandinavian men, women, and children identified among the cemetery population – to settle in Britain as much as two centuries earlier?
An equally tall but rather younger man, aged 23-25, is thought to have spent his childhood in Spain or Italy, and before his death c.536-647 he would have cut an imposing figure with his robustly muscular build. His muscle attachments had been particularly pronounced, leaving clear marks on his bones, suggesting that he was a strong individual who had led a physically active life – the project team suggests he may have been a metalworker. Although there are no skeletal clues to what caused his early death, we can tell that this man did not enjoy perfect health in life. The root of one of his lower molars had become infected, which would have caused serious toothache, while his right big toe showed signs of damage consistent with gout. It would have been swollen and felt hot and very tender, making it difficult to walk or to have anything touch it during an attack.
Ambitious journeys like these were also reflected by the remains of the very young, particularly children who had both their milk and adult teeth. Milk teeth are formed in utero, meaning that isotope analysis can determine where their mother was living at the time that they were conceived, while adult teeth provide information on where they spent their early years. One such child, aged 9-10 at the time of their death, tells a story of their mother living somewhere far to the south of Bamburgh in a hot climate – possibly southern Spain or even North Africa. She did not remain there for long, however, travelling with her child to a cooler but still warm climate, perhaps the Mediterranean region or the south of France, where they spent their early years. Yet, in their short life, the child had evidently travelled at least once more, crossing the Channel to end their days at Bamburgh. They were not alone: the teeth of another child, 8-9 years old, preserves the journey of their Mediterranean mother, who had raised her child in France before moving them to western Scotland or Ireland and finally travelling to Northumbria.