Monday, 21 August 2017

"There is sorrow on the sea": Maritime memorialisation


There is no escaping the sea on Holy Island. From our trenches we could look out across the harbour and beyond towards the Farne Islands; the wind brought in rain from the North Sea and the cries of seabirds and seals was a constant accompaniment to life on the island.

But the sea is not just a constant as a natural phenomenon. It also appears repeatedly in a materialised form in monuments and memorials that are found across the island, particularly in and around the parish church. Not surprisingly, on an island which has produced many sailors, death by drowning was a real threat, and deaths by drowning are recorded on several graves – interestingly several have nice depictions of boats on them. For example, the grave of John Stevenson (d1875) who died in a wreck off nearby Bamburgh has his stone decorated with a fine carving of a typical local fishing boat known as a coble, and the edge of his grave is finished with rope-like cable twist moulding. Imagery of the sea can be found on other, such as the anchor symbol – a not uncommon image on 19th century graves, but a particularly potent image on an island such as this.

But in death, the sea didn’t only take people away; it also brought strangers to Holy Island. One burial plot, placed in a prime position just by the entrance to the churchyard, is the last resting place of nine members of the crew of the SS Holmrook which sank just off the island in 1892 . A now almost unreadable stone also records the burial site of 13 year old Field Flowers who died in the wreck of the Pegasus on his journey back from school in Edinburgh in 1843. 

A particularly noticeable feature of the burial traditions on the island is the importance of recording
if the departed has been involved in the lifeboats that operated from the island. Since the foundation of the lifeboat service, there have been five lifeboat houses which operated from the island (or on the immediately adjacent mainland). Not surprisingly, given the notorious rocks and reefs off the nearby Farne Islands, as well as the rocks on the north side of Holy Island itself, there have been many shipwrecks in the islands’ waters. These included both local vessels, as well as those from further afield. The role of working on the lifeboats, a volunteer role taken by fishermen and other resident seafarers, was incredibly important- and clearly purveyed a sense of corporate identity amongst its membership, which seems to have transcended many other possible social roles on the island. George Kyle who died in 1960 is recorded on his grave as Assistant Motor Mechanic of the Holy Island lifeboat for 29 years – another George Kyle (d. 1912) is noted as having been both Second Coxwain and Coxwain Superintendent of the boat. Even now there are no lifeboats operating from the island anymore, the boards listing the rescues the lifeboat crews from the island had assisted in are still carefully maintained and displayed, just outside the churchyard.

Mercifully, Holy Island never saw any lifeboat disasters such as that at Aldeburgh (Suffolk) in 1899 which resulted in the deaths of seven lifeboatmen, who are memorialised by an impressive suite of monuments in Aldeburgh churchyard and a brass plaque in the church itself – both laden with maritime and nautical images and symbols.

Central element of burial plot for Aldeburgh
lifeboat men lost in 1899
disaster

I’ve spent a lot of time by the coast this summer – in Northumberland, Yorkshire and currently Suffolk. And wherever I’ve visited, the importance of the sea in forming and maintaining a distinctive tradition of memorialisation and commemoration is apparent. The seafaring experience, and its incredible dangers and regular fatalities, is something that seems to have particularly impacted on post-medieval (particularly 19th and 20th century) commemorative practices. The only other employment sectors that I can think off that have been particularly and specifically highlighted in burial practices are the military (obviously) and mining (I’m thinking particularly of the tradition of pit disaster memorials). Even in relatively recent times, there is a strong thread of modern monument making related to seafaring deaths- just close to where I’m writing this in coastal Suffolk, there is a relatively recent memorial plaque to a group of coastguards drowned in a wreck on the coast between Orford and Shingle Street, despite its distance from the coast, there is an RNLI monument at the National Memorial Arboretum, and most powerfully in Hull, a city which lost 6000-8000 men to the North Sea there are a number of recent monuments to these losses, including “The Last Trip” in Zebedee's Yard and for my mind most powerfully, a monument depicting trawlermen in silhouette on St Andrew’s Quay.
I don’t know of any large-scale study of maritime monumentality, but ultimately that the study of these kind of maritime monuments deserves to be resituated, and not just seen as part of the study of burial practices, but as an integral element of industrial archaeology, which should be recording all aspects of the lives and deaths of workers and their families

Lost Trawlermen monument, Hull (C) Creative Commons http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/5289389


Fisherman's memorial altar, Holy Trinity, Hull  three trawlers St Romanus, Ross Cleveland and Kingston Peridot, all lost within a month- also plaque to the crew of the notoriously lost FV Gaul





Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Buddha in the potato patch: adventures in comparative monasticism





We’ve now spent two weeks on the island, busy living and working on top of each other, with the last couple of days particularly cramped due to some awful weather. As today was our day off, it was no surprise that I chose to strike out alone off inland. I followed my nose westwards across Islandshire, off past Yeavering and into the Scottish Borders. Then I struck out up Ettrickdale, followed the valley of the Tima Water and soon crested over into the valley of the White Esk in the heart of Eskdalemuir Forest. Here stands, more than a little incongruously, the Tibetan Buddhist monastery of Samye-Ling.

Having been spending a lot of time thinking about Anglo-Saxon monastery it was thought provoking to explore a living monastery, albeit one of a very different tradition. Despite, or even because of, the huge differences between 7th century early medieval Christianity and 21st century Tibetan Buddhism, my exploration of this beautiful, peculiar, welcoming site at Samye-Ling got me thinking about cross-cultural commonalities in monasticism; some that are identifiable in the archaeological record and some that may not be.

There are some obvious similarities visually- the vivid use of colour found at Samye-Ling was probably also a feature of Anglo-Saxon monastic sites. We know that early medieval stone sculpture was often painted and that church interiors would have been decorated with elaborate fabric wall hangings and many lamps. Exactly the same scheme occurred in the prayer hall at Samye-ling which was adorned with figurative thangkas, fabrics, food offerings and oil lamps. This must have been very much how the interior of early churches appeared – incredible, sensory experiences which would have been particularly pronounced in a world before electric lights.
The first thing that struck me about Samye-Ling was the relationship between boundedness and the wider landscape. Whilst there was nothing like a monastic vallum of the kind we usually associate with medieval monasteries, there were elaborate ceremonial entrances to the site – marked by gateways and temples. Yet, despite the clear importance of these boundary markers, there was also an interplay with the wider landscape beyond these defined edges. Visually, the monastery was clearly a landmark- in particular its burnished gilded rooflines and prayer flags meant that its impact bled out into its hinterland. I wasn’t there for any ceremonies, but there were large cases of Tibetan trumpets and bells in the main prayer hall, so presumably the noise of worship, music and chanting, would also have been audible beyond the confines of the sacred centre.




This permeable nature of the boundaries was not just one way. I don’t know much about Tibetan monastic traditions, but the landscape location of the monastery was clearly important and engaged with the views beyond the enclosure. In a general sense, the remote rural location seems to have been important- perhaps echoing (in a small way) the mountainous landscape of Tibet. But more immediately, I noticed the careful placing of a small monument on the edge of the river White Esk that bounded the eastern edge of the monastery at the confluence of the river and the Mood Law Burn – it had clearly been located there with a view to framing this natural feature which lay outside the monastic enceinte. Obviously, from my Lindisfarne perspective it made me think of the architectural elaboration of key observation points within the monastery, particularly along the rocky outcrop known as the Heugh. Here recent excavations by another project have revealed a church and a possible cross base, to add to another cross base already known up there. The Heugh commands views not only to Bamburgh, but also Cuthbert’s cell on Inner Farne, as well as looking down on the monastery interior; its ritual importance seems to have come as much from its wider views as its immediate context within the monastery.

A second thing that struck me was the casual combination of the mundane and the ritual. There were clearly marked edges to the site and also well-defined areas of particular religious intensity, such as the prayer hall and the Victory Stupa prayer-wheel house. These nicely echo traditional Durkheimian notions of the sacred and profane; but in practice the situation was more complex. The Samye-Ling complex integrates lots of practical, day-to-day elements within it- as much space is given over to the vegetable garden as the prayer hall. Yet, even in these areas, the sacred intrudes – prayer flags flutter over the green beans and a figure of a buddha stands grandly over the potato patch. The boundary between the holy and the practical is a muddy one (quite literally after this weekend’s weather) – we tend to think of Anglo-Saxon crosses marking out holy areas – wells, boundaries and cemeteries. Perhaps we should also think about them imbuing cabbage patches, stables and barley fields with blessing. After all even Cuthbert on his island fastness on Inner Farne had to miraculously ensure his crop of barley succeeded when his crop of wheat had failed. It also recalls the crosses carved on querns from Dunadd and the cross-marked fishing net weights from Hartlepool. Yet again, despite the importance of inscribing boundaries, there is, in practice, in both monastic traditions a real overlap between sacred and profane.

A further aspect of the monastic experience that Samye-ling brought home to me was the importance of the monastic ‘body’ and comportment – both Buddhist monks and nuns, like Anglo-Saxon monks, are marked out by distinct robes and haircuts that separate them from the lay presence in the monastery. But there were more subtle aspects to bodily discipline that crosscuts the lay-monastic divisions. For example, at Samye-Ling, entry to the prayer hall required removal of footwear. Presumably originally a requirement to keep the inner sanctuary clean and as a mark of respect, but in a culture where we are not used to removing our shoes in public areas (as opposed in a domestic context) I found it provoked a surprising sense of vulnerability (particularly when wearing a pair of walking boots which required quite some getting on and off). The importance of the contextual significance of dress can still be seen today in some Christian churches – men are meant to remove their hats in church (unless they are a priest) whilst there are often demands for women to cover their heads in some traditions; having been brought up a catholic I’m old enough to remember seeing women wearing mantillas over their heads in church and in a completely different tradition, it’s worth watching the occasional broadcast of Free Presbyterian Psalm singing on BBC Alba as a reminder that the tradition of the Sunday church hat is still alive and kicking (check out the FP Church website for their ‘fun’ doctrine on gender and physical appearance and deportment).
Within the prayer hall itself, it was also interesting how visitors responded to the space in terms of their bodily posture. Many lay visitors reacted to being in a sacred space by holding their hands carefully, either clasped behind their back or in front of them and there was a noticeable reluctance by visitors to turn their back on the central focus of the hall (roughly equivalent to the position of the altar in a Christian church) – intriguing that people from a Christian background were interpreting the space of the Buddhist shrine in terms of the use of space in a church particularly in terms of how they physically held their body and oriented themselves within the structure. Whereas, the Buddhhist monks acting as what seems to have been vergers were far more business-like in their engagement with the holy space

Given the adoption of monasticism as a mode of life in a number of religious tradition – Christian, Hindu, Jain and Buddhist – and the use of other forms of collegiate religious life such as madrasah in traditions such as Islam - it would be interesting to explore the comparative aspect of this kind of communal religious experience more


PS: Finally, and slightly at a tangent, archaeologists are particularly prone to talk about technologies of commemoration or technologies of worship – usually as a metaphor. However, in some Buddhist traditions, prayer wheels are used to say prayers- each rotation of a wheel being equivalent to saying a prayer or a mantra. Usually these are hand-held wheels spun manually. But in some cases, the rotation can be mechanised, with the wheel attached to a water-drive wheel or even powered by an electric motor. At Samye-ling they had a rank of these electric powered prayer wheels – fantastic examples of real rather than metaphorical technologies of worship – they also reminded me of Douglas Adams’ ‘electric monk’ in Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency– “The Electric Monk was a labour-saving device, like a dishwasher or a video recorder. Dishwashers washed tedious dishes for you, thus saving you the bother of washing them yourself, video recorders watched tedious television for you, thus saving you the bother of looking at it yourself; Electric Monks believed things for you, thus saving you what was becoming an increasingly onerous task, that of believing all the things the world expected you to believe.” But don’t get me on to the agency of inanimate objects…



Thursday, 20 July 2017

Notes from a small island #4: The Shadow of the Cross



We’ve come to Lindisfarne to search for Saint Cuthbert, but we’re not the only ones. The island attracts many pilgrims, also on the tracks of the saint. Holy Island has always lured visitors in pursuit of the sacred, but many of the modern pilgrims are looking at the island through a particular lens. This can be summed up in one word: Celtic. There are Celtic crystals, Celtic liturgies and Celtic crosses. The modern pilgrimage movement casts the religious past of monastery of Lindisfarne as part of the Celtic world. Academics have worked hard to dismantle the notion of a unified “Celtic” church which encompassed the diverse and varied religious traditions of Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Cornwall and Brittany, but it still casts a spell on many who come to visit Lindisfarne or who try to follow a putative Celtic path in their Christian faith. For them, the idea of a Celtic church embraces a lack of hierarchy, an inclusive approach to women, an ecumenical perspective and an ecological awareness. These are all laudable and aspirational approaches to a faith-based life or indeed a non-faith based life. Whilst, few of these qualities seem to have been actually present in the Insular church, I am not so much interested in an exegesis of the tenets of Celtic Christianity.

I’m more interested in thinking about how the movement has engaged with the heritage and archaeology of Lindisfarne itself. If we want to take a strict historical perspective, whilst the monastery was certainly founded by monks from the great Western Scottish monastery of Iona in 635, its direct affiliation with the Ionan tradition came to a pretty abrupt end in AD664 when after failing to persuade King Oswiu to maintain the Ionan tradition in Northumbria, Colmán and many monks from Lindisfarne left and returned first to Iona and then further westwards to Western Ireland. Although, the Northumbrian church continued to maintain some links with churches to the north and west, after this point it was firmly part of the mainstream of Anglo-Saxon “Roman” Christianity.

Assuming that ecclesiastical activity ended on the island in AD875 (an admittedly debateable assumption), this means that of the 240-year life of the early medieval monastery, it was under direct Ionan influence for less than 10% of its existence. Yet, it is this brief Celtic introit to the monastic history of the island that has seized peoples imagination. I suspect that the non-hierarchical “Celtic” church gets implicitly contrasted with a perceived hierarchical and authoritarian ‘Roman’ Anglo-Saxon church – the word ‘Roman’ in particular for many people is particularly redolent with the notions of Empire and repression; whilst the modern ‘Celtic’ world has often embraced nationalist movements against Anglo-Saxon (English) political control (or in the case of Brittany the centralised political dominance of Paris).

There may also be an element of ‘landscape determinism' at play. Much of the English North Sea littoral is low-lying and marshy, dominated by salt marsh, sand banks and fens. Up in North Northumberland though, the coastline is different. The presence of the rocky outcrops and crags of the whin sill on which Bamburgh, the Farne Islands and the Heugh and Castle crag on Lindisfarne itself give a very different structure to the landscape. The presence of the Farnes provide an archipelagic dimension that is more like the West of Scotland than East Anglia. The stone vernacular architecture, and even the wildlife – treelike fuschias and stone walls covered with valerian and stonecrop – combine to make a landscape that feels as much part of the Irish sea world, Pembrokeshire or Western Brittany, as part of the North Sea. Although only an hour from urban Tyneside, it is easy to imagine you are looking out into the Atlantic.

Given this sense of being in the “Celtic West” it is perhaps not surprising that the symbol most regularly deployed to evoke “Celtic” Lindisfarne is the wheel-headed Celtic cross, a design most associated with the high crosses of Ireland and Iona. Reproductions of these types of crosses can be found in souvenir shops, whilst a giant ring-headed cross looms over the statue of St Aidan that stands in the parish churchyard.


The Celtic Christian tradition has seized on a very particular, and relatively brief, period of the monastery’s history, and seemingly capitalised on the physical evocation of a western landscape in the north-east of England. The irony is that although we have a considerable body of early medieval sculpture from Holy Island, there is only one ring-headed cross amongst these stones, and this is most likely dateable to the 11th century and probably the sculpture most distant from the period of direct Irish influence. Rather than engaging with the actual archaeology and material culture of monastery of Lindisfarne itself, an external and more clearly Hiberno-Scottish ascetic has been imported to stand as a metaphor for the Celtic world that is hard to materialise directly from the physical remains on the island. In the 7th century Oswald and Aidan created Lindisfarne as a Northumbrian analogue for Iona, the  20th and 21st century pilgrims to the island seem to have done exactly the same thing.












Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Notes from a small(ish) island #3: back in the trenches


We’re back on Holy Island- Lindisfarne for a new season of excavation. It’s been a funny old week for anyone interested in early medieval monastic archaeology in Northern Britain. First, another team working on the island as part of the HLF Peregrini project uncovered what is clearly an early medieval church on the nearby Heugh, overlooking our trenches. Then, yesterday the Iona research team at Glasgow announced the results of a suite of C14 dates that placed a small wattle hut excavated at a location on the island traditionally associated with Columba as more or less exactly contemporary with him. So, no pressure there then…
Image may contain: sky, cloud, mountain, outdoor and nature

I blogged last year about the inevitable pressures (external and internal) to find something of significance on an excavation like ours. This year it’s different, last year we identified clear early medieval remains and now we’re focussing in on the most productive area. So, in one respect we’re off the hook- we know there are going to features of the date we’d like. However, these other discoveries have not surprisingly upped the ante for us, and now there is an element of professional pride at play, which is of course, a silly reaction, but not one that can be ducked. As we started opening our new, larger and more ambitious trenches, there was as much nerves as last year.

The area we are looking at this year is an expanded area encompassing the trench where last year we found several fragments of Anglo-Saxon sculpture as well as lots of disarticulated human bone, which when dated gave an early medieval date. Towards the end of the dig, having removed areas of rubble we also identified a series of small stone features, which we took to be stone-lined graves. Indeed, there were traces of a skull visible at the ‘head’ end of one of them. However, we didn’t have time to excavate them.
IMG_9372


We’ve now opened a larger area, and already last year’s interpretations are being challenged by new data. First, our possible stone-lined graves are looking less grave like. They seem to be too long, and interesting there are hints that some of these stone settings may extend some distance with some stone linears visible in one half of our two-part trench seemingly aligned on our ‘graves’ which lie on the other side of the baulk. Are these something structural rather than graves? Or is it just a case of several graves on exactly the same alignment? Too soon to say. Certainly, more generally there are a number of stone ‘settings’ (lots of use of quote marks here) which are on the same orientation. However, there is nothing we can currently see that I can, hand-on-heart, point at and say with certainty that it is a grave. We also seem to have other possible stone settings on a slightly different alignment. These look to be slightly structurally different – perhaps dry-stone walling (although that is speculative in the extreme at this stage). Do the different alignments imply some kind of phasing? Possibly, sites such as this often go through multiple phases of functionally different activities.

We’ve got two other interesting features. First, we’ve a discrete, and not insubstantial, assemblage of charnel or disarticulated human bone fragments. We’ve not looked at it in detail yet, but there seem to be bones from several individuals here including limbs and at least one skull element. We’ve found human bone scattered across the site previously, but this is the first clearly deliberate deposit. It’s not quite clear whether it is in a deliberate cut or pit yet. Nonetheless, the material does seem to have been placed in a very discrete area. Presumably the bone is also early medieval, but the date of the gathering together and placing of this material is not clear yet.

Finally, we do see to have a possible small rectilinear stone feature in the north-west corner of the trench. It’s only scatters of rubble and one or two larger stones, but on the well-attested two-stones-in-a-line-make-a-wall-and-three-stones-make-a-building principal, it might be structural. It’s not large, although it may well extend beyond our trench edges. At this point my only observation would be that it shares an alignment and orientation with the parish and priory churches. Just saying…


Monday, 26 September 2016

Staweford: Routeways and meeting places in North Northumberland

View looking northwards towards Staweford (near the trees in
the middle distance). Image (C) Google Earth
Over the last couple of years, due to my involvement with the Gefrin Trust, I've been increasingly thinking about the Anglo-Saxon palace site at Yeavering, which lies on the River Glen in North Northumberland. It is usually described as being on a side valley opening out onto the fertile soils of the Millfield Basin. However, I've always had a bee in my bonnet about the importance of Glendale itself as routeway. Today, almost all visitors to the site arrive from the east driving down towards Kirknewton having turned off the A697. Very few people keep on travelling past Kirknewton following course of the Glen, which becomes the Beaumont Water in its upper reaches. Ultimately, this routeway crosses the Scottish Border and reaches Kirk Yetholm. From here it is easy to strike north-west towards the Tweed at Kelso or head westwards along the course of the Kale Water to the River Teviot and Jedburgh (site of an important Anglo-Saxon monastery). It is clear that despite appearances when viewed from Yeavering, Glendale is very much not a dead end

Yet, although I've always been convinced of the importance of this routeway up Glendale, I must admit, I've never been able to take this beyond a vague hunch. However, recently whilst researching something entirely different I've come across evidence that seems to corroborate the importance of this Beaumont Water axis. I've been reading up about the landscape of Northumberland during the 16th century, a period that was the high-tide of the endemic lawless border reivers. At this time, the Anglo-Scottish borders saw endemic livestock raiding and feuding between various extended families that lay both sides of the frontier. This violent society, despite its lawless nature, did have its own rules and regulations. Amongst these were formalised meeting and assembly points, where business and legal proceedings could be conducted under a temporary state of truce.

I've been trying to identify and understand these locations, partly because I'm interested in the 17th century landscape of the region, but also because I'm interested in whether a better appreciation of the Tudor landscape of assembly and gathering might provide a window into similar practices in the region during the early medieval period. I obviously owe an appreciation of the potential of this approach to work that has been done in Durham on early medieval assembly places by Sarah Semple and Tudor Skinner.

Anyway, I've been working my way through the wonderful, but dense, Calendar of Letters and Papers relating to the affairs of the Borders of England and Scotland preserved in Her Majesty's Public Record Office, London (1894), which brings together much of the important and extensive document record from this region. Amongst these documents are repeated references to an meeting place at a site called Staweford or Stawford. These meetings were between the English and Scottish wardens of the Border Marches and where Warden courts were held. An initial search via the OS Gazetteer produced no location for this site. However, a bit more poking around showed that Staweford was recorded as a point on the Anglo-Scottish border in a survey of 1604; and it was clear that it lay close to where the Halter Burn met Countrop Sike, close to Yetholm Mains (NT884 292) – which lies, pleasingly, on precisely the routeway between Yeavering and Kirk Yetholm. The presence of an important meeting location at this site does seem to imply that this was an important communication route and not an isolated backwater. Certainly, other known meeting sites of this type were also on major routeways, such as Carter Bar, still one of the main crossing points between England and Scotland.

 
Location of Staweford. Map (C) Ordnance Survey / Edina Digimap
The obvious next question is the antiquity of Staweford as an assembly point. It had its importance in the 16th century as a location where England met Scotland. Given this point only emerged as national border some time before the 13th century, it might at first seem unlikely that it was important in the Anglo-Saxon period. During the Anglo-Saxon period, this area seems to have been part of a composite estate comprising a series of townships lying along the Beaumont Water that probably had its estate centre at Kirk Yetholm. These vills were recorded as gifts to the monastery at Lindisfarne given by King Oswiu in the later 7th century. The overall estate seems to have been split up in the 12th or 13th century with most vills staying in England with a western rump ending up in Scotland. It seems then that the boundary on which Staweford sits was not originally of a large estate or early ‘shire’ but may possibly have been a boundary between two vills within a putative ‘Yetholmshire’ (see Colm O’Briens paper in Archaeologia Aeliana 2002 for more discussion of this).

There is one more piece of information to bring into play. Whilst, Staweford may have been a crossing point over a relatively small stream, possibly dividing two units within a larger early medieval estate, it was not an entirely isolated location. There are records of a small chapel standing close to the site, although this has now disappeared. Intriguingly, it was recorded as being dedicated to Ethelreda – this is probably the same as Etheldreda, better known as Æthelthryth, a 7th century Kentish princes, who married Ecgfrith, King of Northumbria, in 660, but subsequently returned south to found a monastery at Ely. On her death she became an important Anglo-Saxon saint. It is just conceivable that the dedication of this chapel could go back to a relatively early period in the centuries after the land was gifted. This might indicate some early importance to the site, although the dedication may of course be much later.


So in conclusion, the presence of a 16th century meeting place at Staweford does seem to vindicate my hunch about the importance of the Beaumont Water as a routeway into the Tweed and Teviot valleys from the Yeavering area. However, it is not easy to be certain how much earlier the importance of that particular location can be pushed as an assembly point. A most likely origin date is the 12th/13th century when it became the Anglo-Scottish border. The Ethelreda dedication of the chapel might just hint at an earlier origin, although its importance may have been far more local at this earlier stage.

Thursday, 1 September 2016

"Oh, is the water sweet and cool, Gentle and brown, above the pool?" Landscapes of swimming


I’ve just had a great weekend down on my home turf in Wessex which involved a fair amount of sploshing around in water: paddling in the icy cold crystal-clear waters of the Test in Hampshire and wallowing in a bathing hole near the source of the Thames in West Oxfordshire. As ever, I kept my archaeological head on and got to thinking about the landscape evidence for swimming. I don’t mean the rise of the public swimming baths, pools and lidos which flourished following  the 1846 Public Baths and Wash-houses Act; there has certainly been lots of work on the architecture of these structures. Nor was I thinking about sea bathing which developed in popularity over the 19th century, rather I was pondering how swimming in fresh water, or what is now rather archly termed ‘wild swimming’, mucking around in rivers, ponds and streams might leave a landscape trace.
Obviously, much of the immediate impact is ephemeral, there are scrapes and erosion patches on river banks showing where people got in and out of the water. There are also the inevitable scrappy lengths of rope tied to trees, by which teenagers and those who still think they are teenagers can get their Tarzan fantasies out of their system. It is unlikely that these would survive in the long-term in the landscape record, although presumably it is this kind of simple set up that characterised the bathing places of the medieval and early modern world, everything informal and ad hoc. However, poking around a little it is clear that there is in fact a more substantial and developed landscape of freshwater swimming.


Parsons Pleasure c.1870
Parsons Pleasure c.1950
I’ve only looked at a rather small area, the middle and upper Thames in Oxfordshire, an area I know fairly well and it is where I’ve done most of my river swimming. A quick look at the map though reveals a multiplicity of bathing places in and around Oxford. In some cases, these were clearly quite informal , whilst in others quite considerable infrastructure developed. Perhaps the best known site is Parson’s Pleasure – a bathing place on the River Cherwell in the University Parks, which became well known as a place for nude bathing and was frequented by dons and students in the 19th and 20th century. The area was reserved for men, and was located on an ostensibly easily bypassed branch of the river. It was an area rich in University folklore- allegedly a female student accidentally punted passed a group of naked lounging dons. All but one cover their privates, but the classicist Maurice Bowra covered his face instead stating "I don’t know about you, gentlemen, but in Oxford, I, at least, am known by my face”. From the 1930s a nearby area was used for naked bathing by female students and was known a Dames Delight. Although Parsons Pleasure started as an informal and undeveloped location, by the mid-20th century there were changing rooms, and the area was screened off from prying eyes by formal fencing.



Long Bridges Bathing Place c1950
Whilst, these two sites were clearly rather exclusive areas intended for the use of the Gown, the Town were also well provided with formal bathing places – Tumbling Bay (off the allotment on Botley Road), Long Bridges (near Donnington Bridge), Wolvercote and St Ebbe’s all had their own bathing places which were provided with varying levels of infrastructure. Tumbling Bay had changing rooms, weirs to manage the level of the formally landscaped pool, flower beds and ladders  These were clearly for the use of the general population of Oxford – St Ebbe’s for example, was before its clearance, one of the town’s largest slums. Indeed, many of these places seem to have been at least partly managed by the council before they closed them down in 1990s. Doubtless they were seen as cheap and easily maintained public services, less complex to manage and maintain than formally built lidos. [for more on the bathing sites of Oxford and what remains there now have a look at the great Dereliction in the Shires website )
Wolvercote bathing places - (C) Picture Oxon

It is perhaps not surprising that Oxford has so many river bathing locations- it’s a university town with many channels and watercourses braiding through it. Crucially, there were relatively few large industries chucking effluent into the water. However, it was not only in places like this that there were formal bathing places. I’ve fortuitously stumbled across a similar development in a small village just a dozen miles away. West Hanney lies on the Letcombe Brooke, one of the slow flowing tributaries of the Ock in the Vale of the White House. Not surprisingly, the river was used to power mills and for quenching the thirst of the inhabitants and their livestock. But in the later 19th century, a small formal bathing place was constructed on the brook. It seemingly comprised a corrugated iron enclosure, basic changing rooms and a veranda, whilst the stream was widened and provided with a concrete base. The local mill just downstream was able to maintain the level of water to allow swimming. This bathing place was paid for by the inhabitants of West Hanney and neighbouring East Hanney and was popular until in the early years of the 20th century there were allegations of ‘indecencies’ and its use was kerbed before it was finally destroyed by a flood in the 1940s. I only stumbled across this by chance, it is probable that many more such small-scale swimming holes must have  constructed and used in the 19th and 20th centuries, which would only be picked up by detailed exploration of OS maps and local histories.
Bathing place, West Hanney - late 19th century

A final dimension to these landscapes of swimming are the memorials to the occasions when things went badly wrong. Not surprisingly, it was not uncommon for people to drown, particularly when swimming near weirs or areas with strong undertows. In some cases, memorials were erected to them at or near the place of their demise. Perhaps the best known example is the obelisk erected on the weir at Sandford, just south of Oxford. Known as the ‘Sandford Lasher’ this weir was notoriously dangerous. The obelisk records the deaths of five students from Christchurch college who had drowned there in the 19th and early 20th century including the adopted son of J.M. Barrie. Another monument stands on the Thames between Folly Bridge and Osney Bridge commemorating Edgar Wilson, an assistant chemist, who died saving two boys who had got into trouble in the river in 1888.

 In the later 20th century swimming in natural watercourses went out of fashion, as worries about health and safety peaked in – and many children of my generation will remember being freaked out by the ‘Darkand Lonely Water’ public information films. It’s only recently that there has been renewed popularity in ‘wild swimming’ partly stimulated by Roger Deakin’s Waterlog. But these swimming sites are really interesting and neglected aspects of social history,that could do with some more research. Apart from anything as the worries about public decency at West Hanney and the ever-so-genteel hints of homosexuality associated with Parson’s Pleasure, these were places were the combination of nude swimming and young (and not so young) people meant that there were undoubtedly pretty strong sexual and gendered undercurrents to what went on.  The scene in a EM Forster’s Room With a View in which Mrs Honeychurch, Lucy and Cecil Vyse encounter the group of male characters bathing in the nude is just a hint of the kind of chance and planned encounters that must have happened at such sites. It would be wonderful for someone to start trying to record these sites, before they are lost to memory and nature.


Tuesday, 16 August 2016

A pilgrimage to Iona: first thoughts

 Last week I finally made my first visit to Iona. Having spent so much time writing and thinking about the archaeology of Lindisfarne, it is natural that I had to eventually go back to the source of the monasticism on Holy Island. It was fantastic to make my first foray to the island from where Oswald brought Aidan and other monks to found his new Northumbrian monastery. No matter how much one looks at plans and photographs there is nothing that beat actually visiting a site to get the sense of its human scale and proportion. Exploring some of the island has been incredibly useful in helping me rethink the archaeology of Lindisfarne and also raises some questions for me about the archaeology of Iona.

Like my medieval predecessors, the journey to Iona for me was very much a pilgrimage, and included the classic elements of a devotional exploration. I cast off family attachments (or at least made sure they were settled in the chocolate café in Tobermory), carried out a long journey facing many adversaries (primarily getting past the lunatics who holiday in Mull in mobile homes the size of buses) and finally reached Fionnport to catch the ferry. Here I stepped away from my final connection to the real world (or “parked the car” as some might term it) and joined the small group of hardy visitors waiting in the driving rain for the Calmac ferry.

At this point, it’s worth emphasising that my visit to the island was not as long as I could have hoped for; the shocking weather and the need to preserve familial harmony meant that I was only able to spend a few hours on Iona so this account is by necessity impressionistic rather than thorough.
Although my interests are primarily early medieval, I was surprised to be seduced by later medieval archaeology of the island. Although heavily reconstructed, the abbey church was wonderful with some vibrant and quirky historiated capitals. I also fell in love with the intimate little cloister, an antidote to the larger cloisters I’ve experienced in Durham and the great Cistercian monasteries of the Yorkshire. Smaller monastic houses such as Iona would have been much more typical of the vast majority of medieval monasteries in Britain, and certainly similar in scale to Lindisfarne Priory.
I was also smitten with the later medieval tradition of carved stone working – the continued use of interlace on recumbent grave slabs and some crosses, such as the still-standing Maclean’s Cross and the more fragmentary 15th century cross of Lachlan MacKinnon with its plant scroll with its echoes of Northumbrian vine-scroll carving of a far earlier period. There was also an impressive later tradition of figural representation on burial monuments, seen on the effigies of the abbots in the church and the bullet-headed knightly effigies originally from Reilig Odhráin, which reminded me of the confrontational knights of the Lewis Chessmen. There was also the regularly appearance of the birlinn (sailed galley) motif, a potent reminder of the importance of control the seaways in this region. My personal favourite though was the memorial slab of the redoubtable looking Prioress Anna MacLean in her pleated cassock.


Having a chance to look at the earlier carved stone was also instructive, particularly getting the sense of scale of the high crosses. It was also exciting to get a sense of the wide range of different stone types being used for carved monuments, many not coming from the island itself. This is strategic use of stone types is something that Adrian Maldonado has commented on and also keys in to something we are starting to recognise in Northumbria. However, it was looking at the wider landscape that I found most instructive and for sake of brevity I want to focus on two particular aspects of this.
The first issue is the impressive earthwork vallum that surrounds the monastic core. In the literature this is one of the most distinctive features of Iona. On the plans and aerial photographs that are the most usual ways of encountering the plan of the site, it comprises a large well-defined earthwork that runs along the western side of the site as a bank and ditch and can also be seen as a cropmark to the north. Yet, when you are actually on the site, it is very hard to discern this boundary, primarily because for the observer within the monastery it is largely hidden from view by a series of rocky outcrops, Cnoc nan Cárnan that run parallel with the western side of the vallum, as well as two enclosures Cill mo Neachdain and Gill mo Gobhannan. Whilst the latter two features are of uncertain date and may not have impeded an early medieval view of the ditch and bank, Cnoc nan Cárnan certainly would have. In many ways it is this rocky outcrop that serves to define and I think significantly, constrain, the views from the monastery rather than the actual vallum. It means that Iona is a site which like Lindisfarne looks towards its shoreline, and like Lindisfarne, this nearest shoreline is not a wild ocean vista but the more constrained landward view.

I also remain puzzled about the origin of the vallum. Whilst long thought to be early medieval, more recently it has been dated to the Iron Age by a C14 date of 40BC to AD220 from a sample taken from under the bank. As Adrian Maldonado has noted, we do need to exercise a little caution here – technically this only provides a tpq for the construction of the vallum rather than a construction date itself. However, if for sake of argument we accept an Iron Age date for this large bank and ditched enclosure then this for me raises as many questions as it answers. My biggest qualm is that this large enclosed area looks so very different from most common types of enclosures we know are used in Argyll and the Inner Hebrides in this period, where the most common settlement type is the far smaller dun. A good example is Dùn Cùl Bhuirg that lies on the western side of the island which only encloses an area c.45m x 35m. Crucially, both duns and the larger Iron Age forts tend to utilise hills and defend the summit. The situation is very different at Iona where the boundary seems to enclose a relatively low-lying rather than elevated area. I admit to not being an expert on Iron Age enclosures in Argyll, but if we accept that the vallum is Iron Age in date, we are faced with a new problem, a seemingly a-typical and rather large enclosure preceding the establishment of the monastery. It is surprising that despite the large number of interventions within the enclosure, none have produced any clear Iron Age material culture (apart from a glass bead that could equally be early medieval and a fragment of Roman samian), whereas the relatively small-scale excavation by the Ritchies at Dùn Cùl Bhuirg produced midden material, decorated Hebridean wares and some beads. So, in essence, what is this putative Iron Age enclosure?

My second area for consideration focuses on the relationship between Iona and Lindisfarne in landscape terms. It is generally accepted that Oswald’s decision to construct a monastery on Holy Island must have been influenced by his experience of Iona during his time in exile in Dal Ríata where he converted to Christianity. It is axiomatic that the planning of monastic sites was in some ways at attempt to reconstruct on earth an idealised model of Jerusalem, It is no coincidence that Adomnán, one of Iona’s most important abbots, was the author of De locis sanctis (Concerning sacred places), a description of the holy places of Palestine, including Jerusalem and Bethlehem. However, exploring Iona also got me to thinking about the way in which Lindisfarne was an analogue for Iona. In many ways the geography of the two islands is very different; Iona is far rockier and has greater relief than the generally low lying Lindisfarne. The latter is also, of course, tidally accessible rather than a true island like Iona. Yet, there are some really interesting parallels both in terms of physical geography and planning. 

My first observation on this front brings me back to my earlier comment about the use of a range of stone types. One of the most distinctive features of Fionnport, Iona and the Ross of Mull is its very highly visible pink granite; Lindisfarne, whilst not having pink granite, does have outcrops of pin-red sandstone in the area around the site of the early medieval monastery, something that would not have gone unnoticed by visitors to the two islands.

Despite the difference in relief between the two islands, Lindisfarne is not entirely flat and the distinct jagged ridge of whinsill basalt that runs across the south of the island is an important part of the landscape. In particular, part of this crag, known as The Heugh, lies immediately adjacent to the site of the early medieval monastery. Visiting Iona I was impressed by the similarity in terms of positioning between The Heugh and the slightly smaller but nonetheless imposing Tòr an Aba which lies to the west of the abbey at Iona. This latter feature was traditionally associated with the cell of Columba described by Adomnán as ‘built in a higher place’. Excavation revealed a stone footing and a cross-base created partially out of re-used millstone. This reminds me of the presence of a cross-base lying on The Heugh which also lies on an artificially created platform. More recently, this summer, archaeological excavation on The Heugh also uncovered possible early medieval structures elsewhere along the ridge.  The geological parallels between the Heugh and Tòr nan Aba, as well as the use of crosses to mark them are at the least intriguing.

 A final interesting similarity is the presence (or former presence at least) of a lake on both islands – Holy Island lough lies in the north-east corner of the island, whilst the site of the Lochan Mór lies to the north-west of Iona Abbey, although it had been drained by the 1750s. It had once had an outlet which ran through the monastic enclosure via the stream known as Sruth a' Mhuilinn, which as the name suggests may have powered a mill, although this is not certain. Intriguingly, a lack of pollen of from Holy Island Lough dating to before the late 7th century has led to suggestions that it was created or at least expanded at  some time in the early years of the monastery on Lindisfarne. Whilst the most obvious explanation of this is the deliberate harnessing and consolidation of a water supply to power a mill, the expansion of a lake in the near vicinity to the monastery on Holy Island would have served to emphasize some of the similarities in the landscapes of Iona and Lindisfarne.

Obviously, the presence of particular coloured stones, the rocky outcrops and open water on both islands are co-incidental. Yet in an early medieval ecclesiastical mind-set primed to recognise analogies, similarities such as these are unlikely to have been seen as fortuitous, and may instead have had symbolic resonances. In a world where books, carving and landscapes were all read analogously, as well as literally, these correspondences would have been important. The parallel placement of crosses on The Heugh and the Tòr nan Aba suggest a conscious decision to emphasise these similarities, as less certainly does the expansion of Holy Island Lough. There is certainly scope for more exploration of the parallels and differences between Holy Island and Iona in terms of spatial organisation, but that is perhaps for a more extended piece of work.


I need to go back to Iona- there is still a lot of pondering to be done. I never got a chance to explore significantly beyond the monastic enclosure, I’m interested in the relationship between the island and both the sea and the mainland. My time on Mull and in some of the surrounding areas convinces me more than ever of the need of a proper hinterland survey of both Iona and Lindisfarne; whilst both sites are islands, they were not isolated and there is a real need to better understand their immediate and wider landscape contexts. So, with a small prayer to Columba and Cuthbert, I hope to be back soon.