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…
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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.

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…

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