Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Anglo-Saxon treasures unveiled at new Lindisfarne museum

A “stunningly beautiful” glass gaming piece from Anglo-Saxon Northumbria will be among dozens of artefacts displayed for the first time at a new museum on Lindisfarne.

The 8th or 9th-century decorated king piece — for the strategy board game tafl — was uncovered in September 2019 during a community-based dig on the tidal Holy Island off the Northumbrian coast. It is only the second glass tafl piece found in the British Isles and, according to curators, may have been buried with a local notable.

It will be a highlight of the display opening this weekend (February 18/19) at Lindisfarne Priory — one of the most important early Christian and Viking Age sites in Britain. Susan Harrison, North Collections Curator for English Heritage, the site’s custodian, said: “The piece is just stunningly beautiful. It’s from a very high quality, expensive gaming set that leads us into thinking about the Northumbrian elite. Whether that’s a visitor who was buried on the site, or a member of the monastic community, it’s telling us a lot about their status.”

The ruins of the 12th-century priory at Lindisfarne that was the successor of St Cuthbert’s monastery. Photo: English Heritage

Lindisfarne was a centre of pilgrimage and learning with close ties to Northumbrian royalty during the kingdom’s 7th-8th-century Golden Age. Harrison said the 1980s museum building had been completely stripped and refitted to better tell its story, with the addition of numerous important finds from recent excavations by DigVentures and Durham University. “It’s an absolutely new museum, with everything from floors to ceilings, walls, cases and objects refreshed,” she said.

The naturally occurring holes in the fish vertebrae used as prayer beads were widened, either before threading or through wear. Photo: English Heritage

The relaunch comes after the TV series Vikings and The Last Kingdom have raised the profile of the region’s early medieval history in popular culture. Other new exhibits include Britain’s earliest known prayer beads, made from salmon vertebrae. They were recently unearthed from around the neck of an 8th-9th-century skeleton in a cemetery area of Lindisfarne’s first monastic settlement. There are also a number of previously unseen “name stones” decorated with crosses and commemorating monks and male and female patrons named in runes or Latin.

Name stone dedicated to Osgyth, a woman. Photo: English Heritage

Lindisfarne’s monastic history dates from 635, when the Northumbrian king Oswald summoned the Irish monk Aidan from the island-monastery of Iona to be bishop of his kingdom. He granted Aidan the small tidal island on which to build a monastery and base for the conversion of the local pagans. Later in the century, the Northumbrian monk Cuthbert reformed the community’s way of life to conform to the religious practices of Rome rather than Ireland. 

Of his methods and priorities, his near-contemporary Bede, the Northumbrian monk and historian, wrote: “[He] followed that system which most facilitates teaching, by first doing himself what he taught to others. He saved the needy man from the hand of the stronger, and the poor and destitute from those who would oppress them.”

After Cuthbert’s death in 687, he was venerated as a saint and his shrine at Lindisfarne became a major religious and cultural focal point. The monastic community is remembered for the illuminated Lindisfarne Gospels — now in the British Library — produced there in the early 8th century, drawing on Mediterranean, Anglo-Saxon, British and Irish artistic traditions. It is also remembered for the devastating Viking raid of June 8, 793, that shattered the idyll and was among the first of many such attacks across large parts of Europe.

The chronicler Alcuin of York lamented how: “Pagans have desecrated God’s sanctuary, shed the blood of saints around the altar, laid waste the house of our hope and trampled the bodies of saints like dung in the streets.”

TV’s The Last Kingdom, based on Bernard Cornwell’s novels, has brought Northumbria’s Viking Age history into the spotlight and stars Alexander Dreymon as Uhtred of Bebbanburg (Bamburgh). Photo: ©Netflix/Carnival Film & Television/Courtesy Everett Collection

Following repeated Viking raids, Cuthbert’s remains are said to have been removed from the island for safekeeping in 875 and eventually enshrined in Durham Cathedral, where they remain.

Artefacts highly evocative of this period include a 9th-century grave marker known as the Viking Domesday stone depicting a violent attack by seven men wielding swords and battle axes. This was already display before the museum refit. There is also a spearhead found at the Lindisfarne farmstead of Green Shiel that Harrison said may have been used by monks — possibly including former warriors — in the attempted defence of the community.

Curator Susan Harrison with the spearhead that may have been used against Viking raiders. Photo: English Heritage

Describing the museum’s broad scope, Harrison said: “We’re telling the story of Lindisfarne Priory from the foundation of the first monastery through to the Viking raids, the founding of the medieval priory in the early 12th century and the site’s history after the dissolution of the monasteries in 1537.

“We’ve incorporated the findings from excavations over the last few years around the priory site. It’s really exciting because the archaeologists are still excavating and studying the results and that history is still being written.”

One example of changing knowledge concerns the monks’ supposed flight from Lindisfarne in the face of the Vikings’ depredations. Harrison said: “The conventional and easy story is that the monks fled in 875, and that’s when the journey with Cuthbert’s remains started. But the evidence is pointing to a continuation of some level — much smaller — of a religious community here.”

Despite their particular notoriety in relation to Lindisfarne, Harrison said the museum would also bust some myths about Vikings. “People have preconceptions about who the Viking raiders were — these fierce warriors in horned helmets. When you come here, you’ll find that the Viking raiders were different to that in reality. They were raiding, they were trading, they were settling and assimilating their culture and becoming Christian. And their art was assimilated and developed and that’s what we see in some of the later stonework here on site as well.”

Harrison in front of a display case including fragments of an 18th-century knitted waistcoat. Photo: English Heritage

She said the museum display would be updated with findings from future studies that may include further analysis of remains from Anglo-Saxon burials. Those laid to rest on Lindisfarne are believed to include Anglian Northumbrian rulers based at Bamburgh — Uhtred’s Bebbanburg in The Last Kingdom — on the mainland nearby.

One of the most intriguing exhibits from the post-monastic phase consists of fragments of a knitted sleeved waistcoat that was would have been worn as an undergarment. It dates from the early 18th century, when the old priory was used as a military store, and is one of the earliest surviving examples of knitting in Europe.

Harrison said: “It was found among a bundle of rags in in a crevice of the priory in the late 19th century. It’s supposed that the they were there because they were either to be used for hygiene purposes or gun wadding.”

The new memorial to St Cuthbert in situ in the ruins of Lindisfarne Priory. Photo: English Heritage

As no evidence of Cuthbert’s original shrine has been found to date, English Heritage commissioned a new monument by sculptor Russ Coleman to mark the spot in the ruined 12th-century priory that was traditionally believed to be its site. It is made from a large basalt boulder found locally and inset with Frosterley marble as a nod to the slab over the saint’s final resting place at Durham.

Admission to Lindisfarne Priory is free for English Heritage members or costs £8.10 for adults, £7.30 for concessions and £4.80 for children, with family deals available. The site is only accessible at certain times of day and visitors are advised to check opening hours and tide times online.

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