Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Northumbria’s Anglo-Saxon Golden Age brought to life in £14m museum

In one of the most memorable stories from the 8th-century historian Bede, an adviser sought to explain to King Edwin of Northumbria the fleeting nature of earthly life. Compared with “that time which is unknown to us”, he said temporal existence lasts only as long as it would take a sparrow to flit in through one door of the king’s firelit feasting hall and out of the other — back into freezing winter storms.

As Christianity offered certainty about the hereafter, he said it was only right that Edwin and the pagan Northumbrians should adopt the religion. The sparrow may be apocryphal but the conversion of Edwin, the most powerful Anglo-Saxon king of his day, was real and momentous. Now his hall in the Northumbrian wilds is set to be the focal point of a £14-million museum and visitor centre, opening next spring.

The Ad Gefrin museum will use the findings of excavations at Yeavering, near Berwick-upon-Tweed, to tell the story of Northumbria’s Anglo-Saxon Golden Age. It will feature a walk-through recreation of Edwin’s royal hall, which may have inspired Bede’s tale, and dozens of artefacts including drinking glasses, weapons and jewels, on loan from the British Museum and other collections.

The Yeavering Bell hill fort looms over the archaeological site of Ad Gefrin at Yeavering in Northumberland. Photo: Sally Ann Norman

The ruins of Ad Gefrin — the old name from which Yeavering derives — lie protected under pasture in a spectacular, unspoilt landscape overlooked by an Iron Age hill fort. The museum will be in Wooler, the nearest town, in a visitor centre intended to bring regeneration and upwards of 50 jobs to the area. Dr Chris Ferguson, an archaeologist and visitor experience director for Ad Gefrin, said: “People will be able to come to the museum to get a feeling for the lives behind the archaeology and can also visit the site in the field to see the stunning location.

“Ad Gefrin has never really been publicised even though it’s one of the most important archaeological sites in the country and was a palace of the kingdom of Northumbria. Because it doesn’t have the bling of Sutton Hoo or a showcase in the British Museum, the story has faded from public knowledge. We are focusing on the Northumbrian Golden Age through the lens of the royal court, the settlement and the people.”

“These were places of hospitality, law-giving, gathering, and power”

Dr Chris Ferguson

Discovered via aerial photography in 1949, the site was originally excavated by archaeologist Brian Hope-Taylor between 1953-1962. He identified a complex of timber halls and a wooden grandstand recalling the design of Roman amphitheatres and probably used for assemblies or addresses. The complex had its heyday in the reign of Edwin, who was a client king of Rædwald of East Anglia — of Sutton Hoo burial fame — before coming to dominate the other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.

Ferguson said: “The Yeavering great halls take us straight to the world of the Northumbrian
kings. Edwin, Oswald, and their successors lived in the real world feasting halls we see depicted in Beowulf and by Bede. These were places of hospitality, law-giving, gathering, and power; and we aim to bring this world to life for the modern visitor.”

Artefacts on display at the new Ad Gefrin museum will include this Anglo-Saxon square-headed brooch, set with garnets from Asia and an oval carnelian from an ancient Roman seal ring. Photo: Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

As for Ad Gefrin’s location, Hope-Taylor believed that Anglian rulers based on the coast at Bamburgh — across the North Sea from their ancestral homelands — set up a secondary capital inland to extend their authority over the Britons. Ad Gefrin means “hill of the goats” in Brittonic and the adjacent hill fort had been a centre of the Votadini tribe for centuries. As such, the settlement illustrates both the continuity with earlier British society and the impacts of immigration and conquest that marked the Anglo-Saxon period.

In his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Bede said Edwin and his half-Frankish queen Æthelburh were at Ad Gefrin when her Italian bishop Paulinus spent 36 days instructing the local countryfolk in Christianity and baptising them in the nearby River Glen.

The king’s own conversion, around 627, was a landmark that paved the way for the Northumbrian Golden Age of the mid-7th to mid-8th centuries, which, in the words of historian Carol de Vegvar, “produced a renaissance in the arts unequalled elsewhere in pre-Carolingian northern Europe.” A region that was a remote frontier zone in Roman times became a centre of European art and learning that produced illuminated manuscripts such as the Lindisfarne Gospels and Bede himself — the “Father of English History”.

The height of the museum’s great hall is based partly on an estimate of the length of a cauldron chain found in the probable grave of King Rædwald at Sutton Hoo. Its 11.6m width matches that of the largest hall at Yeavering. However, it is shorter than the 25.3m original, so visitors will wander through a physical recreation of part of the interior while seeing the remainder brought to life through immersive audiovisual projections.

Acle reenactment group creating embroidered wall hangings for the great hall at Ad Gefrin museum. Photo: Sally Ann Norman

Although recreating a Northumbrian hall, Ferguson said the layout and functions were similar to those of the Angles’ earlier halls on the continent. With its gaudily painted columns and colourful wall hangings, the decor may surprise some fans of historical dramas. Ferguson said: “It’s not [TV’s] Vikings ⁠— it’s not all about dark colours and furs. It’s reds and yellows and vibrant colours, and linen hangings and soft fabrics.”

The Castle Eden Claw Beaker may have been used by Northumbrian warriors or king in feasting. Photo: British Museum

The artefacts that will be displayed in the adjacent gallery space were chosen by Ferguson, working with Dr Sue Brunning, the British Museum’s curator of European early medieval collections. They include the British Museum’s Castle Eden Claw Beaker, which will return to the North East for the first time in 32 years and evokes the feasting of kings and warriors. Found in County Durham, it also speaks to the Northumbrians’ far-reaching international connections as it was made by Frankish glassmakers in the 5th century, using a design derived from Roman models and glass from the eastern Mediterranean.

Other highlights include a square-headed brooch and shield boss loaned by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. The copper and gilt brooch, dating from about 590-620, combines elements of ancient British, Germanic and Roman design and is set with garnets from India, or possibly Afghanistan, and an ancient Roman carnelian from a seal ring depicting Cupid milking a goat. The 6th-century shield boss is decorated with beasts and a sun motif that, again, draw on diverse cultural traditions. “These objects highlight the world and status of the elite in the Anglo-Saxon world, and the connections they had to gift these to their retainers and supporters.”

Although formative in English, Scottish and wider European history, Ferguson said the Northumbrian Golden Age had been overshadowed by the later period of Viking raids and settlement. He said: “People ask me, ‘Is it about Uhtred [from Bernard Cornwell’s The Last Kingdom]?’, No. It’s not Uhtred — it’s 300 years before Uhtred. Or, they say ‘Is it Vikings?’, ‘No, it’s before that as well.’ But that’s all part of the interpretive challenge for us.”

Watercolour impression of the exteriors of the Ad Gefrin visitor centre © Richard Elphick

The visitor centre, which will also include a distillery and restaurant, is the brainchild of Ferguson’s parents Alan and Eileen, who are using money earned through the family haulage business, alongside government funding, to fulfil their vision. Although whisky is associated with Scotland, there is a long tradition of stills on the English side of the border. Wooler is north of many Lowland Scottish distilleries and the family believe the area’s water, barley and climate are all ideally suited to production.

The Fergusons hope the visitor centre will attract both heritage buffs and whisky tourists, being close to sites such as Hadrian’s Wall, Jedburgh Abbey and Alnwick and Bamburgh castles, as well as Borders distilleries. Wooler is also on St Cuthbert’s Way, the 62.5-mile walking path between Melrose — where the Northumbrian saint started his religious life in 650, and Lindisfarne — where he was later bishop.

Ferguson said: “It’s all a connected story. The idea is, ‘You’ve visited us, now go to Bamburgh or Lindisfarne or Durham. Or, if you’ve been to those places, come to us.'”

  • In addition to the Ferguson family’s private investment, Ad Gefrin has received funding support for the construction phase from the Borderlands Inclusive Growth Deal, the North East Rural Growth Network – Strategic Economic Infrastructure Fund (SEIF), North East LEP and Northumberland County Council.

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