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.

Friday, 22 July 2016

The Living and the Dead (and the lack of a sense of place)

I’ve been watching the new BBC folk-horror production TheLiving and the Dead for the last month – it’s good; decent production values, often beautifully filmed, just this side of histrionic and tipping its hat to the ancestors (Wicker Man etc). I enjoy it, and I’ll watch the whole series. It’s just that something doesn’t quite sit right with me- I can’t seem to give myself over to it properly, and I’ve been struggling to work out why. It was watching last week’s episode, involving a blight on the wheat harvest that I finally started to twig why it wasn’t working for me. Enlightenment came when a song was played over a scene of the harvest. The song was a version of Reaper’s Ghost written in the 1930s by the US songwriter and musician RichardDyer-Bennet. My first reaction was “...but it’s not a pigging hayfield!” It was a wheat field – they are not the same thing at all. Hay is grass cut for fodder to feed animals; the scene was showing reapers harvesting wheat. Different crops, different times of year, different purposes. Now I’ll put my hands up and admit that it’s probably me being really petty – and that the point of the song was to give a suitably menacing ambience to the scene. Yet, it pointed to a bigger problem- that starts with the music, but is embedded in much of the rest of the programme.

Let’s start with the music – the title song is a version of the Lyke Wyke Dirge done by Bristol-based outfit The Insects. Again, a song with suitably menacing lyrics

“This one night, this one night,every night and allFire and sleet and Candle-lightand Christ receive thy soul”

It’s sung with a certain ominous hamminess – it’s fine. But, and this is a big but, the actual first verse (and forgive the phonetics) are

“This ane night, this ane night,every night and awle:    Fire and Fleet and Candle-lightand Christ recieve thy Sawle.”

Again, I open myself to charges of pickiness here- but the Lyke Wake Dirge is a song with a particular pedigree; it’s a northern song written in Yorkshire dialect, and recount the soul’s journey through purgatory and clearly has Catholic undertones. Yet The Living and the Dead makes great play of being set in Somerset. It’s a cracking song, but it’s completely decontextualized in as the title song. So, what about the other music used in the series? We hear The Brave Ploughboy – perfectly common folk song collected in the 19th century – no problem with that one. We also hear the tune of Bold Sir Rylas, again fine. But then it starts to get problematic- She Moves through Fair, an incredibly well known (indeed a little hackneyed) Irish song first collected in the early 20th century, then I am Stretched on Your Grave, another well-known Irish folk song, covered by many including Kate Rusby and Sinéad O  Connor – and crucially, the words and the tune were only combined from separate sources in the 1970s. 

Hopefully, you are getting my drift now- the music is cobbled together from old folk standbys which no doubt lurk somewhere side by side on Now That’s What I Call Folk Music 1. There is no sense of shaping or selecting the sound track; instead it feels that it’s a selection of folk standards that have been thrown together by people with no real engagement with folk music or the specific Somerset setting. This is a real shame, because Somerset has no shortage of its own excellently recorded folk tradition. Indeed, it was in Hambridge in Somerset that Cecil Sharpe recorded his first folk song “in the wild” – the Seeds of Love - from the gardener John England.  There has been no shortage of subsequent collection and research into the musical tradition of the county, I’d single out the work of Yvette Staelens and her Somerset Folk Map here.

This is all well and good; I admit I’m a folk music geek, and I’m probably hard to please. I’m admittedly perhaps not the target audience for the soundtrack. But what about other aspects of the programme’s mise en scene. As I noted above, the programme claims to be set in a specific part of the country, Somerset. The name of the village where it is set is Shepzoy  - and full marks here. That –zoy suffix is a genuine localised Somerset place-name element. It’s found in place-names such as Westonzoyland, Middlezoy  and Chedzoy. These are all found in the lower reaches of the River Parrett to the north-east of Langport. This is in the heart of the Somerset Levels – a distinct low-lying watery district characterised by many drainage ditches and channels, peat beds and wetlands. It’s an eery and unsettling landscape in its own right. Yet, none of this materialises on the programme. Instead, the landscape views (and there are lots of them) seem to be of rolling good quality wheat growing countryside – nary a fen or bog in view! Indeed, one episode a coal mine plays a part; although not well known, there was a Somerset coalfield, but this was well away from the levels and up in the north of the county. Once again, despite an attempt to localise the programme and embed it into a particular pays, it comes over as slightly tone deaf, managing to miss out detail, and not engaging with the reality of the human and physical landscape it claims to occupy. It is, in fact, filmed in South Gloucestershire, a very different landscape.

Now, not only am I a folk music geek, I am an archaeologist with an interest in historic landscapes- so not only not a good audience, potentially, the worst possible audience. I admit, I am probably being overly pedantic here- I am sure there are other things I could worry away at too (would a labour force as late as the 1890s been shocked by the introduction of a steam plough? ).

But I think the underlying lesson for me is that a good folk-horror needs to be genuinely sedimented into its landscape. Folk-horror as a genre arises out of a particularly English tradition of ghost story  and more broadly fantasy writing- figures such as MR James, Tom Rolt, R and Alan Garner are key here. In their writing, the stories are clearly situated in real, specific locations – drawing on existing exterior traditions and myths. MR James’ Burnstow in “Oh Whistle and I’ll come to you, my lad” is clearly based on Aldburgh or another small town on the Suffolk Coast. The landscape described in A Warning to the Curious is again clearly located in Suffolk. In other cases, he uses real locations-  St Bertrand de Comminges and Viborg – carefully slipping the plot lines into the interstices of real historical events and real people. The ghost stories of Rolt clearly draw on his knowledge of industrial archaeology and canals (for a good example read his ‘Bosworth Summit Pound’). Garner’s work which is situated more on the fantasy side of things than the supernatural, despite having some horrific elements within them, also has an incredibly strong sense of place. The brooding summit of Mow Cop (Cheshire) looms over the lives of the cast of Red Shift, whilst the plot of The Owl Service traces a plot drawn from the Mabinogion in a clearly described central Welsh location. In all cases, Garner, James and Rolt, these writers have researched deeply into the traditions, landscapes and practices about which they right. Their writing is organic and situated and it would be hard to transpose the stories to other contexts without losing something important.

This interest in particular places, the folding of chronology and presencing of the past and the central importance of specific places and landscapes, for me, lodges this British folk horror/fantasy tradition firmly into the English Neo-Romantic movement, which springs from a particular sensibility that sees the past as something that it perpetually immanent in the present, particularly in rural contexts. In some ways, this taps into the notion of the ‘archaeological imagination’ as described by Michael Shanks, who describes it as the urge

“To recreate the world behind the ruin in the land, to reanimate the people behind the sherd of antique pottery, a fragment of the past… a creative impulse and faculty at the heart of archaeology, but also embedded in many cultural dispositions, discourses and institutions commonly associated with modernity. The archaeological imagination is rooted in a sensibility, a pervasive set of attitudes toward traces and remains, towards memory, time and temporality, the fabric of history” (Michael Shanks 2012 The Archaeological Imagination, 25).

It’s the emphasis on the fragment, the ruin and the trace that is reflected in the Neo-Romantic tradition – the ruins drawn by John Piper, the rural and industrial scenes of Ravilious, the aerial fieldscapes of Peter Lanyon. No matter how abstract, no matter how surrealist, they arise out of specific landscapes and monuments. It is easy to see then, how ghost stories and tales of supernatural key into this tradition. There is nothing that presences the past more clearly and explicity than the appearance of a ghost.


So to bring slightly rambling post back to the beginning, for me the failure of The Living and the Dead is in its’ failure to root itself into a real landscape and tradition. It misses an opportunity to engage with the real traditions and landscape of Somerset, something I would argue that would have given it more depth, more heft, and would, like all good folk-horror, allowed to linger and perhaps seep out into reality. There is an absence where there ought to be a real place. It’s this lack of attention to detail that ultimately disappoints. It’s fast –food folk horror, it meets a craving, but fails to sustain.

Notes from a small(ish) island #2: reflections

Reflecting on the experience of excavating on Holy Island, it struck me how much of my personal thoughts about the process revolved not about the archaeology as a physical resource or academic product, but the emotional side of excavation. The notion that archaeological site reports are far too dry, focusing solely on the objective record of the excavation (as far as that is ever possible) is not a new one - thinkers, such as Ian Hodder where commenting about this in the 1980s. But despite this, there have been very few attempts to actually try this out in practice. Even when excavators have been encouraged to be reflective and interpretative in their site records, this rarely makes it way through to final reports.

Surprisingly, despite the massive uptake in the use of social media (Twitter, FB as well as blogging), which ought to be ideal ways of capturing peoples' immediate emotional and personal reaction to excavation, it rarely seems to be used in this way. Possibly so many of us have the importance of using social media as a shop-window for our projects drilled into us, using them as an extension of the media and PR process, that we are cautious about putting anything too personal. We might be happy to share excitement about the project or an important find, but we are perhaps too careful about expressing doubts or uncertainty or even owning up to mistakes. Social media can be harsh and unforgiving, so it is perhaps not surprising that we often try and carefully police how we use it. Given this, it is perhaps not surprising, that whilst on site on Holy Island, I was quite happy to tweet when we found our best finds, but less inclined to comment on the more personal moments on the project. Now I'm out of the field, back in the 'real' world, I thought it would be useful to perhaps reflect on some of these less tangible aspects of the excavation experience

As co-director and academic lead, one of the over-riding feelings I felt was the pressure to 'find something'; in our case, the remains of the early medieval monastery. It's an archaeological axiom that negative evidence is as important as positive evidence; the failure to identify clear early medieval remains in any of our trenches would not, technically, have been a failure. It would have allowed us to strike off certain areas in our quest for the Anglo-Saxon site and to focus on others. Indeed, as this year's work was essentially a site evaluation, this was the precise purpose of the dig.

But we're all human – it's inevitable that we want to fulfil our quest straight away. In the case of any research dig, there is the underlying urge to uncover something to justify the expense and time spent on setting up the project. Given the particular configuration of our project, overwhelmingly supported by crowdfunding, that pressure magnifies. As part of the crowdfunding process, we have to spend a lot of time emphasising the excitement and potential of the site – we have to talk the site up in order to persuade people to invest in it. Crucially, that investment doesn't just come in the welcome financial form; there is also an immense emotional investment in the project by our supporters that comes before their decision to put money into it. For some, their small investment just means they are following progress virtually via social media and the internet – they may be disappointed if we fail in our objectives, but it's wouldn't be a big disaster. But for those who contribute enough to come and dig, the personal investment is much more. As well as contributing directly to the dig, they will have taken time out of their lives and holiday allowances to be with use; they will have spent money on accommodation and travel. Whilst most, if not all, appreciate that archaeology has an element of luck and are hopefully coming into the project with their eyes open, it is very difficult not to feel the pressure to somehow repay their confidence and excitement in the whole exercise.

Obviously, we do a huge amount to try and avoid empty trenches – in our case, we were homing in on features picked up in our previous geophysical survey, so we had clearly identifiable targets. We'd also looked at other excavation results from both the island and similar sites elsewhere to get a sense of what we might find in practice. But, at the end of the day, there are two things we can't control – the archaeology itself and the weather, and ultimately, luck plays a huge part.

I'd already experiences the vicissitudes of luck on my previous project at the Roman fort at Binchester, where we entirely unexpectedly stumbled across an incredibly well-preserved Roman building with walls 2m high. This was a wonderful find, but we can't claim any real credit – we didn't know it was going to be so well preserved, it was a happy accident. Indeed, in many ways, if we'd known how it was going to turn out, we would have approached the entire project in a very different way. Nonetheless, we ended up with a stunning site and lots of impressive finds.

An early medieval monastery is a very different beast to a Roman fort though in archaeological terms. Sites like Binchester are packed with easily visible floors and walls and are heavy on finds. Early medieval sites are usually far more ephemeral with very low levels of material culture. In many ways Binchester had spoiled me for archaeology – even though I knew academically that even well-preserved remains of Anglo-Saxon Lindisfarne would be far less impressive than the site at Binchester, it was hard not to feel a sense of disappointment during the initial topsoil strip.
Topsoil strips are the moment of truth- the point when all your investment, emotionally and in resources, finally confronts the raw friction of reality. It's only when the turf is removed and the ploughsoil taken away that you finally confront what you hope will be your archaeological site. Perhaps inevitably, I want these to be 'ta da!' moments, when the cloth is whipped away to show you a perfect and immediately understandable site. As the digger bucket first went into the soil in Sanctuary Close, I felt physically sick, although there was the inevitable bravado and banter covering it up.

In practice, when both our trenches in Sanctuary Close were finally opened up, I felt rather underwhelmed. Despite the suggestions of our geophysical survey, there were no clear structural remains of the type I'd secretly hoped for, nor were there any immediately obvious finds. For the first couple of hours, I had this horrible feeling that we'd opened up onto natural. We'd got all the people and spent all the money for nothing! Again, whilst I knew intellectually that we still needed to give the trenches a good clean down and that our geophysical survey was unlikely to be completely wrong, the initial impact of a messy trench with no obvious archaeology is a scary one.
One of the things that actually calmed me down the most was that evening, when I got the opportunity to read an unpublished synthesis of Charles Thomas’s many interventions on Iona – a site as similar to Lindisfarne as it is possible to get, and with which Lindisfarne was deeply entwined historically. It was a relief to see that many of Charles Thomas’ interventions had failed to find anything of import, either hitting natural or clearly post-medieval features – if even CT could repeatedly not hit archaeology on an site that is packed with as much archaeology as Iona, then us letter mortals needn’t feel too bad if we missed paydirt with our first trenches.
But over the next day as we started to clean back the remaining top soil, cleaning and clarifying, things did slowly come into focus. Instead of the undifferentiated background noise of rubble and silt, things started to coalesce. No, there weren't any obvious structural remains, but in Trench 2 we started to pick up bone, probably human, embedded in our rubble spread. It was clearly not natural – whatever our spread was (and we still aren't sure) it was anthropogenic – it was archaeology! The same was true in Trench 1 were we soon found a small flagstone surface.

The next struggle I found was how to approach this material. Whilst in an ideal world, every site would be approached in more or less the same way, in practice there are lots of pragmatic decisions to be made, informed by resourcing and logistic issues (limited time; limited people), as well as by the nature of the archaeology itself. Early medieval structural remains can be very ephemeral and not easy to identify – I was terrified of accidentally knocking through important remains and missing them entirely. As a consequence we spent a long time 'tickling' the rubble spreads, cleaning and recleaning, hoping that we would see something emerging. Yet, we got nothing structural – we certainly found more disarticulated human bone and, fantastically, two fragments of Anglo-Saxon sculpture, but the rubble wasn't resolving itself into anything. Finally, we decided to be a bit more vigorous with it; not mattocking through it with gay abandon, but certainly making a decision to be more vigorous with our trowelling and using the mattock in a targeted way. Suddenly, particularly in Trench 2, features started to appear, stone settings, possibly gullies began to emerge. We'd finally hit our stride. Ironically, we'd had exactly the same process at Binchester, where because we were so nervous of missing ephemeral sub-Roman occupaiton, we spent much of the first season cleaning and planning what I am now certain, were simply plough-sorted pebbles.

I think the beginning of every site, one goes through this 'sizing up' process – what's the soil like? Does it respond to cleaning? Can you get straight sections (“section perfection”) and nice flat surfaces? How does it respond to too much rain – and not enough rain? Frustratingly, with our Sanctuary Close trenches, it was only in the last couple of days of our short season that I felt we were really starting to get the measure of the site. This is, of course, precisely the purpose of archaeological evaluation, you are trying to measure the survival of potential remains, qualitatively and quantitatively, nonetheless, it can be a trying and stressful process.

There are also other things one is trying to assess in the early stages of a project- not just the archaeology but also the people. I was working with a great team - some I knew quite well; others were new to me. At the same time as one is trying to get the measure of the archaeology, there is the need to get the measure of your colleagues. Wonderfully, we all got on really well (I think!) and rubbed along fantastically, but it always takes time, particularly when you are all on top of each other sharing a dig hosue, to suss out people's natural rhythms, enthusiasms and strengths – who needed coffee before they could function in the morning and who could leap straight out of bed and be onto their laptop within minutes.

Perhaps the biggest pressure I felt with people was not from our team , but from the many visitors. Digging on such a high-profile site, with such a high-profile lead-in campaign and with trenches physically straddling one of the main footpaths on a busy tourist honeypot meant that we had lots of visitors. Many planned in advance, others turning up on spec- as well as a huge number of questions and comments from tourists and the island's inhabitants. All needed to be dealt with – all needed to be taken seriously and engaged with an enthusiastic and courteous way. The islanders were our hosts, the visitors and tourists included current and potential future crowdfunders and future generations of archaeologists, whilst our academic visitors included possible referees for future grants applications, project partners, not to mention my in-coming Head of Department. Despite all the planning ahead, dealing with these interactions took far more of my time than I'd anticipated – it was certainly far more intensive than we'd every had at Binchester. It caught me unawares – I also found the constant interaction, alongside the communal nature of dig life, physically very tiring, far more than the excavation itself, which I ended up doing far less of than I'd hoped or planned .


Throughout the project there were lots of other challenges for myself and the project team – some obvious- dealing with the media, the weather and the tides – and others more unusual what do you do when your drone is being mobbed by oystercatchers? How do you cope with having a circus tent five metres from one of your trenches for a weekend? How do you get your gazebo out of a tree after a sudden squall? Yet, it's these kinds of anecdotal observations and personal perspectives and memories that so rarely make it into the final site report. Hopefully this blog entry can at least stand in until the final monograph!