Lindisfarne Priory from the Heugh

Re-posted from Archaeodeath.

Recently, for the first time in my adult life, I had the opportunity to visit the premier medieval site of Lindisfarne. This is a site of key historic and archaeological importance for understanding the Anglo-Saxon church, its origins, development and diversity. It was here that Aidan established the earliest Christian monastic foundation in the kingdom of Northumbria. His founder status was superseded to a large extent by the cult of St Cuthbert, but forgotten he was not. Lindisfarne is also famous for being subject to one of the earliest, and certainly the most famous of Norse raids, in AD 793. Following a decline (or abandonment) of the site during the tenth century, the Benedictine priory was a focus of monastic life and pilgrimage to the cenotaph of Cuthbert’s original grave and to St Cuthbert’s Isle – the site of his hermit’s cell – through the Middle Ages. The monastery survived until Henry VIII’s suppression of the monasteries.


The English Heritage commissioned artist’s impression of the Anglo-Saxon monastic site

I couldn’t stay long on the island, but I can only enthuse about the striking landscape and seascape, appreciable even from a short visit. The first thing to note is the striking topography of the island itself, joined as it is by a tidal causeway to the mainland. Dunes constitute much of the north of the island, leaving a relatively small and protected area of habitable ground. The Anglo-Saxon monastery was located beside a natural harbour on the sheltered southern shore.

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Poem of the Week: Gibson’s “Yeavering Bell”

Following up on Howard’s observations about the visibility or invisibility of the sun behind Yeavering Bell from the vantage point of Ad Gefrin, a short poem by the Northumberland poet Wilfrid Wilson Gibson (from his collection Whin, published 1918):

Just to see the rain
Sweeping over Yeavering Bell
Once again!
Just to see again,
Light break over Yeavering Bell
After rain.

Short and sweet — six lines, twenty-two words — but laden with memory, nostalgia, loss.




The Maelmin Heritage Trail

Ok, I thought of the strained pun on the ‘The Postman Always Rings Twice’ and now I have absolutely no idea how this relates to this blog posting. This is the beauty of having no editor and no anonymous referees: I need not explain myself to anyone! If you can overcome this disappointment, please read on…


Boards by the entrance outline the history of the RAF site

IMG_4110The landscape around Millfield, Northumberland is a rich archaeological landscape spanning from the Mesolithic to modern era. Having visited Yeavering/Ad Gefrin, Bamburgh and Lindisfarne the previous day, I went back to the Millfield basin to ascend Yeavering Bell. En route, I stopped off very early morning to walk around the Maelmin Heritage Trail on the edge of Millfield. Here I encountered something very different from the other sites.


Millfield henge monument

The Anglo-Saxon palace site of Maelmin was the successor to Ad Gefrin. Never excavated, aerial photographs revealed a elaborate complex of timber halls, enclosures and burial sites comparable to Yeavering and Thirlings. Excavations of two Neolithic henges at Millfield also found secondary early Anglo-Saxon inhumation graves reusing these ancient monuments. Again it is unclear the full duration of the site without extensive excavations but close by lower-status Anglo-Saxon settlements at Cheviot Quarry (published in the Archaeological Journal) and other sites reveal the broader pattern of early medieval settlement around the Millfield basin.


The woods

As with Ad Gefrin, the Maelmin Heritage Trail faces the stark challenge of communicating a rich archaeological landscape in which there is almost nothing to see above ground for the visitor. The heritage trail originally had three reconstructions (two extant) and a massive dose of heritage boards set within a plot of land managed as a mix grassland and woodland.


Early morning views over the Millfield basin from the Maelmin Heritage Trail

The visitor to the site begins with a car parking area and three heritage boards giving details of the wartime history of the site as an RAF airfield for training pilots. There is a memorial stone upon which are the names of those – mostly of the RAF and RCAF – who lost their lives between 1942 and 1946 at the facility.


The ‘Dark Age house’

An introductory heritage board gives details of the archaeological landscape. One then embarks on a time trail moving through a broadly anti-clockwise route through thick grass and then through the wood and back to the car park through the grass again. Board after board gives informative details of the local landscape, the chronological narrative: Mesolithic, early Neolithic, late Neolithic, Bronze Age, Iron Age, Roman, end of Roman Britain, the ‘revival of the Britons’, the early Anglo-Saxons, the conversion of the Northumbrian kingdom to Christianity.


Sneaking a peak inside the Dark Age house

There are additional boards explaining details within the periods, about the three reconstructions: the Mesolithic hut (no longer extant), the Neolithic henge and the ‘Dark Age house’ and the excavations at Cheviot Quarry and the sites of Maelmin and Thirlings.

The henge is interesting, with ditches, banks and upright timber posts, it does indeed give a sense of how these monuments might have looked.


Henge posts in early morning light

The ‘Dark Age’ house was locked, but sneaking a peak through the door, one got a sense of a relatively small and stark interior, but inevitably it sits without a context unlike the ‘settlement’ arrangements elsewhere like West Stow and Bede’s World.

A further set of heritage boards explores the preferable climate of the Millfield basin, the formation of the landscape, the hydrology of the basin, woodlands, animals and birdlife.


Anal graffiti

Three things struck me about this heritage site

  1. The volume of boards, and the two reconstructions, do create a palpable sense of archaeology and landscape in a relatively small space. Given the lack of public accessible land in the immediate environs, this was a great foci for anyone interested in the heritage of the area, and works in this regard far better than Bamburgh, Lindisfarne or Ad Gefrin
  2. The information is accurate in general terms, but incredibly conventional and stylised, particularly notable (to me) in the proto-historic and early historic boards which advocate a simple migrationist framework for the emergence of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom. To be fair though, this is what happens everywhere in this region it seems: Lindisfarne even had the Dad’s Army style map with arrows showing the migration routes of the Anglo-Saxon tribes. For crying out loud!
  3. It is not unusual for the same artist to be responsible for the images, creating a coherence to the displays, creating a shared theme. Despite the perpetuation of stereotypes of dress and body proportions (all men had massive muscles, all women had massive breasts: at least in prehistory, then women and men both get far more boring and better clothed), at least it was a rare attempt to introduce a Carry On style humour into British heritage sites. At least that was my view. At most other sites you are really not expected to laugh at other heritage sites, and where humour is used, it is in infantile attempts to engage kids. For me, this worked well and created memorable images and information.

Empty – no leaflets 🙁

So despite the absence of any ‘real’ archaeology, the Maelmin Heritage Trail tries its best. There were no leaflets to take away and one typo on the main introduction board has been angrily daubed with rectifying graffiti. Still, on the whole, this gets my tentative thumbs up.

As for the pun? Answers on a postcard to: Maelmin Heritage Trail Pun Competition, Millfield, Northumberland. Although perhaps, at a site where two henges were excavated, this is a site with two rings…


I’m really not sure what the archaeological basis for any of this is, but still, a nice idea.


I like this so much. Lovely chamber grave with wand-wielding priestess (I think) and the march of the Angles out of Bamburgh heading for glory…


How Maelmin may have looked. Still, ‘royal town’ really does give the wrong impression to the visitor.


Edwin getting hitched and Paulinus batpising people in the River Glen. ‘Flowering of Anglo-British Culture’: nice phrase but I think Northumbria was not more or less ‘Anglo-British’ than anywhere else in lowland Britain.


Ad Gefrin


Re-posted from Archaeodeath

Ad Gefrin/Yeavering is one of the most famous of archaeological sites from early medieval Britain. This is not simply because of the nature of the archaeology uncovered, but also the way it was explored and the interpretations made about it.


The Battle Stone and Yeavering Bell

Excavations at this site directed by Brian Hope-Taylor revealed evidence for a multi-phased, short-lived royal Anglo-Saxon settlement that straddled the period of Christian conversion from the late sixth to late seventh centuries AD.

Yet Ad Gefrin‘s story is not static, it is ever-changing. The site remains a focus of intensive interest, debate and reinterpretation, and perhaps soon new field work.


The management of the site of Ad Gefrin is thanks to the Ad Gefrin Trust’s partnership with Defra and others to ensure access and management to the site

From Hope-Taylor’s and subsequent excavations and survey, we understand Yeavering as a settlement or ‘township’ with evidence of careful planning and alignments around earlier prehistoric features, a sequence of monumental hall buildings and ancillary structures, evidence of metalworking, a possible pagan temple, a ‘theatre’ structure and the Great Enclosure used as either a fort and/or a corral. The site was a focus for burial and ritual activity: early burials focused on prehistoric monuments and later a wooden church because a focus of multiple phases of burial.


The introductory heritage signboard with artist’s reconstruction by Kelvin Wilson

The way the site was dug was innovative. Chasing high-quality aerial photographs, the excavations were not keyhole, but opened up large areas to reveal and understand the complex sequence of timber buildings surviving only as post-holes and trench-slots. Artefact poor but feature-rich, this was challenging archaeology for the 1950s.


A brave attempt to communicate the complex sequence of archaeology with historical events known from the early history of the kingdom of Northumbria


Gate-post carved with a bird-headdress wearing and four-spear-wielding warrior, with Yeavering Bell in background

The site is important for its interpretations. Paired with Sutton Hoo, Yeavering has sat as pivotal in interpretations of early medieval kingship and Christian conversion, appearing again and again as a type-site for discussions of the history and archaeology of early Northumbria, the early Anglo-Saxon kingdoms more widely, as well as in broader studies of early medieval Britain and North-West Europe. This role comes not only from the quality of the archaeological excavations, but the historical tie-in the site offers. Hope-Taylor connected phases of the settlement’s relatively short evolution to the historical account of the Venerable Bede, linking phases of the site to the succession of pagan and early Christian rulers known from the historical record and phases of destruction to the attacks of Northumbria’s southern rival: Mercia. Moreover, this was the site where Bede informs us that the priest Paulinus, on instruction from Northumbria’s first Christian king, Edwin, baptised the people of Bernicia in the River Glen.


Ad Gefrin – the Hill of Goats – is evoked here in the gate-post that simultaneously marks the site and throws the eye up to the hill-fort of Yeavering Bell behind

The power of the site has not been restricted to this historical narrative, however. The archaeology itself has spawned new narratives regarding the inheritance of the British past – the dominating hill-fort of Yeavering Bell, the reuse of a prehistoric burial mound, henge monument and postulated stone circle and the functions of elite settlements in the early Middle Ages. The halls themselves, the assembly structure and so much else have taken on narrative lives of their own within the academic and population literature.

Yet, this site is only partially understood and this is often forgotten in the popular accounts and many striking artist’s reconstructions afforded to the site.


The other introductory signboard, showing the aerial photograph that inspired Hope-Taylor’s excavations, and the great man himself.

Only a sample of the site was investigated by Hope-Taylor and there are a series of festering frustrations among archaeologists regarding the chronological sequence he revealed and the nature of his interpretations. Excavations in the 1970s revealed more of the site and its later prehistoric origins as a  ceremonial complex. More recently, geophysics has been conducted on the site and more features identified. And yet there remains a need to ask fresh questions of the site and possibly conduct new fieldwork in and around this important location.


The empty field that was once Ad Gefrin, with Yeavering Bell

From a heritage perspective, the site is all about absence. There is literally nothing to see in reality. The historical narrative is for the imagination. Likewise, there is nothing to see about the ground surface and no heritage reconstructions have been attempted. It is just a field.


The western access to the site from the road

Only recently, through the efforts of the Ad Gefrin Trust, have attempts been made to present this important site to visitors. Developments have included the addition of a lay-by and monument, a pathway and new access gates for disabled and able visitors, a minimal number of well-constructed signboards, wonderful evocative carved gateposts inspired by the site’s history and Hope-Taylor’s own artwork. There is a management plan to retain the area of the excavations under grass rather than cultivation.


Access to the site via hinged kissing gates

The visitor is still left to face an empty field. Perhaps this is the correct way to leave the site. It is an experience that is largely and effectively ‘virtual’ experience in two senses. First, there is plenty of information online. The virtual is what the physical site is all about too. You are forced to engage with absence and how the topography implies this absence. Rather than through audio-wands and gift-shops and a panoply of sign boards, you are left to wander the field, imagining the phases of timber buildings that once populated this open space. You can also walk up Yeavering Bell and view the site en route, imagining the relationship between this striking hill, its hill-fort, and the Anglo-Saxon royal palace in its shadow.



Recently, I was invited to contribute to a research workshop organised by the Ad Gefrin Trust at Northumberland County Council’s offices. A brave thing to do to get regional and national ‘experts’ to comment on a draft proposal for new research at and around the site of Yeavering. Everyone has opinions about sites like this, and there was frank disagreements about the way to go forward. Indeed, this was the aim: to get some different views on what could/should be done, and what could/should not be done at this site.

I felt particularly guilty that I was being asked for an ‘expert’ opinion when I had never visited the site. I was relieved to meet others who had only just visited, or had not visited the site at the meeting. Anyway, I rectified that by visiting myself the following morning en route to Bamburgh and Lindisfarne.


View northwards over the site of Ad Gefrin

My impressions were many and striking. The site is ‘dramatic’ in no uncertain terms, not because the site’s immediate topography is particularly marked, in some ways it is quite subtle to the immediate impression. This is no Dunadd or Bamburgh. However, it is the combination of factors that the site ‘connects’ to that are important. The whaleback ridge upon which the Anglo-Saxon site was situated was close to the river and close to the northern edge of the Cheviot Hills and the massive hill of Yeavering Bell encircled by ancient earthworks. Perhaps more important still were the more subtle features in the immediate vicinity that also captured my imagination in relation to the known archaeology and also to areas that I don’t believe have received archaeological interventions. The isolated and enigmatic ‘Battle Stone’ nearby, the other spurs along the edge of the River Glen’s flood plain and the wider space between Yeavering Bell and the Ad Gefrin site all cry out for further attention, as do the smaller defended enclosures on nearby hills. I also noticed how the road, layby and managed ‘site’ gives a false impression to the extent and character of the potential Anglo-Saxon settlement. It is likely that Hope-Taylor opened and explored only a tiny fraction, perhaps an elite focus, of a far wider settlement, that in itself, sat within a local context in relation to a series of other settlements.


More Anglo-Saxon carving

In short, as a fresh visitor to a site that I have long been familiar with from an archaeological perspective, the power of place in understanding, writing, and visualising Yeavering came home to be very strongly. Yet equally, I understood clearer than before why archaeologists remain intrigued and frustrated by what we think we know about this most iconic and distinctive of early medieval settlements.


The lay-by, monument and heritage signboard, plus University of Chester fleet vehicle


The monument at the Ad Gefrin site

As part of the Past in its Place project, I have a vision to write about Yeavering, not with regard to the early medieval settlement alone, but because Yeavering is a classic site for debating ‘the past in the past’, the inheritance of the prehistoric past in the Anglo-Saxon period, but also the subsequent literary, historical and archaeological reception of this iconic site where Christianity was brought to the kingdom of Bernicia that once straddled area that was to become the English-Scottish border