Archaeologists hunt for St Cuthbert’s watchtower on Holy Island

The large wall foundation in trench one.
The large wall foundation in trench one.

Initial excavations on Holy Island have uncovered evidence of what may have been St Cuthbert's watchtower, as investigations have resulted in several fascinating new discoveries.

The first season of archaeological investigation and excavation by the Peregrini Lindisfarne Community Archaeology project came to a successful conclusion this week. The season started with training excavations at two limeworkers cottages sites at Cocklawburn and the Kennedy Limekiln site on Holy Island.

A possible church building in trench two.

A possible church building in trench two.

The project, under the expert guidance of Richard Carlton and staff from The Archaeological Practice, Newcastle, then turned its attention to Holy Island Heugh.

The majestic Heugh on Holy Island has always piqued archaeologists' interest given its close proximity to the ancient priory site and the obvious defensive and strategic advantages of the prominent whinstone ridge. In 1962, the renowned archaeologist Brian Hope-Taylor conducted some preliminary investigation at the site and concluded that the Heugh is scattered with buildings of an early date that were possibly associated with the seventh to ninth century monastery.

The task for Peregrini Lindisfarne Community Archaeology project this year was to ‘ground truth’ Hope-Taylor’s conclusion in anticipation of carrying out more detailed excavation next year. The trench opened nearest the war memorial revealed the foundation of a massive 2.5m wide wall. The size and structure of the wall is suggestive of a tower and the lack of any mortar suggests at least a pre-Norman Conquest date.

A second trench was opened further east and again revealed the foundations of another unmortar stone structure which again is indicative of a building of early medieval origin. Hope-Taylor is known to have excavated another part of this structure and concluded that the building was a church.

Volunteers inspect their work in trench two.

Volunteers inspect their work in trench two.

Richard Carlton, director of The Archaeological Practice, said: "These initial excavations are very promising and while early days in terms of our understanding, the evidence does suggest two early medieval buildings in an important location that is associated with the priory. Further excavation planned for 2017 will help us to date the buildings as well as establish their function."

Historical sources known from the 8th century refer to there being at least two churches on Lindisfarne as well as a guesthouse, a dormitory and a watchtower.

Sara Rushton, conservation manager at Northumberland County Council, said: "Holy Island is one of the most significant sites in Britain in terms of early medieval heritage, there is a real possibility that we have uncovered two very significant buildings associated with the early Christian foundation of the priory which could provide a tangible link to the time of St. Cuthbert."

The Venerable Bede, in his Life of St. Cuthbert, made reference to a signal from Inner Farne being seen on Holy Island to mark the death of St Cuthbert. This latest find has led to speculation the massive wall could be evidence of the actual watchtower where the signal was received.

The Peregrini Lindisfarne project is a HLF Landscape Partnership Project developed to conserve, enhance and celebrate the natural and cultural heritage of Holy Island and the wider shoreside landscape.

Brenda Stanton, chairman of the Peregrini Lindisfarne Partnership, said: "Community participation is at the heart of the Peregrini project and this season of community archaeology presented a brilliant opportunity for people to get hands-on experience of absolutely fantastic archaeology. We are immensely grateful to all the fabulous volunteers that came along and made this first season of digging so special."

Volunteers for the next season of archaeological investigation should contact the Archaeological Practice on info@archaeologicalpractice.co.uk or 0191 273 0777.

In addition to the community archaeology project, there are plenty of opportunities to be involved with community geology and archive projects running as well as a wealth of other interesting activities. See www.peregrinilindisfarne.org.uk for more details or contact David Suggett on 07824 605465.