Northumberland and Durham Family History Society, North Northumberland Group

MONKEY BUSINESS: Northumberland and Durham Family History Society’s North Northumberland Group welcomed back Barry Mead to talk about his personal experiences of archaeology.

Barry began by showing us part of a human skull dating back to the 16th century found at Bothal. He explained how he could tell that this person had smoked a clay pipe.

Everyday rubbish is part of the jigsaw which helps to reconstruct former times. Although the bones from a skeleton can reveal medical conditions, they rarely tell us the cause of death.

Most archaeology today is rescue archaeology, when new building work is imminent and significant sites have to be investigated in limited time. There are in the region of 800 monastic sites waiting to be excavated but the majority will never see an archaeologist’s trowel unless there are plans to build on the site.

An excavation in Redditch was the main focus of the talk. The name of Redditch originates from the red clay ditch dug by monks at Bordesley Abbey, a Cistercian abbey built about 1140.

The monk’s day began at 2am, the first of eight services each day. His diet relied heavily on leeks and beans and he was entitled to a gallon of beer daily. This was much safer than drinking water which would have carried disease.

During the excavations in which the speaker participated, a surprising find in the monastery was a female skeleton. A nunnery was situated about three miles from the abbey so there was much speculation about the find.

More interesting discoveries followed, including several gambling dice. Evidence of the Abbot’s drinking habits added fuel to the fire. Our usual ideas about life in a medieval monastery may need reviewing.

Bordesley Abbey was destroyed about 1538 and is one of the best preserved monastic sites as it has never been built upon. Parts of it may well be similar to Newminster near Morpeth, the sole Cistercian abbey in Northumberland, although little of this now remains.

Our next meeting will be Saturday, April 16, when Anne Dawson will speak on The Life of Josephine Butler at Bell View Resource Centre, West Street, Belford, at 10am. Everyone welcome.