Bamburgh skeletons reveal secrets of multi-cultural Anglo Saxon life

Previously hidden secrets and insights into the lives of Bamburgh’s Anglo Saxon past have been revealed for the first time with the unveiling of a new cutting-edge interpretation recreating Northumbria’s Golden Age.

Saturday, 21st December 2019, 1:14 pm
A visitor looks at the new interpretive installation in St Aidan's Church in Bamburgh celebrating the Golden Age of Northumbria and St Aidan.

The interpretive display and unique interactive digital ossuary at St Aidan’s Church and Crypt tells the story of 110 skeletons dating back to the 7th and 8th centuries unearthed from what is believed to be the burial ground for the royal court of Northumbria.

The medieval cemetery known as the Bowl Hole was discovered beneath sand dunes just to the south of Bamburgh Castle – once the capital for the powerful kings of Northumbria.

Now, with the help of advanced technology, the secrets these ancients took to their graves 1,400 years ago have been unlocked and brought to life for a 21 st century audience thanks to a £355,600 grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund, which has also seen the reopening of St Aidan’s beautiful 12 th century crypt to the public once again.

The vicar of St Aidan's, the Revd Louise Taylor-Kenyon, in the church's 12th century crypt which has now been opened to the public.

Among the startling revelations is that far from being a sleepy backwater, Bamburgh was a thriving and cosmopolitan hub drawing people from across Europe to live and work – including St Aidan, who travelled from Iona to establish Christianity in the area and founded a place of worship in 635AD on the site of the present church that bears his name.

Isotope analysis has revealed that less than 10% of the 110 skeletons came from the immediate Bamburgh area, with most originating in the wider British Isles, particularly western Scotland, and even as far away as Scandinavia and the Mediterranean.

It is proof, says the vicar of St Aidan’s, the Rev Louise Taylor-Kenyon, that people have always travelled, even in the 7th century.

“The idea of country boundaries was fragile,” she said. It is a reminder that this nation’s history has continually been one of people visiting, settling, intermingling, and creating relationships and a more diverse society as a consequence.”

Visitors view the new installation.

The interpretive display and digital ossuary allowing the public to probe the wealth of osteological data from the Bowl Hole excavations is managed by Bamburgh Bones, a collaboration between the Northumberland Coast AONB Partnership, St Aidan’s Parochial Church Council, Durham University, and Bamburgh Heritage Trust. It unites in a user-friendly way the many unique stories of these early residents.

They include an man aged between 17-20 who died after a sword blow cut through his left side from his collarbone to his knee; an Irish woman of around 25 whose skeletal remains show she was almost certainly a weaver or needleworker; and a nine-year-old, whose teeth reveal they were possibly born as far away as North Africa and spent their early childhood in France.

The skeletons excavated, analysed and researched over a 20 year period, were again laid to rest in 2016 in individual ossuary boxes in a smaller second crypt within the main one at St Aidan’s.

Access issues have meant that up to now the crypt has only been open to the public by special arrangement. However, new stairs have been built to enable access to the main crypt, from where the second one with its neatly stacked boxes containing the bones, can be viewed.

Jessica Turner, Accessing Aidan project officer.

Entering the crypt, visitors will now be met with a short video using linocut animations that tell the story of the Bowl Hole excavations, with further information panels and the digital ossuary available in the church.

It is hoped the Bamburgh Ossuary will help spread the word about an under-represented period of the area’s history – namely the regional, national and even global role it played in the spread of Christianity and Anglo Saxon culture.

Jessica Turner, project officer for Accessing Aidan, said: “So far, little has been made of this period in Bamburgh’s history, when people travelled from far and wide to enjoy its rich cultural and religious heritage, and marvel at its beauty and treasures in what is now referred to as the Golden Age of Northumbria.

“It really was a bright and shining age with the melting pot of cultures represented reflected in the likes of the Lindisfarne Gospels with its stunning mix of Celtic, Anglo Saxon, Mediterranean and Arabic imagery and calligraphy.

Bowl Hole skeleton dug up during the excavations.

“The 7th and 8th centuries are often referred to as the Dark Ages, but in Northumbria it was an age of enlightenment. We need to remember that if St Aidan hadn’t come to Bamburgh then we wouldn’t have had the Lindisfarne Gospels and many of the things we now take for granted like Durham Cathedral and the wider North East’s Christian and cultural heritage.

“It’s a story that is long overdue in being told, but the new Bamburgh Bones interpretation and digital ossuary go a long way to rectifying that.”

David Renwick, director, England, North at The National Lottery Heritage Fund, added: “We are delighted that money raised by National Lottery players is enabling the fascinating archaeological finds in the Bamburgh area to be shared and explored more widely.

“As we celebrate our 25th birthday, the opening of this new display in St. Aidan’s Church and Crypt is a wonderful present to receive.”

The digital ossuary can be accessed free of charge online at www.bamburghbones.org, where you can also find out more information about the Bamburgh Bones project and visiting St Aidan’s Church and Crypt.

Admission to St Aidan’s Church and Crypt is free. Opening hours are 9am-dusk.

A linocut showing the Golden Age of Northumbria from the new St Aidan's visitor video.