Ritual, Religion and Ceremony

Aspects of religion and ritual are still the most visible expressions of early medieval activity in the North West, in the form of stone sculpture associated with places of Christian worship. The corpus of material in Cheshire and Lancashire was published in 2010 (Bailey 2010), so that the whole of the region is now consolidated and recorded to the same high standard. New material continues to be found, however, which will need to be incorporated into any revisions of the corpus (for instance, at Beckermet, in Cumbria (D Ellsworth pers comm). Other notable steps forward in the last ten years are the publication of the Viking-age cemetery at Cumwhitton (Paterson et al 2014) and the burials to the west of Carlisle Cathedral (McCarthy 2014), and the movement towards publication of the report on graves associated with St Michael’s Church, Workington (Zant et al in prep) and the early Christian site at Dacre (Newman and Leech in prep).

Perhaps the most bizarre evidence relates to some burnt mounds, excavated in Wasdale (C). These features, normally dated to the late Neolithic period and most commonly to the Bronze Age (Buckley 1990; Hodgson 2007), which, indeed, was the period of original use of these features (as they provided radiocarbon dates in the eighteenth and seventeenth centuries cal BC), also provided early medieval radiocarbon dates, suggesting reuse at that time, since they, and associated pits, provided dates ranging from the late ninth to late twelfth centuries cal AD (Evans in prep; cal AD 892-1025 (1065±39 BP; SUERC-56255); cal AD 944-1050 (1024±39 BP; SUERC-56254); cal AD 1018-1183 (942±39 BP; SUERC-56258; 843±39 BP; SUERC-56256); cal AD 1021-1186 (935±39 BP; SUERC-56253)). Whilst highly unusual, a few other sites have also produced early medieval dates (for instance, from North Wales; Cuttler et al 2012).

A small group of seven graves was found in close proximity to the large timber building(s) at Maryport (above), and may be associated (Haynes and Wilmott 2016). At least one seems to have been a long cist, and some of the others seemed to have had stone linings. They followed two broad alignments, seemingly the earlier south-south-west/north-north-east, the other broadly west-north-west/east-south-east, although some were more nearly aligned north-west/south-east. Bones preservation was very poor, as in almost all parts of Cumbria, but one contained a fragment of textile that has been radiocarbon dated to cal AD 240-340 (SUERC 44284). Late fourth-century pottery was also recovered from two of the fills, suggesting that the burials continued to the end of the Roman period, if not beyond.

The eastern entrance to the amphitheatre at Chester (Ch) had been heavily modified, and contains massive masonry, which, it has been suggested, may be post-Roman, as it certainly post-dates the third-century refurbishment (Matthews nd). It has been suggested that this could have been part of an early church, particularly since the important early medieval church of St John’s, traditionally founded in AD 689, is adjacent to the amphitheatre (Wilmott and Garner forthcoming).

4.9 Pic of Chester features – from Dan Garner/Tony Wilmott

Several elongated oval pits were excavated in advance of the A556 improvements in Cheshire that could have been graves, although no bone was found in association; bone survival was generally very poor, however (M Leah pers comm). These features seemed to have been focused on a Bronze Age barrow, and it is possible that they could represent later burials referencing a prehistoric burial monument, as has been identified elsewhere in the region, as at Winwick, also in Cheshire (Freke and Thacker 1987; Williams 1997).

The early cemetery on the site of Carlisle Cathedral, excavated in the 1980s, consisted of some 41 burials which have been tentatively ascribed an early medieval date, radiocarbon dating of some returning date ranges in the ninth to eleventh centuries. These cut what was interpreted as a ‘dark earth’ overlying a Roman road, and though heavily disturbed by later burial activity, leading to a process of soil recycling, at least some were overlain by the medieval church floor (McCarthy 2014). Many of the graves were poorly defined, but most seemed roughly rectangular and there were rare occurrences of what seemed to be stone linings, with one example of stones placed on either side of the head. A few contained iron nails, perhaps indicative of coffins, and there were some hinge straps, a hasp, and corner brackets similar to those found at Dacre (Ottaway in prep), and elsewhere in Northumbria (Ottaway 2014). The activity was associated with early medieval finds, almost all of a personal nature, most of which can be dated to the ninth to eleventh centuries, which suggest that the bodies were clothed when buried. A gold toggle and a silver-mounted whetstone indicate the wealth of at least some of the individuals buried. Eighteen early medieval coins were also recovered, of which only one was dated to before the ninth century, fifteen were of ninth-century date and two were minted in the tenth century, one in the reign of Aethelstan (924-39), and the other by Aethelred II (c 980). These also attest to considerable activity in the area of the present cathedral, although the majority were unstratified, so their precise significance remains uncertain.

4.10 Early med finds from Carlisle Cathedral – would need permission from Cathedral

The analysis of the material from St Michael’s church, Workington, is now largely complete, and has revealed important new information (Zant et al in prep). An extensive programme of radiocarbon dating has identified two distinct phases of burial, one in the seventh to ninth centuries, and the other, when modelled, with a tight date range in the first half of the eleventh century. The earlier graves were associated with a ditch that seems to have cut off the end of the promontory on which the present church stands, above the River Derwent. This ditch remains undated, and may have had a prehistoric origin, but it was certainly referenced by the graves, almost all of which were either cut into its backfill or were to the east, and some contained ironwork suggesting that these were coffined. A small assemblage of finds was associated, all but one of which were personal objects, again suggesting that some were buried clothed. The only object that does not fit this hypothesis is a sickle blade, but its provenance remains uncertain.

The eleventh-century graves were different, both in alignment and structure. The earlier graves were aligned slightly off east-west, although there is no reason to think that they were not Christian. The later graves were more accurately oriented, and were built as cists. They also clustered close to the south wall of the medieval parish church, although they clearly pre-dated this. These graves were not associated with any artefacts, and thus the implication is that the bodies were shrouded when placed in the graves (ibid). They matched the alignment of the medieval church completely, and it is likely that this was built on the footprint of an earlier church, with which the cist burials were associated. That such a church existed is demonstrated by the amount of early medieval stone sculpture from the site, one of the largest assemblages from the county (ibid), much of which was recovered from the foundations of the medieval church, as part of the excavations following the fire in 1998. The bulk of this dates from the tenth century, with strong Anglo-Scandinavian motifs, although a few pieces are clearly earlier. Interestingly, stable isotope analysis indicates that the populations buried in both these phases of graves were local in origin, although, of course, this indicates no more than where the individual grew up, and says nothing about the origins of the family they belonged to.

7th-9th century and early 11th century graves juxtaposed, St Michael’s Church, Workington, Cumbria (courtesy of Oxford Archaeology Ltd)

The recovery of skeletons from Carlisle Cathedral and St Michael’s church, Workington, has demonstrated how important such remains are to an understanding of the period. These sites are, however, the exceptions to the general rule that skeletal material does not normally survive in the north of the region. This has placed limitations on what can be interpreted from sites such as Dacre (C) (Newman and Leech in prep), although the publication of such sites is crucial to understanding the variety of burial practices in contemporary societies in Cumbria. The growing corpus of sites in Cumbria is now beginning to allow comparisons of burial practices, and is highlighting differences that can only be seen as driven by different religious beliefs. It is therefore crucial that all such sites should be published, and the fact that the material from Dacre is also in the process of publication is to be welcomed.

The last ten years have seen the analysis and publication of a very different cemetery, found at Cumwhitton, just to the south-east of Carlisle (Paterson et al 2014). This was the first occasion when furnished graves with strong Scandinavian affiliations had been excavated using modern techniques, the information on such graves up until then being entirely dependent on antiquarian reports (as at Aspatria (Rooke 1792), Hesket-in-the-Forest (Hodgson 1832), or Claughton in Lancashire (Edwards 1992)). Whilst the lack of bone survival precluded either scientific dating or isotope analysis, the three-dimensional recording of all finds permitted the layout of each grave to be established with certainty, and the block-lifting of artefacts, allowing in situ x-rays to be taken, and excavation of material under laboratory conditions meant that huge amounts of evidence not available from earlier work could inform the interpretation of the site. The cemetery had been found by metal detectorists, and the combination of further metal detecting, with every find from the ploughsoil again being recorded three-dimensionally, accompanied by scientific excavation, firstly produced the evidence to suggest a cemetery on the site, and then permitted artefacts from the ploughsoil to be speculatively assigned to a grave, since the plough had scored the surface of the subsoil, indicating the direction in which finds would have been dragged.

Plan of graves in the cemetery at Cumwhitton, Cumbria (courtesy of Oxford Archaeology Ltd)

Careful laboratory excavation untangled multiple objects that had been placed in the graves, such as the pile of sickle, shears and comb at the head of the second woman. Cleaning and analytical conservation also revealed traces of textiles, leather, and wood and bone in the corrosion products on the metalwork finds, permitting the reconstruction of a work-box that had been placed at the foot of the first grave to be found, to the level of identifying the wood as maple. Similarly, the x-rays of this object revealed items within the box that did not survive as anything more than corrosion products. Different textiles were revealed, which could be demonstrated as being inside and outside the box, and the preservation of textile loops on the inner side of the oval brooches in this grave clearly demonstrated that the body had been clothed when buried. In a similar fashion, two different types of leather were revealed at the feet of one of the men, where spurs had been found, suggesting both the boots to which the spurs had been attached and the straps by which they were fastened. Wood on the blade of an axe indicated that it had been driven into a plank, suggesting that the base of the grave had been lined, whilst both wood and bone handles were found in association with knives. Perhaps most surprisingly, the corrosion products on a buckle set in the grave of the second woman indicated that either the associated belt, or perhaps even an item of the clothes she wore, was made of sealskin. Insect pupae had also been preserved in the corrosion products, suggesting that some time had elapsed between death and burial at least for the woman in the first grave.

Sickle, shears and a comb from Cumwhitton; in the ground and after conservation, Cumbria (courtesy of Oxford Archaeology Ltd)

Typological analysis indicated that all the artefacts could have been in use in the first quarter of the tenth century, suggesting a timeframe for the cemetery. It was also clear that the artefacts were drawn from a wide range of places, including Ireland, Scandinavia, Carolingian Europe, and other parts of what is now England, as well as locally made objects. Whilst it is likely that this was a family group, probably comprising only one or two generations, the similarities, but also the variations, between the graves, both in terms of layout and the artefacts contained, provided a vivid picture of the cultural milieu in which these people lived, and their desires, together with those of the descendants who buried them, in terms of what the afterlife should hold.

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