British Archaeology, no 18, October 1996: News

Early Christian church found on the Isle of May

Traces of one of the earliest Christian churches in Scotland - and almost certainly the earliest yet found on the east coast - have been discovered on the Isle of May off the coast of Fife. The church, which may date from the 9th century, is the first in a sequence of buildings on the site of the island's later medieval Benedictine abbey.

Excavations this summer have also uncovered an extraordinary mass-burial mound, into which the first church was built. The mound seems to contain mainly early medieval graves, but artefacts in the mound suggest it could have its origins in prehistory, perhaps as early as the Bronze Age. If so, the site might prove to have been a continual focus for religious activity and burial for as much as 3,000 years.

The early church has been dated by stratigraphy and type, being a small, square building with drystone foundations similar to dated 7th-10th century churches on the west coast and in Ireland. According to Peter Yeoman, Fife's Regional Archaeologist, it may have been built as a chapel to house the remains of St Ethernan, an early evangelist who is believed to have lived and died on the island. It was the supposed existence of St Ethernan's relics on the site that drew thousands of pilgrims to the Isle throughout the later medieval period. The saint's grave, however, has not been found.

The burial mound, measuring some 30m by 20m and containing hundreds of burials, was built up as each new grave was covered by a pile of stones, although later burials were placed in stone-lined cists. Radiocarbon tests on skeletons have produced dates ranging from the 7th to the 10th century, but remains of what seem to be Bronze Age funerary urns may suggest an earlier origin for the cemetery. Prehistoric remains have also been found elsewhere on the site of the abbey.

The excavations have thrown new light on the life of the 12th century Benedictine abbey itself. The abbey's cloister was built into the burial mound, bringing numerous bones to the surface which were simply left `littered around the area', according to Mr Yeoman. `There were some very half-hearted attempts at reburial, but these people didn't really attach much importance to the bones of the rank and file,' he said.

An unusual ten-seater communal lavatory has also been found at the rear of the monastic dormitory - probably too large for a community of monks who never numbered more than nine or ten (as they `would not all have wanted to use it at once,' said Mr Yeoman), and suggesting that the abbey could have been a major focus of pilgrimage as early as the 12th century.

Return to Table of Contents Return to CBA Homepage

Welsh royal court found in sand

One of the royal courts of the 13th century Princes of Gwynedd - the last free rulers in Wales before the English conquest - was uncovered this summer, buried deep in sand blown in from the coast over the centuries.

The court, or llys, of Rhosyr, near Newborough on Angelsey, is the best-preserved of the royal courts excavated over the past few years by the Gwynedd Archaeological Trust (see BAN, April 1994). At least three major buildings have been found, as well as various ancillary structures and long stretches of well-preserved perimeter wall. One of the buildings was a large hall with an off- centre hearth and a range of adjoining rooms, similar in some respects to the central hall of a contemporary English manor house.

There is little doubt about the site's royal associations. Pre-conquest Gwynedd was divided into a number of administrative areas, each containing a royal township whose locations are known from documentary records. One existed at Rhosyr. `There can only be one high-status dwelling on the royal estate, and it belonged to the prince,' said Neil Johnstone, the site director.

The main hall at Rhosyr is equal in size to the largest medieval hall previously known from Gwynedd - the Bishop of Bangor's 13th century residence at Llandudno - but the Rhosyr excavations seem to suggest the Prince of Gwynedd enjoyed a curiously unluxurious lifestyle. The buildings themselves are fairly simple - the main hall was perhaps built of timber on dry-stone footings, and one of the other buildings has rounded corners suggesting possibly a thatched roof, which may have been later re-roofed in slate. Small finds from the site include ring brooches, a spur, strap-ends, a small knife, pottery and some coins, none of which indicates great wealth, even though the coins minted at London, Canterbury, Gloucester and Berwick, and the pottery from eastern England and Bordeaux suggest long-distance trade.

After the English conquest, the courts were dismantled, became derelict, or fell into English hands. Antiquaries passing through Newborough in the 18th century referred to the sand-covered, ruined walls of the former llys at Rhosyr, but by the 20th century nothing survived above the surface of the field - known as cae llys, or `field of the court', into modern times.

Return to Table of Contents Return to CBA Homepage

Grimes Graves mined `for ritual reasons'

Grimes Graves, the Suffolk flint mines traditionally seen as prime evidence for Neolithic `heavy industry' in England, may have been mined mainly for religious or ritual purposes rather than for practical reasons, according to new research.

A survey by the English Royal Commission of around 50 Neolithic flint-mining sites in England, including Grimes Graves, echoes recent research by Prof Richard Bradley of Reading University into the Neolithic `axe factories' of Cumbria, which suggested they too were often sited more for ritual than for practical reasons.

The Commission's research, directed by Peter Topping, included a detailed ground-survey of the sites and a new appraisal of all published excavated evidence. `In the past, people have nodded towards the evidence for ritual activity at these sites, but no-one has pointed out just how significant it is,' he said.

According to the study, evidence of `unusual, non-functional activity' can be found at every one of the mines surveyed. This includes complete animal burials, arrangements of animal bones, mining picks and other tools, chalk platforms carrying arrangements of artefacts, chalk `lamps' possibly used as libation bowls, and graffiti reminiscent of the incisions on Grooved Ware pottery.

In addition, Mr Topping cites recent research by Robin Holgate of Luton Museums and others, showing that mined flint accounts for a very small proportion of Neolithic flint implements, the vast majority being made of surface flint or flint from chalk cliffs. Mined flint, he says, seems to have been used for implements that were not actually used as tools, and may have had a ceremonial function - discoidal knives or axes, for instance, which are often found with no sign of use or buried in hoards.

The Commission survey discovered about 50 new shafts at Grimes Graves - some 400 are now known altogether - and casts new light on some of the working practices of the Neolithic miners. It found, for instance, that double-shafts were sometimes sunk into a single pit, either for ventilation or safety in case one shaft collapsed, a practice also adopted by gun-flint miners working in the same area in the 19th century.

Return to Table of Contents Return to CBA Homepage

In brief

Roman invasion

The history of the Roman invasion of Britain in AD43 could be rewritten following the discovery of what may be an invasion-period military HQ at Fishbourne in Sussex. It suggests that the invasion may have taken place on two fronts - rather than just one, at Richborough in Kent. The building, excavated by the Sussex Archaeological Society, predates the Roman palace at Fishbourne, built around AD65, and resembles other military HQs in Roman Britain. It consists of an internal courtyard flanked by corridors on the north and south sides, with a large hall on the eastern side containing a central room with a sunken feature - possibly a `strong room' for the soldiers' pay and the garrison's insignia.

Roman arena

The most northerly amphitheatre in the Roman Empire - and the first in Scotland - was found this summer at the Roman fort of Trimontium at Newstead in the Scottish borders. The amphitheatre, excavated by Simon Clarke of Bradford University, is thought to date from the 1st or 2nd centuries, when the fort was the Roman army's HQ in Scotland and housed up to 2,500 men. The oval amphitheatre, enclosed by a circular area of cobble-stone seating, was probably used for weapons training, military displays and exhorting the troops.

Government has decided not to hold a public inquiry into the application for new buildings at Wallingford Lower School in Oxfordshire, which may affect the setting of the town's Saxon defences (see BA, September). The application is now likely to succeed.

Digital archive

An electronic archive for digitised archaeological data will be set up next month by a consortium of universities and other bodies, with start-up funding from the UK Higher Education Funding Councils. The aim of the Archaeology Data Service will be to collect, catalogue and preserve computerised data for the benefit of research. Data will be made public on the Internet unless the original authors object. The ADS can be reached at

NEWS is compiled by Simon Denison

Return to the British Archaeology homepage

Return to the CBA homepage

© Council for British Archaeology, 1996