Finding the New Rome
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Editor Simon Denison
Great Sites: Yeavering
David Hinton recalls a 7th century royal settlement that was perhaps the most dramatic site of the Anglo-Saxon world
Yeavering is perhaps not the best-known Anglo-Saxon site in England - that title surely goes to Sutton Hoo. Yet the Northumbrian royal settlement in the foothills of the Cheviots is at least as significant as the famous Suffolk ship-burial for our understanding of 7th century society. Yeavering yielded little gold and no outlines of ships, but had instead an extraordinary array of timber buildings, some massive and some so far unique, suggesting that it may have been for contemporaries the most visually arresting site of the Anglo-Saxon world.
The site stands in the shadow of Northumberland's largest hillfort, Yeavering Bell. Since at least the 16th century it was firmly believed to be the place called ad gefrin where in ad 627, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the Christian Gospel was first preached to King Edwin of Northumbria by a priest from the Roman mission based at Canterbury.
The precise site was revealed by air photographs taken by JK St Joseph in 1949, and soon afterwards excavations became necessary because of an encroaching sand quarry. These were undertaken in 1953-62 by Brian Hope-Taylor, who died earlier this year. He was then a freelance archaeologist who received funding from the Ministry of Works, that Stalinesque-sounding forebear of English Heritage.
Hope-Taylor's excavation method now seems old-fashioned. Whereas today archaeologists tend, if they can, to open out large areas, Hope-Taylor dug a series of square or rectangular trenches across the site, separated by unexcavated 'baulks'. The sides of these trenches had the advantage of preserving the stratigraphy, but the baulks inevitably obscured parts of many of the features. In another respect too Yeavering was one of the last of the old-style excavations in that Hope-Taylor relied on a hired workforce of local labour. These men, he later wrote, were mostly 'unfamiliar with (and at first seldom sympathetic to) the aims and procedures of archaeological investigation'.
The standard of excavation appears to have been very high. Even so, the results were almost lost forever when Hope-Taylor had his briefcase stolen at Hamburg railway station in 1960. It contained the sole copy of his preliminary report, which had to be rewritten from scratch, and was not published until 1977.
One of the most interesting aspects of Yeavering is the way in which the site was established in the post-Roman period near an existing prehistoric burial-place, marked by a stone circle, at least one barrow, and cremations. Hope-Taylor considered this reuse of the site to have been by native British people, largely on the basis of the plans of the buildings. More recently, Chris Scull has shown that the buildings have parallels in the Anglo-Saxon south, and that occupation may not have begun until the second half of the 6th century, after the area had fallen under Anglian sway. According to the tradition recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, this followed the arrival in the area of Ida, founder of the Northumbrian royal family, who made his land-fall not far away at Bamburgh in 547. On this view, the site began fairly modestly as a homestead or two.
At some time (and it is not possible to say quite when), the prehistoric features became the focus for new burials, a few with grave-goods such as buckles and knives, like 'Anglo-Saxon' graves. Afew bodies were buried on their sides with their legs bent, however, which is often seen as a British custom. There may have been a good deal of intermingling of people, but the possibility of investigating this further is limited by the poor survival of bones in the acid soils.
Burial was not the only evidence of religious practice at Yeavering. A square setting of posts around the prehistoric stone circle may represent some form of religious structure, and a number of isolated postholes have been interpreted by John Blair as settings for totem-poles. Indeed, the name gefrin may be a British word meaning goats, and the name could refer to posts with goat skulls prominently displayed on them. In addition, one rectangular timber building close to the burials around the barrow has been interpreted as a kind of temple, because it contained a pit full of mainly ox skulls that seem more than the remains of routine butchery. Instead they may represent sacrifices.
All these features suggest that Yeavering was a centre of more than usual importance, and this is fully borne out by the other buildings that were by now being added to the site. No longer were they modest. Deep wall foundations went down a metre or more below the modern surface - all the Anglo-Saxon floor levels have long been ploughed away - and one building was the largest of the period ever excavated in Britain, although longer ones have been found in Scandinavia.
Hope-Taylor interpreted this massive building as a royal feasting hall, and his view has never been challenged. Close to it was a ditched enclosure, interpreted as a corral for livestock awaiting the feasts, perhaps to be slaughtered in sacrificial ceremonies. This was a period when kings were peripatetic, travelling around their territories, staying at their various estates, and living off their produce and off the tribute that was brought by their people.
Yeavering has one structure that remains without parallel in the archaeology of any country, anywhere, until the time of the Rose Theatre - concentric timber foundations, apparently creating tiered staging, perhaps in imitation of a segment of a Roman amphitheatre. This structure, with its tiers of steps leading down to a screened throne, is one of the most evocative images of Anglo-Saxon leadership, the site where the king greeted his people, administered his kingdom and gained consent to decisions to which the audience were public witnesses. Perhaps this was the very place where Paulinus, the Christian priest, first preached, before leading the converts to the River Glen for baptism by total immersion.
Paulinus was able to go to Northumbria because King Edwin had married a Christian princess from Kent. Two, perhaps three, of the few objects from the site may show this Kentish connection. One is an iron buckle inlaid with silver that Martin Welch has shown to have been made between about 570 and 640; it is a type probably made on the Continent, but is otherwise known only in Kent. There is also a small gold filigree ring, which to me looks very like the settings that surround garnets on many Kentish-made disc-brooches. The only coin from the site was originally thought to be a mid-7th century Frisian gold coin, but was then identified in the report as a gold-plated imitation dating from about 630-40. It might now be placed a little earlier still, about 625-35. Although this coin may have reached Yeavering direct from wherever it was made, it remains the case that gold coins were more frequent in Kent than elswhere in England during this period.
These objects could all have been gifts brought by Edwin's new wife to cement the marriage alliance. It was an alliance that did not last long, however, as Edwin was killed in battle in 633, fighting against the Mercians. His widow and her priest fled back to Kent, according to Bede, because of the danger posed by Penda of Mercia's ravaging after his victory. They may, however, have feared a pagan backlash from Edwin's successor, or at least that whoever emerged as king would not be well-disposed towards any of their predecessor's relatives and supporters, and would not want to be seen as owing allegiance to Kent.
Some missionaries were brave enough to remain, but Christianity was under threat for the next year at least. How this affected Yeavering is unclear; Hope-Taylor thought that one structure within the western cemetery had been a Christian church, but as it had an eastern entry, unparalleled in known churches, this may be incorrect. Besides, it has burials inside it, which would be unorthodox for the time. It may post-date the cemetery entirely, and show that neither the cemetery nor the people buried in it were any longer respected.
What happened at Yeavering after Edwin's death is not recorded. Bede says that the place was abandoned for another site nearby at Millfield, where air photographs and other work have shown at least a hall and an enclosure like those at Yeavering, although nothing like Yeavering's amphitheatre. A number of buildings at Yeavering appear to have been burned down, and Hope-Taylor related the fires to the various raids into Northumbria by Mercian and other enemies. Bede does not say why it was abandoned, however, and it is possible that he preferred to be silent about a place where paganism had been re-established after Edwin's death. Another possibility is that the site was abandoned because it was too closely associated with a particular branch of the Northumbrian dynasty.
Many other new points have been made about Yeavering and its material since 1977. Christopher Arnold's suggestion, for instance, that the staff-like object buried in one prominent grave was some sort of sceptre of office seems preferable to Hope-Taylor's view of it as a measuring-rod.
York takes over
I have always felt that King Edwin did the sensible thing by not joining his aristocracy in the icy water of the Glen to be baptised. Instead, he had a church built in York, and was baptised in that. And it was in York that he established a bishopric (only later to be England's second archbishopric), probably because that had been the centre of the old Romano-British diocese.
As churchmen and kings increasingly associated themselves with the power of the ideology of Rome, sites like Yeavering with no such background became less relevant as centres of authority. Its world reached its apogee in the first half of the 7th century, after which the great buildings were burnt or demolished or allowed to collapse, and thus perhaps the most visually dramatic site of the Anglo-Saxon world crumbled into the ruin of oblivion until it was rediscovered just over 50 years ago.
David A Hinton is a Professor of Archaeology at the University of Southampton
CBA web:Jan/Feb 2005