Excavation yields clues to location of religious site founded by a pagan princess turned Christian.
What was it that led a pagan princess to become a Christian and go on to play a major role in the conversion of a stretch of the Scottish coast in the 7th century?
We might be closer to answering that and other questions, thanks to a discovery of that princess’ monastery.
LiveScience reported that archaeologists have unearthed part of what may be the monastery of Princess Aebbe, who lived from 615-668. After Aebbe became a Christian, she established a monastery at Coldingham, a village in the southeast of Scotland, around the year 640. It is said to have burned down shortly after Aebbe’s death but was rebuilt and thrived until it was destroyed once again by Viking raiders in 870.
Excavators have located a narrow, circular ditch that is likely the “vallum,” or boundary, that surrounded Aebbe’s religious settlement, LiveScience said
DigVentures, a UK-based group led by archaeologists and supported by crowdfunding, announced the finding March 8. The site is north of the more famous Lindesfarne monastery.
“Vallums weren’t necessarily deep, intimidating defensive structures, but more like a symbolic marker to show that you were entering a venerated or spiritual place,” Maiya Pina-Dacier, the head of community at DigVentures, told Live Science.
Supporting DigVentures’ theory that they have found the monastery’s location was a discovery just outside the boundary of a giant pile of butchered animal bones, including those from cattle, horses, pigs, sheep, goats, domestic fowl and red deer. According to radiocarbon tests, the bones date to 664-864.
“This is pretty much exactly when Aebbe’s monastery was in existence,” Manda Forster, the program manager at DigVentures, said in a statement.
Foster said that a previous search in the area—at a cliff-top location in Coldingham, overlooking the sea—did not yield any hard evidence of an extensive, wealthy Anglo-Saxon monastery:
The newfound site is farther inland, near the Coldingham Priory (a historical house for Benedictine monks), Forster noted. DigVentures decided to excavate there because this site had outlines of several possible archaeological structures. In addition, several artifacts—including fragments of an Anglo-Saxon belt fitting, fragments of sculpture and possible early Christian burials—had been found there. “And it makes sense that the later Benedictine monastery was built on the site of its Anglo-Saxon predecessor,” Forster said.
The archaeologists believe the remains of Aebbe’s monastery are probably located under Coldingham Priory.
Forster called Aebbe “an extraordinary figure — an example of a powerful Anglo-Saxon woman who played a big part in establishing Christianity in the region during the seventh century. Now that we’ve got evidence to pinpoint exactly where her monastery was, we can help bring her story back to life.”
For instance, scientists know that the princess, who was the daughter of a Northumbrian warlord, fled with her siblings after their father was killed. They went to Dál Riata, a Gaelic kingdom that was a hub of early Christianity. Shortly after arriving, the family abandoned their pagan ways and converted.
When her brother Oswald went to reclaim the Northumbria throne in 635, Aebbe accompanied him, determined to convert their subjects to Christianity. Meanwhile, Oswald created the famous monastery at Lindisfarne, which, just like his sister’s monastery, was later raided by Vikings.