First ever prayer beads from medieval Britain discovered

·3 min read
The first ever example of prayer beads from medieval Britain has been discovered on the island of Lindisfarne
The first ever example of prayer beads from medieval Britain has been discovered on the island of Lindisfarne

The first ever example of prayer beads from medieval Britain has been discovered on the island of Lindisfarne, one of Britain’s most historic ancient sites, to the excitement of archaeologists.

Dating from the 8th to 9th century AD, they were made from salmon vertebrae. With fish an important symbol of early Christianity, they were clustered around the neck of one of the earliest skeletons - possibly one of the monks buried within the famous early medieval monastery.

Archaeologists are seeking to unearth the lost history of Lindisfarne, also known as Holy Island, off the coast of Northumberland. It was established by the Kings of Northumbria in the 7th century as an important religious centre and became the scene of the first major Viking raid on Britain in the 8th century.

It was there that monks created the Lindisfarne Gospels - the most spectacular manuscript to survive from Anglo-Saxon England - but there have been few tangible finds at the site.

Dr David Petts, the project co-director and a Durham University specialist in early Christianity, told The Telegraph that the fish vertebrae appear to be prayer beads for personal devotion: “We think of the grand ceremonial side of early medieval life in the monasteries and great works like the Lindisfarne Gospels. But what we’ve got here is something which talks to a much more personal side of early Christianity.”

Lindisfarne castle on Holy Island in Northumberland - Brian A Jackson/Brian A Jackson
Lindisfarne castle on Holy Island in Northumberland - Brian A Jackson/Brian A Jackson

He paid tribute to Marina Chorro Giner, a zooarchaeologist, for recognising the significance of the vertebrae: “This bright, eagle-eyed researcher looked at them and said, actually these aren’t just fish bones, they’ve been modified and turned into something.”

Discussing the significance of fish and the sea to the island’s medieval inhabitants, he referred to a monk called Cuthbert, who joined Lindisfarne in the 670s and went on to become the most important saint in northern England in the Middle Ages: “We also have the stories of Christ and the Apostles being fishermen and going on the Sea of Galilee and calming storms. We see in Bede’s Life of St Cuthbert, Cuthbert calming storms. So the sea is symbolically important.”

The beads offer significant information for understanding how people in the past lived and expressed their beliefs through objects.

Their position around the neck suggested that they had been strung like a necklace. The naturally-occurring hole through the centre of salmon vertebrae had been widened, either before threading or through wear.

The discovery follows ongoing excavations at Lindisfarne by DigVentures, an archaeology social enterprise in which volunteers work alongside professionals, as well as Durham University.

'Remarkable find'

Lisa Westcott Wilkins of DigVentures described it as “a remarkable find”: “Clearly it was important enough that this person was buried with it. This is the only artefact from within a grave on Lindisfarne, so it’s a significant item. As far as we’re aware, it’s the first example of prayer beads found anywhere in medieval Britain.”

She added: “We believe these beads were used as a personal object of faith, especially given that our modern word bead comes from the Old English gebed, meaning ‘prayer’.”

Such is the enormity of the site that the team will continue their excavations for another four years. Other finds have included runic namestones, coins and copper rings.

Mrs Westcott Wilkins said that they are now focussed on the earliest layer within a cemetery that lies next to the ruins of the 12th-century priory: “There are just so many human remains.”

In 1997, at the nearby medieval chapel at Chevington, Northumberland, fish vertebrae were found with similar modifications. But they were from Atlantic cod, among other fish, and that burial dated from the 13th or 14th century, whereas this is so much earlier.

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