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News and stories from the world of Archaeology and its related disciplines

New Archaeological discovery on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne

Archaeologists have discovered one of Britain’s oldest churches.

The find – on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, off the Northumberland coast – is of great historical importance because the newly discovered ancient church may originally have been built in or shortly after the mid 7th century AD as part of the monastic spiritual epicentre from which much of northern and central England was eventually Christianised.

The archaeological excavation has revealed that the monks chose the most challenging and difficult location to build their church – potentially for politically symbolic reasons.

lindisfarne-early-church

The building stood on a totally exposed, extremely wind-blown rocky promontory facing directly towards the great royal palace of the monks’ first patron and benefactor, north-east England’s most important early Christian king, the 7th century St Oswald of Northumbria. The church was constructed just two or three metres from the cliff edge. The location was known in Anglo-Saxon times simply as “The Precipice”.

Also suggesting an early, potentially late 7th century, date is the very primitive ‘pre-architectural’ style of the church’s masonry.

So far, the archaeologists have found dozens of pieces of broken masonry – including crudely-worked window surrounds – in a style suggesting that the mason was more accustomed to working in wood than in stone.

A final potential clue to its age has been found at the extreme eastern end of the church. It is the probable base of what may well have been the original altar installed there by St Aidan in or immediately after he founded the monastery in AD 635.

It’s also important because it is likely to have been a key site at the spiritual heart of the early 8th-century monastic community that made Britain’s most famous early medieval illuminated manuscript – the Lindisfarne Gospels.

The evidence suggesting that this could be the site of one of Holy Island’s original early Anglo-Saxon period churches – perhaps even one built by the founder of Lindisfarne, St Aidan – is complex but persuasive.

hsr_nec_200617church_1

The archaeological excavation has revealed that the monks chose the most challenging and difficult location to build their church – potentially for politically symbolic reasons.

The building stood on a totally exposed, extremely wind-blown rocky promontory facing directly towards the great royal palace of the monks’ first patron and benefactor, north-east England’s most important early Christian king, the 7th century St Oswald of Northumbria. The church was constructed just two or three metres from the cliff edge. The location was known in Anglo-Saxon times simply as “The Precipice”.

Also suggesting an early, potentially late 7th century, date is the very primitive ‘pre-architectural’ style of the church’s masonry.

So far, the archaeologists have found dozens of pieces of broken masonry – including crudely-worked window surrounds – in a style suggesting that the mason was more accustomed to working in wood than in stone.

A final potential clue to its age has been found at the extreme eastern end of the church. It is the probable base of what may well have been the original altar installed there by St Aidan in or immediately after he founded the monastery in AD 635.

aidan_of_lindisfarne_-_geograph-org-uk_-_10930601

It can be potentially associated with Aidan because it’s believed that changes in English church layout tradition after the mid 7thcentury meant that altars were no longer to be located up against the east wall of the church, but several metres further west.

Interestingly, the building was constructed of gleaming white sandstone that would have reflected sunlight particularly well, giving the impression that it was quite literally radiating the purest white light. The gleaming structure perched on its 20-metre high clifftop would have been clearly visible from the royal palace at Bamburgh as a white building surrounded by sea.

“It is one of the most important discoveries from the early medieval period that has been made in Britain over recent decades,” said Peter Ryder, an archaeologist specialising in medieval ecclesiastical buildings who has been involved in recording the masonry from the newly discovered early church.

The archaeologists have also discovered the massive foundations of what appears to have been a large signalling tower on the same promontory – presumably to enable simple messages to be sent directly to the king’s palace at Bamburgh, some four miles across the sea to the south.

Bamburgh castle

The eight metre square tower (with walls 2.5 metres thick) would probably have been up to 12 metres high – and would also have been used to communicate with monks living on the Farne Islands, seven miles away. It’s known from ancient accounts that a tower on that promontory was used, for instance, to receive a beacon signal from those monks when St Cuthbert (subsequently regarded as the patron saint of northern England) died there in AD 687.

The buried remains of the newly discovered early church, currently being excavated by the archaeologists, show that the building was at least partially made of stone.

However, it is almost certain that the initial mid-7th century church or (churches) on Lindisfarne were originally constructed purely of timber. We also know that the Lindisfarne monks viewed their earliest timber churches with such reverence that, in the 7th or early 8th century, they encased one in pure lead to preserve it – and later (in the 9th century) deconstructed it or another timber church and took it to the mainland to prevent it being destroyed by the Vikings.

Lindisfarne Priory

It is, therefore, conceivable that the newly discovered stone church on the Lindisfarne clifftop was built in the mid or late 7thcentury as a protective structure around what may have been St Aidan’s original timber church. If that is not correct, then it could be a later Anglo-Saxon stone rebuild of that church, although, on balance of probabilities, the primitive nature of the masonry would perhaps argue against that. Alternatively, it could be that a totally new stone church was built on the promontory in perhaps the early or mid-8th century.

Ultimately, only further excavation and scientific testing may solve the conundrum.

The newly discovered foundations and masonry fragments of the church on the wind-blown Lindisfarne clifftop are by far the oldest Anglo-Saxon structural remains found on the island.

Source.

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Mont-Saint-Michel at risk of losing its World Heritage Status

From Spiegel:

The French island abbey of Mont-Saint-Michel is at risk of losing its World Heritage Status because of plans to build wind turbines that could blight the spectacular view. Campaigners are up in arms, but French President Nicolas Sarkozy is determined to turn France into a world leader in wind power.

The silhouette adorns biscuit tins, aprons and coffee cups, and there is scarcely a travel guide for the northwestern French region of Brittany that doesn’t feature the unmistakeable profile of the island and its 11th century Benedictine abbey on the front cover.

Mont-Saint-Michel, located in a bay between the coast of Brittany and the Contentin peninsula in Normandy, is a symbol for the entire region. It is cut off from land twice a day at high tide and is one of France’s biggest tourist destinations, attracting 3 million visitors a year, tourists and pilgrims.

UNESCO, the United Nations’ culture and education agency, designates this unique place as a World Heritage Site. Mont-Saint-Michel and the bay were included in the prestigious list of places of global special cultural and physical significance in 1979. The judges as the time lauded the “unprecedented union of the natural site and the architecture” and fated it as an “unequalled ensemble, as much because of the co-existence of the abbey and its fortified village with the confined limits of a small island, as for the originality of the placement of the buildings.” Mont-Saint-Michel, they said, was one of the most important sites of medieval Christian civilization.

Ever since, the local authorities have striven to preserve the island and the abbey and even planned to demolish parts of the causeway and car and coach parks leading to the island.

But now the ‘Wonder of the West’ is at risk of losing its UNESCO status because of plans to build wind turbines close by. The UN culture and education agency has written to France asking it to explain the project, which would see three wind turbines erected 17 kilometers (10.5 miles) from the tiny seaside mount.

Sarkozy’s Wind Power Vision

Local campaigners are outraged by the project. “Do we want a nightclub around Mont-Saint-Michel?” asked Jean-Louis Butré, president of the environment group Fédération Environement Durable (FED). “The wind turbines can be seen from 10 kilometers away,” he told the Ouest-France newspaper. “Especially at night, when the lights blink.” He said the project was being driven by “enormous pressure from industrialists — the financial investments are huge.”

He’s probably right, too. French President Nicolas Sarkozy wants to put this nation of nuclear power at the forefront of wind power production. There are five concrete projects for wind turbines along the coast from the English Channel to the Atlantic, not including offshore sites already being planned.

“Our goal is to create a strong national industry to manufacture these products with the aim of exporting them,” Sarkozy said at the end of January during a visit to the Atlantic port of Saint-Nazaire. The plan is to build some 600 turbines with a capacity of 300 megawatts in a first stage by 2015. That means investments totalling €10 billion (nearly $14 billion), which Sarkozy said would create 10,000 jobs.

Epuron, the company that plans to build the turbines around Mont-Saint-Michel, has said it will use relatively small ones “to take account of the special nature of the place and the relative proximity to Mont-Saint-Michel.”

Local tourism, environmental and monument protection groups have mounted legal bids to stop the construction, but have failed. Their last hope is UNESCO.

UNESCO said it had received a response from the French government by the Feb. 1 date it had requested, and will now assess the impact on the site and decide what action to take.

The agency’s inspectors aren’t just concerned about Mont-Saint-Michel. The World Heritage status of three other French sites is also looking shaky: The port of Bordeaux, the grotto of Lascaux with its prehistoric cave paintings and the medieval town of Provins.

It is feasible that Mont-Saint-Michel could lose its cherished UNESCO status. “The World Heritage Committee can decide to delist it, but that’s a last resort and no one really wants that,” a UNESCO spokesperson told Reuters.

There are precedents. The Elbe Valley in Dresden was struck off the list in June 2009 after being blighted by a road bridge.

UNESCO inspectors might categorize the site as “endangered” when they next meet in early June. Even that would be an embarrassment for a cultural nation that has 35 sites on the World Heritage list, placing the nation at No. Five in the world ranking.

From Spiegel.

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