Questionable interpretation: early medieval church sites in Northern Britain?

I’m all for a bit of free-thinking archaeology, as I hope the blog makes clear—in fact, for this post I finally caved in and created an ‘archaeology’ category that has been variously retrospectively applied—and as someone who works with people who work with metal detectorists, I am not one to diminish the rôle of the amateur in the unearthing of the past. All the same, sometimes ya gotta wonder.

Standing stones at Baliscate, Tobermory, Mull, Scotland

Standing stones at Baliscate, Tobermory, Mull, Scotland

For example. Very near the site of these standing stones, reports News for Medievalists on the back of several newspaper stories, it is being reported that two amateur archaeologists have located the site of a fifth- to tenth-century chapel, and the Royal Commission for Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland have been called in and said that it seems to be so. But really, the evidence is no more than that there is a square building there, it hasn’t been dug or anything and the dating and purpose is being deduced entirely from the building’s shape, which I don’t think will really do; I’ve seen what kind of leaps of logic that can lead to when there’s no digging done. It’s noticeable for one thing that even in the news story it’s evident that the RCAHMS team disagreed among themselves, and for another that they’re not prioritising digging it, which I think if there was good evidence of such an early date they genuinely would, what with the plethora of such sites just lately. Some might of course argue that what with the standing stones, it was a good candidate for conversion, and this may be true, but that really isn’t evidence enough to record a chapel here.

Carved stones from the churchyard of St Oswalds Lythe

Carved stones from the churchyard of St Oswald's Lythe

On the other hand, this exhibition of carved stones from the churchyard of a little-known Northumbrian church is certainly the real deal, and it is therefore reported both by Medieval Material Culture and the Whitby Gazette, with considerable pride on the part of the latter. On the other hand, though a first glance might make it look as if these were new discoveries, they were actually found in 1910, and though that means that they just about missed the standard big textbook on the subject, and they have at least been restored in the previous year and are going freshly onto exhibition, I’m slightly less excited than I thought I was going to be by this news. All the same, the irony exists, in that though at least one of the pieces they hauled out of the ground here in 1910 had what seems to be a depiction of Ragnarok on it, not at all Christian, I’m a lot surer there was a Christian place of worship here in the tenth century than at Baliscate.

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3 responses to “Questionable interpretation: early medieval church sites in Northern Britain?

  1. Welcome to the wonderful world of archaeology! ;-)

  2. Oh, I’ve been here before, that’s how I learnt the talk :-)

  3. Pingback: Vidi « Archaeoastronomy

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