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Archaeologists to go searching for lost Anglo-Saxon monastery

A team of archaeologists and history-lovers will begin searching for the Anglo-Saxon monastery established in the seventh-century in Scotland.

Somewhere near the village of Coldingham in Berwickshire lie the remains of a monastery founded by Princess Æbbe, sister of Oswald, King of Northumbria (634-642) nearly 1,400 years ago. Its location has eluded archaeologists for decades, but now a team armed with new evidence is asking for help from the public to reignite the search.

Oswald is most famous as the King of Northumbria who returned from exile to reclaim the family throne, and founded a small monastery on Lindisfarne in AD 635. Famous for being where the Lindisfarne Gospels were created, and the first place in the British Isles to be targeted by the Vikings, it’s now one of England’s best known historic sites.

Meanwhile, the monastery at Coldingham founded by his sister Æbbe remains much less well known. Now separated by a border, they were once part of the same kingdom, and both were influential in the spread of early Medieval Christianity. “Despite Coldingham’s significance, compared to Lindisfarne, much less is known about it. This project aims to change that and reveal Æbbe’s side of the story in Scotland,” says DigVentures archaeologist Brendon Wilkins.

Starting in June, a team of archaeologists and crowdfunders lead by DigVentures will begin unearthing a location in the heart of Coldingham.

“Although previous attempts to locate the remains of the original monastery based on historical sources have come up largely empty handed, we’re working with a new set of geophysics results that have revealed a number of possible Anglo-Saxon structures at a slightly different location. Now, we just need to excavate and see if it’s really there,” says Wilkins.

Historical sources indicate that Æbbe’s monastery burnt down soon after she died, was abandoned for a short while, rebuilt and continued to thrive until AD 870 when it was destroyed once and for all by a devastating Viking attack – just like Oswald’s Lindisfarne.

The team ran a small trial excavation in November, and collaborated with the community to help decide where to dig during the upcoming excavation. “Like Lindisfarne, Coldingham is an important site in the story of early medieval Christianity in the British Isles, and yet we know much less about it than other sites of similar significance. This is a chance to redress the balance, and begin answering some big questions about Coldingham’s early medieval history” says Wilkins.

Anne Dall, secretary for Friends of Coldingham Priory says “As a community, we are delighted that the DigVentures team is coming to the village in June. Let’s hope that the investigation reveals the hidden traces of Æbbe’s lost monastery and throws more light on the history of Coldingham.”

The remains of a later Coldingham Priory, which was established around 1100. The earlier Anglo-Saxon monastery may be near by. Photo by Walter Baxter / Wikimedia Commons

The project has already received some support from the Heritage Lottery Fund to enable a programme for local schools and people in the area. DigVentures is now inviting anyone interested in helping to unearth Coldingham’s history to join the excavation. Details can be found at digventures.com/projects/coldingham

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