Academic journal article Estonian Journal of Archaeology

Coastal Landscapes and Early Christianity in Anglo-Saxon Northumbria/Rannamaastikud Ja Varane Kristlus Anglosaksi Northumbrias

Academic journal article Estonian Journal of Archaeology

Coastal Landscapes and Early Christianity in Anglo-Saxon Northumbria/Rannamaastikud Ja Varane Kristlus Anglosaksi Northumbrias

Article excerpt


The 8th and 9th centuries AD were the Golden Age of Northumbria, the period when the northern Anglo-Saxon kingdom reached its peak in political power, intellectual endeavour and artistic output (Hawkes & Mills 1999; Rollason 2003). The study of this period consistently highlights the importance of a series of key, mainly ecclesiastical, sites: Whitby, Hartlepool, Bamburgh, Lindisfarne and the twin monastery of Monkwearmouth and Jarrow. Even a brief look at a map of early medieval Northumbria will reveal that these sites have coastal or estuarine locations (Fig. 1).

The key importance of maritime power and coastal zones in the early medieval period is well established. The importance of networks of emporia, wics and other trading centres is attested both historically and archaeologically (e.g. Hodges 1989; 2000; Kramer 2000). Most of this work has focused on the southern North Sea zone, including southern and eastern England, northern France, the Low Countries and southern Scandinavia (e.g. Loveluck & Tys 2006). Parallel explorations of trade and exchange in western Britain and Ireland have also considered the archaeology of early coastal sites (Campbell 1996; Wooding 1996). However, there has been relatively little consideration of the coastal landscapes of Anglo-Saxon England north of the River Humber.


It is clear that the coastal zone of Northumbria was of key social and economic importance in the early Middle Ages. Monastic sites stood overlooking the mouths of most of the major rivers between the Humber and the Forth, and important secular centres, such as Bamburgh, and possibly South Shields lay in very similar locations. A notable exception is Yeavering (Northumberland) although this site is only around twelve miles from the coastline (Hope-Taylor 1977). This reflects a wider pattern found in the North Sea area and the Baltic, with major polities being based in the coastal zone, and predicated on the control of sea power for both military and economic purposes (Haywood 1991; Kramer 2000; Bogucki 2004; Loveluck & Tys 2006). The central position of the North Sea is a means of communication and medium of interaction in Northumbria can be seen in a variety of ways, although direct archaeological evidence for maritime trade along the Northumbrian coast is limited. Although it is clear that York was a major centre for foreign trade throughout much of the early Middle Ages (Mainman 1993; Kemp 1996). There is very little evidence for imported continental ceramics, beyond the southern area of the kingdom. It seems that few imports were being traded on beyond the borders of the kingdom of Deira, and the River Tees appears to form a northern boundary for goods arriving via the southern North Sea trading system. However, the recent discovery of walrus ivory from excavations at Bamburgh may suggest direct maritime links between Northumbria and northern Scandinavia (P. Gething pers. comm. 2007).

Despite the relatively slight archaeological evidence for trade, the importance of the sea as a communications route in early medieval Northumbria is attested in documentary evidence. For example, the Anonymous History of Abbot Ceolfrith, written around AD 700, recalls Ceolfrith's voyage to Gaul. Ceolfrith took a boat from the monastery at Cornu Vallis, which can be identified as either Hornsea on the East Yorkshire coast, or possibly Spurn Head (AHAC 30 f.). The shipping lanes also ran north as well as south. Bede's Life of St Cuthbert records Cuthbert and two brethren travelling to 'the land of the Niduari' in Pictland, a journey that would have taken him north, passed the northern boundaries of Northumbria and the Firth of Forth to the coast of Fife and beyond (VSC 9). The sea and major rivers could also be used to transport goods, as well as people. Bede's Life of St Cuthbert includes a miracle performed by Cuthbert when he saved monks who had been bringing wood down the Tyne by raft from being swept out to sea (VSC 3). …

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