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Earliest monastery in the British Isles discovered

Beckery Chapel dig

Excavations at Beckery near Glastonbury in the Avalon Marshes have produced the earliest known evidence for monasticism in the British Isles. Radiocarbon dating of bodies in the monastic cemetery has shown that the monastery began in the 5th or early 6th centuries AD, before Somerset was conquered by the Saxon kings of Wessex in the 7th century.

Run as a community training dig by the South West Heritage Trust, the excavation was part of the Avalon Marshes Landscape Partnership scheme made possible by National Lottery players thanks to a £1.8m grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF). It re-investigated the site of a medieval chapel that was first excavated in the 1880s by John Morland and again in the 1960s by Philip Rahtz.

The 1960s excavation uncovered an extensive cemetery of at least 50 people. Almost all were adult males, leaving little doubt that this was a monastic graveyard. The only exceptions were two juveniles who may have been novices and a woman who may have been a patron or a visiting nun. The new excavation uncovered some of those skeletons to allow scientific dating. Seven individuals were dated, six from graves and one from human bone found in the backfill of the 1960s dig. The earliest monks died in the 5th or early 6th centuries AD, with burials continuing in the 7th to early 9th centuries. These dates provide the earliest archaeological evidence for monasticism in the British Isles. The monastic use of the site may have ended in the later 9th century when Somerset was attacked by Viking armies.

Site director Richard Brunning from the South West Heritage Trust said: “It is great to show that a community excavation can produce results that revolutionise our view of the origins of monasticism in Britain and Ireland. Archaeology is providing evidence that can get us beyond the uncertainty of the historical sources. The ancient origins of the Beckery site may explain why later medieval writers linked it to figures such as King Arthur and Saint Brigit.”

Nerys Watts, Head of HLF South West, said: “This discovery just goes to show the incredible hidden heritage and untold stories still to be discovered within our landscapes. Thanks to National Lottery players, we’re delighted to support the Avalon Marshes Landscape Partnership which is bringing organisations together and putting communities at the heart of the landscape’s future.”

Beckery is a small island of hard geology in the Avalon Marshes, a short distance from Glastonbury. The place name either means ‘bee-keeper’s island’ in Old English or is Irish for ‘Little Ireland’. Small islands were often chosen as sites for hermitages and monasteries in this early period. That was partly so they could be separated from the ordinary world to aid spiritual seclusion.

Volunteers at work at Beckery Chapel

Volunteers excavating the site with Glastonbury Tor and Wearyall Hill (right) in background
Beckery Chapel dig - Aerial view

Aerial view of the site showing the remains of two phases of stone chapel, the larger, outer walls being from the later chapel. The graves were underneath and outside these chapels. Four of the excavated graves are visible as disturbed patches of soil and are marked 1-4 .
 Beckery Chapel reconstruction

Reconstruction of how the site may have appeared in the late Saxon period when the last burials were being made around AD 880. llustration credit: David Lawrence

 

 Beckery grave

Excavation of adult male over 45 years old. The individual died between AD 425 and 579.

 

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