It is conceivable that 5th or early 6th century humans, whose remains were recently excavated at Glastonbury in England, may have known King Arthur or St. Bridget—two towering figures of early British legend. They are the oldest known remains of monks in the British Isles, says a story about the dig in The Guardian. A group doing a community training excavation turned up the remains at Beckery Chapel in Somerset—a medieval chapel that has an earlier foundation of a monastery and a nearby cemetery with 50 to 60 bodies in it, The Guardian states.
An illustration of Beckery Chapel (Somerset Routes)
The monks that were unearthed died around 500 AD, but burials continued into the early 9th century, the article states. From historical and archaeological evidence, experts have tentatively concluded that monks used the site until later in the 9th century, when Vikings attacked Somerset.
Legends say St. Bridget, an important Irish saint with roots in an earlier Celtic goddess, visited the site in 488 AD, after which it became a place of pilgrimage.
“Brigit: In Celtic mythology, goddess of knowledge, fire, the hearth, and poetry. Brigit is a culture goddess, her name being found in various forms throughout Britain as well as the Continent. When the Irish became Christian, Brigit was, according to some scholars, metamorphosed into St. Brigit,” says the Facts on File Encyclopedia of World Mythology and Legend.
“St. Bride,” a 1913 painting by John Duncan (Wikimedia Commons)
The community dig turned up two previously unknown bodies and workers took bone samples of seven others for radio carbon testing. The earliest of them, probably a monk, died between 406 and 544 AD.
Archaeologists found the cemetery in the 1960s, but radio carbon dating of ancient material was still unrefined and imprecise. Dr. Richard Brunning, director of the excavations, said the finds were exciting and surprising and added that archaeologists and historians have been waiting for 50 years to answer the question of when these people lived.
It was in France that monasticism started around or shortly before 400 AD, The Guardian says. It spread to the British Isles bordering the Irish Sea, including western England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland. These findings are the earliest evidence of monasticism in the United Kingdom, Dr. Brunning told The Guardian.
“There are various saints’ lives that suggest people might be founding monasteries, but they are vaguely dated and it is uncertain how far you can trust them, because, obviously, it is in their own interests to big up the history of whatever saint they are writing about, and they are usually written several hundred years afterwards,” Dr. Brunning told The Guardian.
Some say St. Bridget and King Arthur, a legendary British ruler who led the defense of Britain against Saxon invaders in the late 5th and early 6th centuries AD, visited Beckery Chapel, which the older monastery and cemetery are near.
This South West Heritage Trust photo shows two phases of the chapel, the outer walls having been added later.
Twenty-five local people did the dig, which lasted about two weeks and was overseen by the South West Heritage Trust. Archaeologists will write up the findings for a journal and the site will open for public visits and have interpretation panels. Nearby “Glastonbury Abbey is a big tourist attraction itself, so it just adds to that wider Glastonbury story,” Dr. Brunning said.
John Morland actually first excavated the medieval chapel in the 1880s, and Philip Rahtz continued in the 1960s, but because radio carbon dating was new the exact age of the site was unknown, The Guardian states.
Top Image: This skeleton of a person about 45 years old are the remains of a man who died between 425 and 579 AD, radio carbon dating has shown. Legend says St. Bridget, an Irish saint, visited Beckery Chapel in 488 AD and it became a place of pilgrimage. (South West Heritage Trust photo)
By Mark Miller