Has the lost monastery of St Aebbe finally been found?

The fields around Coldingham Priory have been busy this summer as archeologists hunt for the lost monastery of St Aebbe.
The fields around Coldingham Priory have been busy this summer as archeologists hunt for the lost monastery of St Aebbe.

A two-week dig to look for the lost seventh century monastery of Princess Aebbe somewhere in the Coldingham area has come up with some interesting finds - but as yet no conclusive proof.

Dig Ventures intern Indie Jago, who led the group of volunteers in their work, said a geophysics study and a previous excavation had sparked interest in Coldingham.

The trenches dug around Coldingham Priory could provide the proof that St Aebbe's monastery was in Coldingham rather than St Abbs.

The trenches dug around Coldingham Priory could provide the proof that St Aebbe's monastery was in Coldingham rather than St Abbs.

Friends of Coldingham Priory have also long held the view that the monastery is located there.

Ms Jago said: “They [priories] tend to be built at the same site as the 7th century monasteries, like at Lindisfarne.”

She said 41kg of bones excavated from an animal midden deposit had already been cleaned and by the end of the exercise this would be more than doubled.

She added: “We are also looking for pottery, but the Anglo-Saxons were not good at leaving it behind.”

Born a pagan princess in Northumbria, exiled as a child, and raised by the Christian kings of Dal Riada, Aebbe’s story is a fascinating one.

It had been thought that Princess Aebbe, the sister of King Oswald, who founded the monastery at Lindisfarne, had established her monastery at St Abb’s Head.

“Now lost to time, historical tradition claims that the monastery was most likely somewhere up on St Abbs Head, where a late medieval cult developed around her memory in the 12th century,” explained Ms Jago. “But strangely, archaeological investigation has found not a single trace of a building here.

“It’s entirely possible that history has been misled, for if you wanted to establish a monastery that would convert a pagan population to Christianity (just as Aebbe did), would you really place yourself in such a hard-to-reach cliff-top location? And anyway, just a wee bit inland, right in the heart of Coldingham, there is a later medieval priory. And that’s important because there is a well-known tradition of priories being built on the sites of earlier monasteries.”

Certainly Friends of Coldingham Priory have also long held the view that the monastery is located there rather than at St Abbs Head.

“Adding weight to this possibility is the fact that over the years, hints of Aebbe’s early Anglo-Saxon monastery have appeared in the abutting gardens – from fragments of stone carvings, to early bone combs,” added Ms Jago. “Plus, the geophysics interpretation looks pretty busy.

“With all this in mind, we went to look for traces in the fields surrounding the priory.

“Over the course of our two weeks, we became increasingly fascinated by a large, curving ditch that appeared in Trench 6. Excitingly, this ditch seems to curve gently round to where, during an earlier rescue excavation, material was found in a similar ditch that was radiocarbon dated to the 7th century – the exact same period as Aebbe’s monastery.

“Even more excitingly, if you project the course of the ditch, it looks like a huge circle, centred on the upstanding priory. If the later priory was built on top of the earlier monastery, could this ditch be the monastery’s vallum?

“A vallum is an enclosing ditch that would have surrounded the monastery’s main precinct. They were more symbolic than defensive – a simple marker to delineate the monastery’s perimeter. And that certainly seems to fit with what we’ve found.

“This really could be Aebbe’s vallum!

“On the last day of the dig, we took samples of charcoal, animal bone and soil from the bottom of the ditch to explore in the lab. If this material dates back to the 7th century, it would make a strong case that this is the boundary ditch (vallum) of Princess/Saint Aebbe’s Monastery.

“For now it’s the end of the dig, but the archaeology isn’t over yet. If the results come back positive, then we’ll certainly be looking to continue our explorations again next year, to see if we can pin down any more evidence of Aebbe’s monastery.”

Volunteers, back in Barnard Castle, are now sifting through thousands of animal bones looking for evidence of the monastery.

DigVentures was able to undertake the archeological dig at Coldingham after successfully raising the money through Crowdfunding. The goal was to raise £7,500 and it ended up raising £7,792. It is now looking at crowdfunding another dig and doing more excavation at Coldingham next year.

All of the Dig Ventures activities and findings are published on its website digventures.com.

Ms Jago added: “We want people to follow the data as it is released.

“Ideally we want people to invest and get behind it.”