‘Leave your weapons at the door,’ came the advice – part warning, part welcome – as I stepped from the modern world into the domain of the Northumbrian royal court. Immediately I found myself in a high-ceilinged hall, overlooked by ornately carved thrones set on a dais. At the time of my visit the king and queen were not in attendance, but the music of a lyre struck by their bard filled the air, vividly evoking the atmosphere of an early medieval feasting hall. All around me, the walls were hung with finely embroidered cloths and colourful shields, testifying to the kingdom’s cultural achievements and martial might. This was, after all, the time of the Golden Age of Northumbria: a time when lands that had been remote frontier territories during the Roman period flourished into a mighty kingdom encompassing much of northern England and southern Scotland.
It was a time when, between the mid-7th and mid-8th centuries, Northumbria witnessed an astonishing cultural flowering that produced such celebrated creations as the Lindisfarne Gospels, the Franks Casket, and the Ruthwell Cross, as well as individuals like Bede and Alcuin, whose writings shed so much light on the period in which they lived. And it was a time of great religious change, driven by the courts of two 7th-century kings, Edwin – whose Kentish-Frankish wife, Æthelburh, and her bishop, Paulinus, did much to help reintroduce Christianity to the post-Roman north – and Oswald, who established Lindisfarne’s internationally influential monastery.
This story of secular power and sacred legacy is told by a new attraction, Ad Gefrin, which opened in Wooler earlier this year. Its name comes from Bede’s description of a place today known as Yeavering, which lies about five miles to the east. This was, Bede tells us, a vicus regius, or seasonal royal settlement, which was periodically visited by the rulers of Northumbria, together with sites like Bamburgh (see CA 237 and CA 360). Although ultimately abandoned in favour of another royal seat at Maelmin (probably modern Milfield), its remains were rediscovered after tell-tale cropmarks were spotted in aerial photographs in 1949 – and, between 1953 and 1962, Brian Hope-Taylor uncovered traces of mighty timber halls, an imposing wooden grandstand, and other buildings that would have been used by the transient court. Over half a century later, ongoing investigations by Durham University and the Gefrin Trust are further illuminating the site’s layout and chronology (see box on p.36), but, while the structural remains are impressive, they have yielded few traces of the people who frequented them.
Being only periodically visited by the court, the halls were presumably cleaned out between uses – and they appear to have burned down later in their history. As a result, Dr Chris Ferguson, Director of Experience at Ad Gefrin, explained, artefacts from these structures are relatively scarce. To help rebalance this picture, the new attraction in Wooler has brought together finds from Yeavering itself, from the wider Northumbrian kingdom, and from across early medieval England to help tell the site’s story and put people back at its heart.
‘All of the excavations at Yeavering have uncovered lots of finds relating to the buildings – wattle and daub, clinker nails, and other structural remains – as well as fragments of pottery and crafting materials that tell us a lot about the buildings that were there and some of the activities taking place,’ he said. ‘We use examples of these as a jumping-off point in our displays, to introduce the site and explain how it has been and is being investigated by archaeologists. But what we really wanted to do was to bring these empty buildings back to life, to fill in all the stories and colour of the people who lived and worked in these places during the royal court’s visits and in between. We want Yeavering to stand in context with contemporary royal burial sites like Sutton Hoo, Prittlewell, and Taplow – these are full of material culture but they are places of the dead. We wanted to bring the same level of detail to a place associated with the living.’
Early medieval encounters
On arriving at Ad Gefrin and ascending a spiral staircase through a beehive-shaped building, visitors initially encounter the reconstructed great hall that I described at the start of this article. Its dimensions are based on those of Hope-Taylor’s Building A4, represented half in an immersive physical reconstruction, and half though vibrantly detailed audiovisual effects. This latter aspect allows you to ‘meet’ many of the key characters associated with the 7th-century court, from historical individuals like Oswald, Æthelburh, and Paulinus to representative figures from all levels of Anglo-Saxon society, including a bard, a weaver, the royal standard-bearer, and an enslaved individual. The last is presented as the son of a captured Christian nobleman, highlighting the fluidity of social status at this time, and the fluidity of beliefs both during the wider Conversion Period and at Yeavering itself, which was home to a possible temple dedicated to the ‘old gods’ (Hope-Taylor’s Building D2).
Everything in the hall is based on archaeological evidence and details gleaned from contemporary written sources such as Bede’s Ecclesiastical History and the Old English epic Beowulf. While no traces of furniture have survived at Yeavering, the reconstructed royal thrones, presented as folding chairs, are in keeping with funerary finds from Sutton Hoo and Prittlewell, as well as the 7th-century throne of King Dagobert of Francia. Carvings decorating the space incorporate goats’ heads, reflecting the site’s Anglo-Saxon name (which means ‘by the hill of the goats’), and a local re-enactment group spent two years hand-embroidering the hall’s wall-hangings, using replica tools and Irish linen, and taking their inspiration from the imagery of the Bewcastle Cross, illuminated manuscripts like the Lindisfarne Gospels, the Book of Durrow, and the Book of Kells, and the Sutton Hoo helmet. Other areas of the walls are hung with shields and, in one place, a replica lyre (which the front of house team are learning to play, Chris said).
Above all, the aim of the reconstructed hall is to plunge visitors into the atmosphere of the royal court before they encounter the detail of archaeological evidence housed within the adjacent museum, Chris said – to show not only how Yeavering’s halls would have looked, but how they would have felt. Certainly, as I stood within this space, Bede’s account of a speech by one of Edwin’s counsellors, who was considering the merits of conversion, seemed vividly fitting. According to Bede, the Northumbrian noble described a typical feasting hall as part of a metaphor for the brevity of pagan existence compared to the eternal life promised by Christianity: ‘the mead-hall where you sit down to dinner with your ealdormen and thanes in the winter, and a fire is blazing in the middle of the room and everything inside is warm, but wintry rain and snow are raging outside’. Experiencing the cosy, comfortable, and colourful surroundings of the hall for myself, I could see why the parable would have resonated so appealingly with the Northumbrian court.
Beyond the hall lies a museum presenting a detailed picture of the world that Yeavering’s inhabitants knew. The court would have been supported by a range of craft activities, and crucible fragments from Yeavering testify to metalwork being made and repaired at the site. At Ad Gefrin, pieces of these vessels are accompanied by suitably high-status finished objects, loaned from elsewhere, to give a flavour of what might have been produced there. They include escutcheon plaques from a Northumbrian hanging bowl, as well as a penannular brooch decorated with animal art, both on loan from the British Museum. The latter object was found in Wooler, and its inclusion in the museum represents the first time it has ‘come home’ since its discovery.
Other creative items include evidence of weaving, and a bridge and tuning peg from a lyre, while early medieval tastes for finely made objects are also reflected in an elaborate claw beaker, blown from greenish-blue glass in 5th-century Francia before it was imported to Northumbria a century later. The object ended its days in a high-status burial at Castle Eden, Co. Durham, and, thanks to a loan from the British Museum, is now back in the North East for the first time since the 1990s.
Perhaps one of the most famous creations of early medieval Northumbria is the whalebone virtuosity of the Franks Casket, a small container whose size belies the detail of its decorations, presenting Biblical, Classical, and Norse narratives in delicate carvings. The original object remains in the British Museum, but a detailed replica is on show at Ad Gefrin; opposite, in the section exploring Yeavering’s religious legacy, we see a replica of another Northumbrian star: the Ruthwell Cross. Its relief carvings represent a wealth of Christian stories, but these are unusually accompanied by runic text preserving part of an Anglo-Saxon poem: The Dream of the Rood – an innovatively individual work that tells the story of the Crucifixion from the perspective of the Cross itself.
Such thought-provoking insights into the early medieval imagination are woven throughout Ad Gefrin. Within the museum, displays delve deeply into the Old English language, from ideas of storytelling, oral transmission, and public performance to the playful interest that Anglo-Saxons evidently had in wordplay, riddles, and the intricate metaphorical constructions that they shared with Old Norse literature, known as ‘kennings’. Throughout the wider attraction, this theme plays out in the ‘bilingual’ signage that is used on everything from the toilets to the café to the bike stores. Some of the labels for places that have no direct Old English equivalent are pleasingly imaginative – and were, Chris said, a lot of fun to devise.
While religious themes play an important role in Yeavering’s story, it was also undeniably a place of potent secular power, often enforced through military prowess. This aspect is vividly illustrated by objects like a striking shield boss that was excavated at Bidford-on-Avon, Warwickshire, in 1923, and has been loaned to Ad Gefrin by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Elaborately decorated with beast-head mounts, it has been compared in artistry and status to the boss recovered from Sutton Hoo’s Mound 1 ship burial.
Complementing this is a relatively recent find: a sword from a previously unknown burial ground at Eslington, which was reported to the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) in 2010 and has been loaned to Ad Gefrin by the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle. Another blade is on display for the first time after resting in the archives of the Duke of Northumberland since the 1840s.
As well as such ‘masculine’ martial models of power, the voices of women can be clearly heard. The team behind Ad Gefrin’s creation were keen to rebalance the traditional focus on kings, Chris said, particularly as Edwin’s wife, Æthelburh, was an important figure in her own right. She not only brought Paulinus to the Northumbrian court and influenced Edwin’s conversion, but would go on to found another significant Christian site far to the south, at Lyminge in Kent (CA 284 and 355).
High-status dress accessories are employed to represent the female presence at Yeavering, including a large and elaborate great square-headed brooch from Alveston Manor, Stratford-upon-Avon, which has been loaned by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Aside from its impressive scale, the object is attractively inlaid with garnets, and has a more unusual element: at its heart is a recycled Roman intaglio depicting (rather appropriately, given the caprine themes woven through the attraction) Cupid milking a goat.
Artefacts like this also reflect the network of wide-reaching cultural and commercial connections that Anglo-Saxon rulers could access. The brooch’s garnets probably came from India or perhaps Afghanistan, while it is displayed alongside amber beads using material from the Baltic region. Such ‘exotic’ items are complemented by the presence of finds from rather more local sites, none more so than the possible cemetery site which has been documented by the PAS at Etal, about 10 miles from Wooler, and which has produced coin pendants, wrist clasps, and fragments of brooches.
‘This was a hugely interconnected and self-aware world,’ Chris said. ‘Yeavering had links to Kent, and we know from Bede that Edwin also spent time with King Raedwald in East Anglia, where he could have seen the burial ground at Sutton Hoo. Although the palace site today feels very isolated, this was not an inward-looking community: they knew what was happening in Francia, in Scandinavia, and in Rome.’
While the archaeological site of Yeavering may seem remote and rural today, Ad Gefrin aims to give a sense of how the palace was just part of a densely inhabited landscape. ‘We want to tell the story of the ordinary people who lived there year-round, maintaining the site in the court’s absence, carrying out crafts and other activities, and preparing the halls ahead of royal visits,’ Chris said. ‘In Suffolk, excavations at Rendlesham [another site named by Bede as a royal centre] are helping to illuminate the wider inhabited landscape around Sutton Hoo, and we want to do the same here. Royal centres needed lots of ordinary people working to facilitate them, people who often left much less visible traces.’
A taste of the past
Just as Yeavering’s courtly and productive functions were indivisibly entwined, Ad Gefrin has two key components. As well as the museum, the attraction is home to a distillery. Finding that the local water, barley, and climate were all well-suited to whisky-production, the Ad Gefrin team have established a partner operation for the museum, whose revenues they hope will make the attraction’s heritage and educational aspects self-sustaining rather than relying on public grants. They note that theirs represents the first legal distillery to operate in Northumberland (although the remains of some of its more illicit ancestors can still be found in the surrounding hills).
Ad Gefrin’s single malt will have to remain in cask for three years before it can be released as whisky, but in the meantime the team have produced a blend of Scottish and Irish whiskies called Tácnbora (‘standard-bearer’ in Old English). Its name seems fitting for the site’s fledgling spirit, and also draws on Bede’s description of the eponymous member of Edwin’s court, who always travelled ahead of his king.
The other spirit currently made and sold on site is Thirlings Dry Gin, named after a nearby Anglo-Saxon settlement, with botanicals inspired by the Northumbrian countryside and coast. The ridged and dimpled patterning of its bottle refers to Yeavering’s archaeology, namely the outline of the grandstand and post-holes picking out the footprint of the long-vanished royal halls – places where many gatherings would have revolved around a shared drink and generous hospitality.
Seventy or so years after Brian Hope-Taylor’s first excavations began at Yeavering, Durham University and the Gefrin Trust have been carrying out further investigations to test his interpretations, illuminate new aspects of the archaeology, and improve understanding of the site, using scientific dating techniques that were not available to Hope-Taylor. This September saw their second season of work (see CA 384 for a summary of 2021’s finds), and Sarah Semple kindly spoke to me on site, despite the ferocious weather that coincided with my trip to Ad Gefrin, and provided an update on what had been found. The following is a brief outline of 2023’s preliminary results, but watch this space for a fuller feature in a future issue of CA once dating evidence has come in.
This year’s dig focused on an area just to the east of the palace complex where the team re-excavated Hope-Taylor’s section through the Great Enclosure’s outer palisade, and also dug a new section through the same feature a short distance to the north. Meanwhile, a large western extension was opened to evaluate anomalies that had been identified during geophysical survey in 2021. The results have been illuminating. Investigations of the outer palisade ditch have confirmed the outer ditch had a large, V shaped, primary and then secondary recut, and that this second ditch had been almost entirely filled when a series of parallel, aligned fence- or palisade slots were constructed, one located immediately west of the lip of the ditch, and one to the east. Two similar stone-packed slots were also identified running centrally at the uppermost level, cutting the central upper fills of the outer ditch’s second phase. We also now have evidence that Hope-Taylor’s Palisade 5, perhaps connected with palace A4 (the building that inspired Ad Gefrin’s reconstructed hall), also cuts and post-dates the uppermost fill of the second outer palisade ditch.
In terms of dating the finds, the team have recovered extensive amounts of charcoal; some of this comes from the burning of material in situ in the ditch sequences, which will enable them to meet their primary aim of establishing an absolute (scientific) chronology for the development of activity on the site. To the west, geophysical anomalies that the team had thought might be hut circles have proven to be natural, probably caused by glacial features – but an interesting set of large post-holes, some previously excavated by Hope-Taylor and others newly excavated, may represent post-settings associated with a northern entrance to the hall complex.
Post-excavation analysis is now under way at Durham University, in collaboration with Durham University Archaeological Services, with use of external experts where necessary, and samples for 14C and OSL dating are promising in terms of establishing absolute dates for the development of the Great Enclosure and its final phases of use. The team hope to return for two or three more seasons of excavation at Yeavering, dependent on funding and permissions. For further information and research updates, please visit http://www.gefrintrust.org/excavations.
All images: Sally Ann Norman, unless otherwise stated