Medieval prayer beads found on Lindisfarne

They were found around the neck of a skeleton during an excavation of a cemetery area.

The earliest known example of medieval prayer beads found in Britain has been announced during excavations on Lindisfarne, off the coast of Northumberland.

Also known as Holy Island, Lindisfarne was home to a significant religious community during the early medieval period, and the beads – made from modified salmon vertebrae (BELOW) – have been dated to the 8th-9th century AD. They were found around the neck of a skeleton during the excavation – led by DigVentures and Durham University – of a cemetery area, which also contains the remains of several buildings.

Image: DigVentures and (photo by Claire Jordan).

Zooarchaeologist Marina Chorro-Giner at, who recognised the significance of the vertebrae, told CA, ‘All the vertebrae were around the same size, with virtually no variation between them. Upon closer inspection I could see that the foramen [an opening or hole in a piece of bone] on the vertebral body didn’t look right; it was bigger than usual – in all of them!’ Marina then found Sue Stallibrass’s articles (2002, 2005, and 2007) reporting on beads from a 13th- or 14th-century context, made from the vertebrae of cod and other fish, and discovered previously at the medieval chapel at Chevington, also in Northumberland. The resemblance between these later finds and the Lindisfarne vertebrae suggested that the latter ought to be interpreted as prayer beads.

Commenting on the beads, Dr David Petts, the project co-director and a Durham University specialist in early Christianity, said, ‘We think of the grand ceremonial side of early medieval life in the monasteries and great works like the Lindisfarne Gospels. But what we’ve got here is something which talks to a much more personal side of early Christianity.’

The Lindisfarne excavations, which are publicly crowdfunded each year, are ongoing and will resume this month. Lisa Westcott Wilkins, DigVentures’ co-founder and CEO, commented, ‘This is the only artefact from within a grave on Lindisfarne, so it’s a significant item. As far as we’re aware, it’s the first example of prayer beads found anywhere in early medieval Britain.’ For more about the project, see: