Early Christian graves have been found during an archaeological dig in Maryport, Cumbria.
L-R Nigel Mills of the Hadrian’s Wall Trust, Jane Laskey of the Senhouse Roman Museum, Tony Wilmott and Professor Ian Haynes
Newcastle University’s Professor Ian Haynes, project director for the excavation said: “We still haven’t resolved the full plan of the site, and this will be our focus for the remaining weeks of the excavation.
“As far as the structures are concerned it’s looking as if there are at least two phases of construction. Meanwhile the graves that have been discovered indicate sustained use of the cemetery site.”
Painstaking excavation has revealed bone fragments, caps of tooth enamel, a glass bead necklace and a tiny fragment, about the size of a thumbnail, of ancient textile.
Tony Wilmot, site director said: “Given the ground conditions at this site the survival of this scrap of material is nothing less than miraculous.
“We’re discovering new things on an almost daily basis which are giving us new insights into what happened on this site across hundreds of years.
“It will take a while to process all the information following the dig but what we think we’re looking at now is a Christian cemetery close to a sequence of Christian religious buildings. If this is the case then this is a very exciting discovery – an early post-Roman Christian religious site occupied at the same time as other famous early Christian sites at Whithorn and at Hoddom in nearby Dumfriesshire.”
The westernmost grave is a typical long cist grave, lined with stones. Such graves, found occasionally in the west of Britain and in southern Scotland, are characteristic of the late Roman and early post-Roman Christian settlements of the area. They are dated to the period 400 to 600AD. In this stone lined grave was a white quartz stone, deliberately placed there at the burial. This is also a marker of this period, found at several sites including Whithorn in Dumfriesshire, in Ireland and on the Isle of Man, and at Whitby in North Yorkshire.
The soil on the Maryport site is acidic, so the team did not expect any bones to have survived but small fragments of three of the long bones and three caps of tooth enamel were found in the brown stain which was all that was left of the occupant of the grave.
In the second grave there were no human remains. Where the head would have been, the grave was lined with pebbles and a Roman roofing slate had been reused as a pillow stone. This grave appears to have been the final element of a sequence of three intercutting graves, so the cemetery was used over at least three generations of burial.
The deepest grave, also stone lined, is very small, possibly the grave of a child. In one corner, coiled up, was a necklace of glass beads. In a pagan grave the deceased would probably have been wearing this necklace, but here it looks as though it has been placed in the corner, possibly as a favourite object deposited as a keepsake. The textile fragment was found during wet-sieving of the lower fill of this grave.
The bone fragments and the textile fragment will now be sent to an archaeological laboratory to see if there is enough material for radiocarbon dating, and the glass necklace will be conserved for display in the Senhouse Roman Museum.
Further excavation of the post-holes for the large building has yielded the corner of an altar capital and an altar fragment bearing an inscription ‘IS’.
Peter Greggains of the Senhouse Museum Trust said: “We are delighted that, for the second year in succession, the careful work of the volunteers and the Newcastle University team, ably directed by Ian and Tony, has produced such breath-taking results.
“The Maryport site’s importance as a unique and valuable resource capable of providing information about the remote past has been established beyond doubt, and we now have new light on the Dark Ages.”
Nigel Mills, director of world heritage and access for the Hadrian’s Wall Trust said: “We are delighted that the importance of Maryport in the Hadrian’s Wall World Heritage Site is being fully confirmed through this important work.
“Evidence of continued occupation of former Roman sites across Hadrian’s Wall is transforming our understanding of how people adapted to the end of Roman rule.”
This year’s Maryport excavation is funded by the Senhouse Museum Trust, Newcastle University and the Mouswald Trust. The team includes archaeologists and students from Newcastle University and 42 local volunteers.
The site is part of the Hadrian’s Wall World Heritage Site and a scheduled ancient monument. It is owned by the Hadrian’s Wall Trust and is part of the proposed Roman Maryport heritage development.