The first example of prayer beads from medieval Britain was discovered on the island of Lindisfarne, one of Britain’s most historic ancient sites, much to the excitement of archaeologists.
Dating back to the 8th to 9th century AD, they were made from salmon vertebrae. Fish being an important symbol of early Christianity, they were grouped around the neck of one of the first skeletons – possibly one of the monks buried inside the famous medieval monastery.
Archaeologists are trying to uncover the lost history of Lindisfarne, also known as Holy Island, off the coast of Northumberland. It was established by the kings of Northumbria in the 7th century as an important religious center and became the scene of the first major Viking raid on Britain in the 8th century.
It was there that the monks created the Lindisfarne Gospels – the most spectacular manuscript to survive from Anglo-Saxon England – but there have been few tangible finds at the site.
David Petts, co-director of the project and an expert on early Christianity at the University of Durham, told The Telegraph that fish vertebrae appear to be prayer beads for personal devotion: “We think of the great ceremonial side of medieval life in monasteries and great works. like the Lindisfarne Gospels. But what we have here is something that speaks to a much more personal side of early Christianity.”
He paid tribute to Marina Chorro Giner, a zooarchaeologist, for recognizing the meaning of vertebrae: something.”
Discussing the significance of fish and the sea to the island’s medieval inhabitants, he referred to a monk named Cuthbert, who joined Lindisfarne in the 670s and became the foremost saint of northern England in the Middle Ages: Stories of Christ and the Apostles being fishermen and going to the Sea of Galilee and calming storms. We see in Bede’s Life of Saint Cuthbert Cuthbert calming storms. So the sea is symbolically important.”
Accounts offer significant information for understanding how people in the past lived and expressed their beliefs through objects.
Their position around the neck suggested that they had been tied together like a necklace. The natural hole in the center of the salmon’s vertebrae had been enlarged, either before threading or through wear.
The discovery follows ongoing excavations at Lindisfarne by DigVentures, an archeology social enterprise in which volunteers work alongside professionals, as well as Durham University.
Lisa Westcott Wilkins of DigVentures described it as “a remarkable find”: “Clearly, it was important enough that this person was buried with him. This is the only artifact inside a tomb in Lindisfarne, so it’s a significant item. As far as we know, it is the first example of prayer beads found anywhere in medieval Britain.”
She added: “We believe these beads were used as a personal object of faith, especially as our modern word bead comes from the Old English gebed, meaning ‘prayer’.”
Such is the enormity of the site that the team will continue their excavations for another four years. Other finds included runestones, coins and copper rings.
Mrs. Westcott Wilkins said they are now focused on the first layer within a cemetery that stands next to the ruins of the 12th century priory: “There are so many human remains.”
In 1997, in the nearby medieval chapel in Chevington, Northumberland, fish vertebrae with similar modifications were found. But they were of Atlantic cod, among other fish, and this burial dated back to the 13th or 14th century, while that is much earlier.