The skeleton of an unknown 7th-century warrior buried near Bamburgh Castle in Northumberland seemed to have nothing to tell historian and novelist Edoardo Albert… until tests showed a link to a Scottish holy island and the original returning king: Oswald of Northumbria.
The bones were silent.
That’s the problem: they usually are. They are the skeletons of a life but, without historical records, that’s all they are: dry old bones that tell nothing of the story they enacted. For the archaeologist trying to tell their tale, this is a problem; one that they’ve attempted to solve through facial reconstruction (Meet the Ancestors), self-imposed time constraints (Time Team) and time-travelling back to a prehistoric past (Steven Mithen in After the Ice). All the methods are useful, all suffer from difficulties.
“What we really need,” I told my archaeologist brother-in-law, Paul Gething (we’re married to sisters), “is a skeleton with a story. That’s how we could really bring the past to life.”
We had already collaborated on one book, Northumbria: the Lost Kingdom, in which I told the history and archaeology of that early Medieval kingdom, one of the key players in the gradual shaping of Britain into England, Scotland and Wales, using the many findings and insights from Paul and the rest of the team at the Bamburgh Research Project. The BRP have been excavating in and around Bamburgh Castle in Northumberland since the turn of the millennium.
Paul grinned at me. “It so happens…”
One of the first sites the BRP had excavated was the Bowl Hole burial ground. This is located south east of the castle on a raised ridge of land. The BRP excavated over a hundred bodies from the burial ground, dating from the fifth to the eighth centuries.
These are important years in Britain’s history – and the centuries responsible for making the designation Dark Ages not entirely inappropriate. For between the Romans leaving, roughly around 410, and the arrival of St Augustine in Kent in 597 there is an almost complete historical blank: for two hundred years, Britain retreated from history back into legend and myth and, now, archaeology.
Turned out that one of the skeletons Paul had excavated from the Bowl Hole was different.
These bones were talking. These bones were telling Paul the story of the life they had led and the deeds they had done, of the man’s family and his heart feelings. This was a story Paul told me and, in his telling, I heard a story worth the telling to anyone else who would listen.
So we sat down to write Warrior. Its original subtitle was ‘the biography of a man with no name’, which pretty much sums up what we set out to do at the start. Our Warrior, although buried within sight of the stronghold of the Idings at Bamburgh, was not an Angle as the ruling family at Bamburgh was.
Among the many technological advances that made writing Warrior possible are techniques that, by analysing isotopic residues in teeth, can determine where someone was born and brought up. It turned out this warrior was born on, or very near, the isle of Iona.
Iona. The name itself made our ears prick up. The holy isle of St Columba, from which Christianity had spread through northern Britain. The spiritual hub of the sea-spanning kingdom of Dál Riata, the home of the Scoti, the Gaels who had come over the sea from Ireland and, in a process that remains mysterious, somehow amalgamated or overcame or did some combination of both with the already resident Picts to produce Scotland.
It was from Iona that the greatest of Northumbrian kings, Oswald, had returned from exile to reclaim his throne: the return of the king that inspired JRR Tolkien’s own returning king, Aragorn. (To complete the circle, Paul and I both had a nearly life-long love of Middle-earth.)
Our warrior couldn’t be related to all these events – could he? Turned out, he was. The dates brought him right into line with the return of the king and the establishment, on Lindisfarne, of the North Sea equivalent of the Holy Isle of the Irish Sea.
This was a warrior, forgotten by name, who had nevertheless taken part in the great events of his time, events that laid the foundation for everything that we later became.
There was, after all, no a priori reason why the island of Britain should be divided into England, Wales and Scotland. It had not always been so. And in the 7th century, when the warrior rode alongside Oswald, there was as yet no obvious sign that this should be so.
Even the religion of the land was questionable: the Christianity of the Britons had been largely displaced by the gods of the Angles and the Saxons. In a time when God, or the gods, were expected to show their favour most directly on the battlefield, the smart money must have been on the religion of the Angles and the Saxons permanently displacing that of the Britons. After all, why sacrifice to the god of the people your forefathers defeated?
In Warrior: A Life of War in Anglo-Saxon Britain, we set out to answer this question and to tell the life of our warrior, a man who died 1,400 years ago, a man whose name no-one has spoken for a millennium, but a man whose bones spoke. We hope you will find the tale worth hearing.
Edoardo Albert is a writer specialising in Anglo-Saxon and Islamic history. His interest in the Kingdom of Northumbria was sparked by his brother-in-law’s excavations in and around Bamburgh Castle.
He’s the author of the Northumbrian Thrones trilogy of novels set in Anglo-Saxon England, which includes Oswald: Return of the King, the second book in the series.
Edoardo reviewed the recent major exhibition, Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War, for Historia.
There’s more about King (and, later, Saint) Oswald in Matthew Harffy’s Historia feature about this important Anglo-Saxon figure.
Bamburgh Castle by James Emberton: via Flickr
The excavations below Bamburgh Castle: Paul Gething
Skeleton uncovered during the excavations: Paul Gething
Iona, the Abbey, by Frederique Harmsze: via Flickr
Oswald of Northumbria from the Epitome of Chronicles of Matthew Paris via Wikimedia