15 July, 2012

Post-Roman York: Lamel Hill cemetery

York was an important military, ecclesiastical and political centre in Late Roman Britain. In the early seventh century it was under royal control of the Anglian (‘Anglo-Saxon’) kings of Deira, and later in the seventh century it developed into a major ecclesiastical centre and the seat of an archbishopric, a status it holds to this day.

In between, the historical record is a blank. There are no definite references to York between the fourth century and the seventh century, although there are one or two snippets whose meaning is less than clear (see earlier post on Post-Roman York: the documentary evidence for a summary of the documentary records). Evidence from archaeology provides some clues that may help to fill in the gap. In earlier posts I have discussed the headquarters building and the Anglian cremation cemeteries at The Mount and Heworth This post discusses the cemetery at Lamel Hill and Belle Vue House.


Lamel Hill

Lamel Hill is an artificial mound on natural rise situated south-east of the Roman fortress at York.

Map link here
The arrow shows the location of Lamel Hill. The scale is currently set to show the position of the mound. Zoom out to see the location in relation to the rest of the city, and zoom in for a detailed view showing the street names.

The mound was constructed during the English Civil War as a platform for a gun battery at the siege of York. Later it was used to mount a windmill, and then as a garden feature (English Heritage).

Lamel Hill is in the grounds of The Retreat, built as a hospital for the treatment of mental illness in the late eighteenth century and still operating in that role today. In 1847 its then medical superintendent, James Thurnam, conducted an archaeological excavation of the Lamel Hill mound, described by the York Archaeological Trust as ‘…an exemplary excavation for the period…’ (Tweddle 1999, p. 170).

Thurnam found that the main part of the mound contained a mass of disarticulated human skeletons. Below this, he identified 20 to 30 intact inhumation burials (English Heritage; Tweddle 1999 p 170-174). The skeletons were lying stretched out on their backs, oriented west-east (Tweddle 1999, p 170-174). There were no recorded grave goods, although Thurnam made drawings of iron fittings found with some of the skeletons, which were corner pieces, hinges and lock plates from chests in which some of the bodies had presumably been buried (Tweddle 1999 p 172-174). The fittings themselves have since disappeared.

Belle Vue House

Belle Vue House (now demolished) was situated just west of Lamel Hill at 99A Heslington Road (Tweddle 1999 p 236). An archaeological excavation was conducted in its grounds in 1983. This identified 38 inhumation burials, of which at least nine had been mutilated or decapitated before burial. The bodies were lying stretched out, and all but two were oriented west-east. The two exceptions were two decapitated burials oriented the opposite way round, east-west. One skeleton was accompanied by a small iron knife ‘probably of post-Roman date’, and other iron objects ‘probably of Anglian date’ and one sherd of Anglian pottery were also discovered. There was also some Roman pottery, tile and window glass, and a Roman sarcophagus lid (Tweddle 1999 p. 172, 236).

As the two sites are so close together, it is likely (though not proven as the space in between has not been excavated) that the Belle Vue cemetery and the Lamel Hill cemetery are part of the same cemetery (Tweddle 1991 p 172).

The Roman sarcophagus lid at Belle Vue suggests that the cemetery was on or near the site of a previous Roman cemetery. The orientation of the burials and the near-complete absence of grave goods is consistent with Christian burials. No evidence for an associated church was found (Tweddle 1991 p 172).

Dating evidence is sparse, as there are no radiocarbon dates and very few grave goods. The ‘post-Roman’ iron knife and Anglian pottery sherd at Belle Vue are consistent with a date some time in the post-Roman period. Tweddle et al comment that the use of chests as coffins is also known from Christian cemeteries of the seventh to ninth century, and suggest that the iron fittings at Lamel Hill may indicate a similar date. On the basis of this, the interpretation of the graves as Christian, and the absence of evidence for an associated church, they suggest that the Lamel Hill/Belle Vue burials may date to the seventh or early eighth century, after Northumbria’s conversion to Christianity and before burial in churchyards became established practice (Tweddle 1991 p 172).


The orientation of the undisturbed inhumations at Lamel Hill and the absence of grave goods apart from items that may be coffin-fittings are both consistent with Christian burial practices. It is of course impossible to say anything about the orientation or furnishings of the graves originally occupied by the disturbed skeletons in the mound, which were presumably dug up from a surrounding cemetery along with the earth used to build the Civil War gun platform. Clearly they had originally been inhumations rather than cremations (since the bones were bones and not ash). Any grave goods would presumably have been lost when the graves were dug up, and so the lack of recognisable grave goods in the mound does not tell us much. In the absence of evidence it’s a reasonable assumption that they were originally similar to the undisturbed burials under the mound, but this is still an assumption.

It is not clear how many burials had been disturbed, though the large quantity of bone in the mound suggests the number was substantial. It is also not clear how large the cemetery was, though if both Belle Vue and Lamel Hill represent parts of the same cemetery that suggests it was extensive.

The Belle Vue burials had a similar orientation and a similar lack of grave goods, also consistent with Christian burials. Why the Belle Vue graves should have had such a high proportion of mutilated/decapitated burials (9/38, almost a quarter) is anyone’s guess. It is of course impossible to know whether the burials disturbed by the construction of the Civil War gun platform had a similar proportion of decapitations, since the bones were all jumbled together in the mound anyway. If they did not, the Belle Vue site could perhaps represent a particular area of the cemetery used for burials in unusual circumstances (e.g. casualties of violence or judicial executions) or unusual individuals (e.g. strangers or followers of an unusual religion). If the Belle Vue burials were representative of the whole cemetery, that may suggest some specific feature of the population it served and/or the funeral rites in use. In the absence of more evidence, the significance (if any) of the mutilated/decapitated burials is speculative.

In the absence of absolute dating evidence, such as radiocarbon dates, the date of the cemetery rests on interpretation of the character of the graves and the small number of grave goods. As mentioned above, the orientation of the graves and the lack of grave goods is consistent with Christian burial. Bede’s Ecclesiastical History tells us that Northumbria ‘officially’ converted to Christianity with the conversion of Eadwine (Edwin) of Deira in 626-627 (Bede Book II Ch. 9, 14). If one assumes that there were no Christians in York prior to this date (an assumption!), that suggests the Lamel Hill/Belle Vue cemetery dates to the second quarter of the seventh century or later. This is consistent with the few grave goods. However, it is noteworthy that one of the grave goods (the iron knife) is described as ‘post-Roman’, one as ‘Anglian’ (the pottery sherd) and the others as ‘probably Anglian’ (the unspecified iron objects from Belle Vue). This may indicate that the date range for the cemetery that is consistent with the grave goods could include the period before 626, as the Anglian period in York is conventionally considered to span the period from the mid fifth century to the Viking conquest in 867 (Tweddle 1999, p 115).

Most of the burials at Belle Vue did not have associated grave goods, and none of the burials at Lamel Hill did. Assuming that the dates of the burials without grave goods can be extrapolated from the dates of those with grave goods relies on the assumption that all the burials were of similar date. In the absence of evidence, this is a reasonable assumption, but still an assumption. It is not uncommon for quite a small modern village churchyard to have headstones dating from the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries to the present day, a range of a couple of centuries or so. Maybe the same could apply in earlier periods. Tweddle et al suggest that burials at Belle Vue probably proceeded from the east (p 172); if I understand this correctly, this suggests that earlier burials were to the east and later burials to the west. Lamel Hill is east of Belle Vue, so if this hypothesis is correct, the Lamel Hill burials could pre-date the Belle Vue burials with the ‘post-Roman’ knife and the Anglian pottery sherd. This could be consistent with a wider date range for the cemetery, perhaps starting earlier than the ‘official’ conversion to Christianity in 626-7.

As mentioned in the previous post on documentary sources for post-Roman York, the Annales Cambriae contains an enigmatic reference that may be to York:

501 Bishop Ebur rests in Christ, he was 350 years old.

--Annales Cambriae

As discussed in the earlier post, the similarity of the name ‘Ebur’ to the name of a previous Bishop of York (Eborius) who attended the Council of Arles in 314 and the Roman name for York (Eburacum or Eboracum), not to mention the current title of the modern Archbishop of York (Ebor), this enigmatic reference may indicate the presence of a Christian bishop in York in or around 501 AD. If so, the bishop presumably had a flock. This could be consistent with the presence of a Christian population in York after the end of Roman administration and before 626-7. It seems to me to be at least possible that the Lamel Hill cemetery could have served such a population before the ‘official’ conversion to Christianity in 626-7 recorded by Bede, and continued to serve Christians in the area for some time thereafter. I need hardly say that this is speculative.


The inhumation cemeteries, or cemetery, at Belle Vue and Lamel Hill are consistent with the presence of a population in or near York following Christian burial practices at some time in the post-Roman period. The Roman artefacts, including a sarcophagus lid, may indicate that the cemetery was on or near the site of a Roman cemetery. If both Belle Vue and Lamel Hill are parts of the same cemetery, this suggests that it was extensive. The scarcity of dating evidence makes it difficult to give a definitive date range for the cemetery. The usual interpretation that the cemetery started in the seventh century seems to rest on an assumption that there were no Christians in York before Eadwine’s conversion in 626-7. This seems to me rather a large assumption. As far as I can see, there is nothing in the few grave goods to rule out an earlier start date for the cemetery. An earlier date could in turn be consistent with the enigmatic reference to ‘Bishop Ebur’ in Annales Cambriae, which may indicate the presence of a Christian bishop, and by extension a Christian population, in York before 626-7. As so often in this period, many interpretations are possible.

Annales Cambriae, available online
Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Translated by Leo Sherley-Price, Penguin, 1990, ISBN 0-14-044565-X
English Heritage, Lamel Hill, available online
Tweddle D, Moulden J, Logan E. Anglian York: a survey of the evidence. Council for British Archaeology/York Archaeological Trust, 1999. ISBN 1-902771-06-0.

Map links


Gabriele Campbell said...

I would be very surprised if there had been no Christians in York prior to the 7th century. If comparable places in Germany (like Trier, Xanten, Mainz) are anything to go by, there likely was a Christian chapel somewhere. Archaeological traces may be lost or well hidden, and Bede probably didn't list every chapel in existence, so lack of proof at this point is no argument against a 4th-to-6th century Christian community in York when they can be traced in so many other places.

Rick said...

The decapitated bodies - which also figured in the last post about cemeteries at York - add a bit of a creepy note! Though perhaps when you are dealing with burials a morbid element is to be expected.

Could a Christian community at York have survived right through until it was revitalized? Or does Bede's account more or less preclude this?

Presumably organized Christianity in this era depended on elite support. Once the local rulers became English-identifying pagans, that support would end. Even if they didn't persecute Christians, stranded communities might just gradually fade away.

Doug said...

I am having such difficulty with captchas that I don't know whether I have sent this seven times or not at all. I have saved some of them if you'd like to see how difficult they are.
Another interesting article.
I agree that it is a big assumption that there were no Christians in York before 626. Not only had the region been occupied by Christians less than a century earlier, consider the geography - Elmet was only a good walk away, and there were relations such that Hereric could take refuge there. There would certainly, then, be Christians coming in and going out for various purposes.

Carla said...

Gabriele - Yes, so would I. Caveat that the experience in different regions may have varied widely, so Germany is not necessarily a guide to Britain and vice versa. Still it seems likely that a religion with a sizeable following, which Christianity seems to have had at least in the towns in the Late Empire, would take a while to disappear entirely.

Bede says that Eadwine built a wooden church specifically for his baptism. He doesn't say anything about whether there were any other churches or chapels in the vicinity. This is in contrast with Kent, where Bede says that Aethelbert's Frankish Christian queen used an old Roman church dedicated to St Martin in Canterbury and that Aethelbert refurbished another old Roman church and then built a new monastery. So it is often assumed that if Eadwine built a new church that must mean that there was no church already in existence. This is certainly a possible interpretation. However, I don't think it's the only possibility. Eadwine might have wanted a church in the middle of the old Roman headquarters for political reasons, and if there was an existing church in the wrong part of town it wouldn't answer that purpose and he would have to build one in the right place. If there was an existing Brittonic church and clergy he may also have been concerned not to give even the slightest appearance of them having any authority over him. A new church with new clergy from far away (Paulinus was from Italy via Kent) could have been important to demonstrate his independence. (Of course accepting baptism from an Italian cleric sort of implies accepting the authority of the Pope, but the Pope was a long way off. It took a lot more centuries for that particular conflict to come to a head). Eadwine's bishop Paulinus was from Italy, having come over with Augustine, and assuming he knew about Pope Gregory's original plans, he would be expecting to be installed as Archbishop of York. If there was a church still in existence and still with Brittonic clergy, they may well have taken exception to being expected to be subordinate to Paulinus (as a group of Brittonic bishops had a generation earlier with Augustine) and refused to have anything to do with him. Or conversely Paulinus may have regarded them as heretics over the dating of Easter et al and refused to have anything to do with them. In both cases a new church would be needed for the new bishop. So I don't think that the new church necessarily precludes the possibility of an existing one; just that if there was an existing church it couldn't be turned to the required use.

Carla said...

Rick - Curious, isn't it? Makes you wonder whether there was some local rite about decapitating (certain) skeletons before burial.

I don't think Bede's account precludes a continuing Christian community at York - see my reply above to Gabriele.

I'm not so sure about elite support. Certainly in towns in Gaul you have bishop-as-local-ruler situations, and that could also have applied in York. One would expect that to dwindle if power shifted to a ruling group that considered itself pagan. However, further west in Britain and especially Ireland you have the monastic movement going from strength to strength. While senior abbots very often were relatives of the local king, it seems unlikely that all the brethren were. I don't think there's any reason why a monastic community couldn't have been largely self-supporting and self-renewing if it had enough land resources to support itself and was left alone, especially if members could travel to other monasteries for education and experience.

Doug - I'm sorry about the captchas. If I turn them off the place gets swamped with spammers. I still get a few even with captcha turned on, and have to throw them out with comment moderation, which is why I have comment moderation turned on as well. You can click the circular arrow thingy to ask for a different one if the first is too difficult, I often have to do this, sometimes several times. If you've been successful you should see a message saying 'your comment has been accepted and will appear after owner approval' or words to that effect. If you haven't been successful you'll get a message saying 'sorry the letters you typed don't match the words, please try again' or words to that effect. So you should be able to tell if your comment has gone through or not. This one went through about five times, so I deleted the duplicates.

Thanks for your interest, and for taking the trouble to post a comment despite all the difficulties! Yes, Elmet was no distance at all, and Bede says there was an important monastery there in his day. It seems quite likely that this was also the case earlier. We don't know under what terms Hereric took refuge in Elmet (assuming that the Ceretic mentioned in Bede is the same individual as the Ceretic of Elmet in HB), but as Bede says he was under Ceretic's protection it seems that it was amicable, or at least not hostile.

Rick said...

I totally forgot how monasticism-centric British Christianity was, probably because I associate it so much with Ireland.

But unless monks are remarkably elastic about their vows they can't really be self-renewing. They rely on a surrounding society with some level of christianization.

It isn't so much about elites as such as about the fluidity of social identity, which probably followed elites to some degree or other. Populations that changed language must have weakened their ties to previous traditions.

Isn't Bede's underlying beef with the British church that it had made little to no effort to evangelize the English?

Anonymous said...

Wooden coffin burial is, OK, not unheard of for the early Middle Ages, but it's not common, and the only parallels I can immediately think of are Viking-era. I probably don't need to stress that they could also be a lot later. With nothing else to go on, I'd have to opine that it is at best hopeful to plump for an Anglo-Saxon date for these burials, and this not despite the Belle Vue burials but because of them.

Let me explain. Decapitated skeletons say to me, `execution cemetery', along the lines of Sutton Hoo's afterlife or the various other sites studied by Andrew Reynolds. One characteristic of these sites is that they are not usually near other Christian burial, in fact the reverse, they are apart from it, on territorial boundaries or, as at Sutton Hoo, in places with pagan associations. (In this post I pondered whether the victims of such executions might intentionally have been laid to rest with the damned.)

What that says to me in combination is that if Belle Vue is indeed an execution cemetery, Lamel Hill should not predate it or Belle Vue would be further off. Instead it seems more likely to be that Lamel Hill would need to be significantly later, later enough for signs of the Belle Vue burials to be gone. Is there any reason why the Lamel Hill site shouldn't in fact be early modern? Was the site open when the battery mound was built? I suppose one would then expect stone markers. So, perhaps the loss of York to the Vikings reset the clock on local awarenesses of who was buried where for what reason, but I'd still avoid an early Saxon date for either of these burial grounds based on the information given here. Of course, I've not read anything more than this post so could very easily be being stupid! These are just my thoughts.


Carla said...

Rick - Indeed! What I meant was that a monastery can be self-renewing if it gets enough new members from the surrounding population, and if the older members train the new recruits up to continue the culture. A monastery with sufficient land resources to be able to feed all its members may not have had much trouble recruiting (indeed, in hard times it would probably have a queue round the block).

Tenthmedieval - Good question. As dating evidence from Lamel Hil itself seems to be pretty much completely lacking, I don't think an early modern date for Lamel Hill could be ruled out. Unless there is some evidence that isn't mentioned in the short account in the survey of Anglian York, e.g. there might be something about the design of the iron fittings in Thurnam's drawings that dates them on stylistic grounds? It isn't mentioned, and I suppose it would be tenuous given that the fittings themselves have disappeared so the drawings can't be checked. I don't have the expertise to be able to tell if there are any hints about dating from the drawings.

I thought with execution cemeteries it was usual for pretty much all the burials to be weird in some way? With the Belle Vue burials only about a quarter were decapitated, which may suggest that it wasn't quite the same thing as an execution cemetery. Also, from what I understand of the Belle Vue burials, they were not as weird as the Sutton Hoo execution cemetery burials (caveat that I don't know how exceptional the Sutton Hoo cemetery was in relation to other execution cemeteries). There were the decapitated Roman burials at Driffield Terrace in The Mount (see earlier post here, so there may have been some sort of local tradition going on, distinct from an execution cemetery as such. Is it possible that if Belle Vue was an early cemetery the tendency for execution cemeteries to be distant from normal Christian burial sites may not yet have been fully developed? I came across another article that said about decapitation burial "Additionally, these burials generally occur within community cemeteries until the eighth century", and that execution cemeteries appear in later Anglo-Saxon England. If I remember rightly, the Sutton Hoo deviant burials span a date range extending to the tenth or eleventh century, which would be consistent with this. So if separation developed later, the decapitations wouldn't necessarily rule out an early date for Lamel Hill/Belle Vue.

The survey of Anglian York (Tweddle) mentions that burials in wooden chests are known from York Minster where they are mid-ninth century (not too far from your mention of Viking-era), and also mentions wooden chest burials in Christian contexts in northern Enghland from 7th to 9th century (all 'personal communication'). Taking their word for it, this suggests wooden chest burials in a Christian context just outside York at Lamel Hill would not be inconsistent.

But there seems to be very little actual evidence (as so often), and what there is can be interpreted in many different ways. I don't think there's a definite reason against your suggestion of Lamel Hill as early modern (unless, as I said, there's something that can be deduced from the drawings of the iron fittings).

Rick said...

Land resources could be the sticky problem. Even if pagan rulers had no special inclination toward persecuting Christians per se, surely they grabbed land and handed it over to their retainers.

(Though I suppose that so long as the monks paid rent/taxes/tribute, they'd be left to work the land just as peasant villagers were.)

Having said that, I suppose all that we can really say is that whatever Christians remained in territories that became 'English,' including York, they apparently were not conspicuous enough to get on Bede's radar.

Carla said...

Indeed - unless the retainer actually wants to keep his own pigs and do his own ploughing, he probably expects a land grant to come complete with workers. There could be an issue over the amount of the food-rent to be paid, if the monks expected to keep more of a share of their produce than the average peasant, but we really have no idea of the level of rent/taxes. Superstition may also have had a protective effect even for non-Christians - a polytheistic religion is accustomed to the idea of there being lots of different gods, and non-Christians may have been reluctant to risk annoying the Christian god just in case. Aethelbert of Kent is supposed to have insisted on meeting Augustine out of doors because he was wary of Augustine's 'magic', and the same sort of superstition might apply to not turning holy men off their land in case they really could curse you.

Bede's history is an account of how the English came to be Christian, so if there were any Brittonic Christian communities they would not have been relevant to his narrative if they played no role in conversion. (Or if he wanted to claim they played no role in conversion, which he does complain about.)

The bottom line is as you say; if there were any continuing Christian communities in the areas under the control of English kings, they don't get a mention in Bede. One interpretation of this is that there weren't any. I think it can also bear the interpretation that they were there but not mentioned. Absence of evidence and evidence of absence again.

Rick said...

Absence of evidence is one thing there's plenty of in this period!

Carla said...

Quite so, if you can have plenty of an absence :-)

Anonymous said...

Sorry to have been so very long coming back to this, Carla, I can only blame editing a book, but you always seem to cope... Anyway, I didn't know about the northern chest burials, which however unpublished would seem to give some kind of context for these burials, and your points about the dating of execution cemeteries are also very fair, so I think I withdraw my worries about a possible Saxon date (though ruling out the evidence against is not the same as having evidence for, still). You make a couple of specific points I can provide more on:

'With the Belle Vue burials only about a quarter were decapitated, which may suggest that it wasn't quite the same thing as an execution cemetery. Also, from what I understand of the Belle Vue burials, they were not as weird as the Sutton Hoo execution cemetery burials (caveat that I don't know how exceptional the Sutton Hoo cemetery was in relation to other execution cemeteries).'

Very little is as weird as the Sutton Hoo burials, at least in its older and more central execution cemetery. The two execution cemeteries there apparently had an overlapping chronology but the old one actually respects the possibly-oldest burial mound, on which the excavator thought they'd found signs of a gallows, so it may have had some especial significance, not least as there was a longer-lasting gallows site a few miles up the road. I don't know what you had to have done or been to get buried in Sutton Hoo but it may have been a bit unusual. On the other hand it is also very unusual for `deviant' burials to be mixed in with regular ones, they'd usually be at the edge if not separate, although it may be that not everything that is deviant is decapitation I guess. Either way it suggests that Belle Vue may not fit my template.

'I came across another article that said about decapitation burial "Additionally, these burials generally occur within community cemeteries until the eighth century", and that execution cemeteries appear in later Anglo-Saxon England. If I remember rightly, the Sutton Hoo deviant burials span a date range extending to the tenth or eleventh century, which would be consistent with this. So if separation developed later, the decapitations wouldn't necessarily rule out an early date for Lamel Hill/Belle Vue.'

That would make sense! As I understand the excavation report Sutton Hoo started to be used for these burials in the execution cemeteries in the eighth century and carried on long into the Anglo-Norman period, but at a rate of one burial maybe every thirty to forty years (averaged). It fits with what you say, therefore. So I am learning a lot from this. I must read the volume from which that paper seems to be pulling its data and see if its few cites are consistent with the rounder picture...

Carla said...

Tenthmedieval - Good luck with your book editing! Yes, Belle Vue/Lamel Hill does seem to be a case of absence of evidence against, rather than definite evidence for, which is always a matter for caution.

That was Mound 5 at Sutton Hoo, yes? With a burial in one of the quarry pits used for material to raise the mound, which suggests that that burial at least was roughly contemporary with the mound itself. So this particular burial is a bit out of the pattern for execution cemeteries starting up in the 8th C, but then the whole Sutton Hoo site is out of the ordinary. The occupant of Mound 5 had died by violent head injury, so if the execution burials that seem to respect the mound are connected with it, there's always the possibility that there was some sort of personal or family feud/vengeance going on, that might later have drifted into an execution cemetery.

I remember reading somewhere (sorry, no reference) that decapitation burials turn up in small but non-zero numbers in ordinary Roman and medieval cemeteries, which may suggest that Belle Vue was part of a continuum. Whether it's connected with the Roman 'gladiator' burials at The Mount, also with a high proportion of decapitations, and thus could reflect some sort of local cultural rite, is anyone's guess. Also, I suppose that since we don't know the full extent and site plan of the Belle Vue/Lamel Hill cemetery (if indeed it was all one cemetery) we probably don't know for sure whether Belle Vue was or was not on the edge of the site or a distinct area within it, or indeed a sort of satellite site separate from the Lamel Hill site.

It would be interesting to know whether the Sutton Hoo execution cemetery burials really did occur at about one in a generation over a long period, or if they occurred in clusters around occasional traumatic events. From what I remember, many were sand bodies and not radiocarbon dateable, so I don't suppose we will know the answer to that.