In AD 640, Princess Aebbe founded an influential monastery in the Scottish Borders. This historic site is fundamental to our understanding of the Anglo-Saxons in Scotland, and yet it has never been properly located. With your help, we think we can find it.
Picture this: it’s the mid 7th century AD and the Northumbrian monastery at Lindisfarne founded by Anglo-Saxon King Oswald is on the rise to fame. But just across the Scottish border something else is happening. Oswald has a sister, named Aebbe, and she too has gone and founded a monastery.
Aebbe’s story is a compelling one, but historical records are few and far between. Those that do survive tell us that she was an influential figure who introduced Christianity to Scotland’s east coast.
They also tell us that her monastery was located just a few days north of Lindisfarne, near St Abb’s Head at Coldingham. They say it was surrounded by a deep trench and high palisade, and was home to both monks and nuns – many of whom were the younger offspring of the Anglo-Saxon aristocracy.
Over the years, a few small glimpses – of burials, and of sculpture – have shown up, but firm evidence of the monastery has never been found at the suggested location.
But then, in 2014, new hope of finding it emerged through a geophysical survey, which revealed the footprints of a number of possible Anglo-Saxon structures at a slightly different location, close to the ruins of Coldingham’s much later medieval priory.
In 2017, DigVentures and a hardy crew of supporters opened some small ‘test pits’ to see if anything was really there. The results confirm that there are traces of walls, ditches, animal bones and pottery, and that preservation conditions are excellent. All we need to do now is open up and excavate a larger area to gather more evidence and understand what it is we’ve really found.
Historical sources tell us that the monastery burnt down soon after Aebbe died. Abandoned for a short while, it is also said that it was soon rebuilt and continued to thrive until AD 870 when it was destroyed once and for all by a devastating Viking attack – just like Oswald’s Lindisfarne. But there is still so much to learn – and to prove with archaeological evidence – about this story.
This historic site is a vital piece of Scotland’s heritage, and we still have many questions about the events that took place here. When exactly did it burn down? Is it true that it was rebuilt? And was in the same location as the original? What kinds of things did the monks and nuns produce to keep themselves alive? And most of all, where exactly was the monastery and did it look anything like the one at Lindisfarne?
Finding it will be a monumental addition to our understanding of Anglo-Saxon history in the Scottish Borders. We’re ready to throw ourselves into this investigation and raise new evidence of Aebbe’s monastery for everyone to enjoy.
The story of Northumbria, of the Anglo-Saxons, of the Scottish borders, and of early medieval Christianity is only roughly told. By supporting this dig, you can play a role in finding one of its most important sites, in exploring Aebbe’s side of the story and in establishing her monastery as an important landmark of Anglo-Saxon history – just like Lindisfarne.
Q: Can I come and visit even if I’m not digging?
A: Anyone can come and visit! If you’ve supported the dig and give DigVentures a heads up, they might even be able to squeeze you onto a VIP tour.
Coldingham, Berwickshire, Scottish Borders
Tuesday 19 June - Sunday 01 July