Archaeologists Digging At Lincoln Castle Uncover Early Christian Community

Lincolnshire County Council

Archaeologists excavating at Lincoln Castle have discovered the remains of an early Christian community, according to a Lincolnshire County Council press release.

The team, which was digging inside the castle to clear the way for an elevator shaft, found the remains of a church that dates back at least 1,000 years. Inside a sealed niche in the wall they found human bones. They had been wrapped in finely woven cloth and while the cloth has long since disappeared, it left its impression on the surrounding mortar. Excavators theorize that these may be the remains of a holy person, as it was common to put relics in church walls and altars in order to make them holy.

An even older find included several skeletons and a stone sarcophagus. The archaeological team is planning to put an endoscopic camera into the coffin to see what’s inside without disturbing it.

%Gallery-188672%Both the cemetery and church date to the Anglo-Saxon period, when England was a patchwork of different kingdoms before the Norman conquest. Lincoln had been a walled Roman town. The Romans left Britain in the early fifth century and were soon replaced by Anglo-Saxons coming from Denmark and northern Germany. They took up residence in Lincoln and many other Roman towns.

The present castle was built by the Normans in 1068 on the foundations of a Roman fort. William the Conqueror, after defeating the English King Harold Godwinson at Hastings in 1066, built this castle to control the important town of Lincoln and its surrounding area. While the castle has been modified over the centuries, it’s still one of the best-preserved Norman castles anywhere.

The typical Norman castle has a tower on an artificial mound at the center and with a wall encircling it. Lincoln Castle has two mounds, each with its own fortification and a long wall encircling them both. This tough fortification was besieged twice. The second time, in 1216, was during the Baron’s War, which led King John into making concessions to the nobility in the form of the famous Magna Carta. One of the original copies is on display here.

Back in 2010, an earlier excavation uncovered a secret tunnel at Lincoln castle. Excavations continue at in the castle grounds.

If you visit the castle, also check nearby Lincoln Cathedral, a beautiful Gothic building from the 11th century.

Search Is On For Another Lost Medieval English King

medievalIn the wake of the media blitz around the discovery of King Richard III’s remains under a parking lot in Leicester, England, archaeologists have announced they’re looking for another medieval English king.

The Times reports that archaeologists are seeking permission to exhume an unmarked grave at St. Bartholomew’s Church in Hyde, Winchester, that they think contains the remains of King Alfred the Great.

Alfred ruled from 871-899 and helped consolidate the patchwork of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms into a unified country. He spent much of his reign fighting off the Vikings and establishing a legal code.

Alfred’s remains were buried in Winchester Cathedral and later moved to nearby Hyde Abbey. In the 19th century, an amateur archaeologist explored the altar of this abbey and dug up what he thought were Alfred’s bones. The vicar of St. Bartholomew’s later bought them for ten shillings and reburied them.

Records show there are five skulls and various other bones in the grave. While radiocarbon dating them and determining the age and sex is a simple affair, proving that one of them is Alfred will be a lot more difficult. In the dig in Leicester, the archaeologists were able to find direct descendants of Richard III to supply DNA for testing. Alfred lived centuries before Richard, however, and this makes it tricky to find a direct descendant.

The Diocese of Winchester said in a statement that the matter is being looked into.

Alfred left an enduring mark on the English consciousness. Many places bear his name, including places he probably never visited such as Alfred’s Castle on the Ridgeway Trail. It’s said Alfred defeated the Vikings nearby in 871. In fact the “castle” is a hill fort dating to about the sixth century B.C. If you’re in Oxford, go to the Ashmolean Museum and check out the Alfred jewel, made by order of the king himself and shown here courtesy John W. Schulze.

Archaeologists Discover York Minster’s Earliest Church

York, York Minster
Archaeologists digging in the medieval foundations of York Minster in York, England, have found evidence for an early building that may have been the first church on the site.

The team examined a trench from the original medieval construction site of the present building and found the remains of at least thirty people. They also found two large postholes. These are filled holes in the earth often seen only as a darker stain in the surrounding soil that once held wooden support beams. They are large enough that they were obviously supporting some major structure, and the archaeologists believe this might be evidence of the first church on the site, built in 627 to baptize King Edwin of Northumbria.

Edwin had started life as a pagan but, like many Anglo-Saxon rulers at that time, converted to Christianity. He was venerated as a saint in the early Middle Ages.

York Minster dominates the skyline of the historic city of York and is one of its most impressive attractions. It is a masterpiece of architecture from a time when architects tried to outdo each other in building impressive cathedrals. Most of the current building dates to the 13th century with some older and newer elements. The soaring arches make visitors stare up in awe and the gargoyles and stained glass windows provide lots of detail that reward a second, or tenth, look.

Yorkshire is filled with attractions from literary landmarks and impressive castles to haunted hotel rooms and challenging hikes. The city of York itself draws a steady stream of visitors attracted by its long history, fine dining and excellent shopping.

[Photo courtesy Matze Trier]

Queens Lane, Oxford: a thousand years of history in a single street

Oxford, Queens Lane, England
Most of the time when we travel (or write about travel) we look at the big picture, yet sometimes a single place can sum up the history and character of a city. Queens Lane in Oxford is one of those places. A quiet backstreet linking the two more popular thoroughfares of High Street and Catte Street, it’s overlooked by most visitors. I use it when walking to work at the Bodleian library as a way to avoid the noise and crush of the crowd.

Entering from High Street, you have The Queen’s College on your left. This college was founded in 1341 and is designed in the Italian style by Hawksmoor, one of England’s greatest architects. Like all Oxford colleges it has its own customs and peculiarities. During Christmastide celebrations a boar’s head is carried from the kitchens to the High Table in the dining hall while the college choir sings an old tune. Legend has it that a student of the college was walking in the forest reading Aristotle when he was attacked by a wild boar. He stuck his book in the boar’s mouth and choked the boar to death!

Walking down Queens Lane you can see a gate to another college, St. Edmund Hall, to your right and the church tower of St. Peter’s-in-the-East ahead. St. Edmund is older than The Queen’s College by a couple of generations but the exact date of its founding is a mystery. Go through to gate to see a couple of quiet, ivy-covered quads. St. Peter’s is worth a visit too. This 12th century Norman church is built atop an earlier Anglo-Saxon church. It now serves as the college library and there’s a display of finds from an archaeological excavation into the Anglo-Saxon foundations.

In the churchyard is the grave of James Sadler, a pioneering balloonist who soared into the air over Oxford in 1784, the first Englishman to try a balloon after it had been invented by the French Montgolfier brothers only the year before. Ballooning was dangerous in those early days. Sadler twice landed in the sea and his own son was killed in a ballooning accident. Another time his balloon hit the ground, dragged him for two miles before he was knocked off, and then sailed away again without him. Amazingly, Sadler lived to 75 and died a natural death.

%Gallery-132119%Continuing along Queens Lane you take a right and the path turns into New College Lane. Yes, I cheated with the title of this post. Sue me. New College doesn’t look like much from here, only a heavy oak door under a medieval vault. Go inside and you’ll see one of the five most beautiful colleges of Oxford. New College Lane is narrow and enclosed with high walls turned black from the acid rain caused by Victorian coal smoke and modern car exhaust. The stone used here is very absorbent and pollution is literally eating away at the university.

Another zigzag takes us within sight of Catte Street, the Bodleian Library, and the crowds. Before plunging into the throng, you’ll see an unassuming little house on the right that was once the home of Sir Edmund Halley, graduate of The Queen’s College and the astronomer who proved comets return regularly. He also loved to party, and went on epic pub crawls with Russian Czar Peter the Great when he visited London. Their landlord complained that they tore all the doors off their hinges and shot holes through all the paintings. The house is now a college residence and is famous for its parties. A little room attached to the roof served as Halley’s observatory and it’s rumored that heavenly bodies can still be seen there on Saturday nights.

If you don’t get invited to a private party in Halley’s old place, you can squeeze down a narrow alley and visit the Turf Tavern, a fine old pub. The oldest part of the building dates to the 17th century but there may have been an alehouse here centuries before that. The management claims that this was where Bill Clinton, then a student at Oxford, “didn’t inhale” marijuana. Yeah, sure you didn’t.

The exit of New College Lane takes you under the Bridge of Sighs, which connects two buildings of Hertford College. It’s said to be an imitation of a bridge in Venice of the same name. One local rumor says that when it was built in 1914, the building on one side still didn’t have plumbing while the other did. Since students weren’t allowed to leave their college after hours and usually had a quick pint or three before being locked in, it was a bad deal to be stuck all night in a building with no toilets. The Bridge of Sighs offered a way for students to hurry to the bathroom in the next building without breaking the rules, thus giving a whole other meaning to its name.

The best views of Oxford, England

Oxford
Oxford is the most beautiful city in England. Its famous “dreaming spires” have inspired generations of writers, poets, and scholars. The problem is, there are only two easily accessible spots to get appreciate Oxford’s skyline at its best.

This photo shows the Radcliffe Camera, part of Oxford University’s Bodleian Library and where I work when I’m not feeding hyenas in Harar, Ethiopia. I took this from the top of the spire of the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin. The tower and spire were built between 1280 and 1325 and are the oldest parts of the church. It’s covered in ornate Gothic carvings and leering gargoyles so don’t forget to take a photo of the exterior before entering the church gift shop and buying your ticket to go up!

The stairs are steep and the staircase is narrow. If you are not reasonably fit do not try to go up. Once you huff and puff your way to the top, you’ll be treated to a 360 degree view of Oxford–its churches, its famous colleges, and the green countryside beyond. You’ll also see the gargoyles up close and personal. The nice folks at the gift shop will give you a free map showing you where everything is. After five years living part time in Oxford I still can’t name all the colleges!

%Gallery-122796%Once you come back down be sure to visit the rest of the church, most of which dates to the 16th century and features some beautiful stained glass. There’s also a cafe serving tasty and reasonably priced food and coffee. There’s something soothing about sipping a mocha under medieval arches. If the weather is good, you can sit in the garden and enjoy views of the Radcliffe Camera and All Souls College.

An even more interesting and much easier climb is up the Old Saxon Tower of St. Michael at the North Gate. While it’s not as high as the spire of St. Mary’s, it’s the oldest building in Oxford. It dates to the late Saxon times and was built around 1040. This used to guard the city gate of Oxford, but all that’s left is the tower. Climbing up here you’ll see a little museum filled with medieval and renaissance bric-a-brac, including a raunchy church sculpture I’ll blog about later. On one landing is an old clockwork mechanism. If you put 20 pence in it, the gears grind to life and chimes start to play. The last time I climbed this tower with a kid I spent a whole pound on it!

Peering over the parapet you can watch shoppers stroll along Cornmarket St., Oxford’s busiest pedestrian road, and you can see birds wheel and soar amidst the spires of nearby colleges. The 13th century church downstairs is worth a look for its rare medieval stained glass and a font that William Shakespeare stood next to as his godchild was baptized. It was the kid of a local innkeeper, and I hope The Bard got a few free pints for his trouble!

If you know anyone who works at or graduated from Oxford, try to get into their college and climb up one of the towers. While most colleges are open to visitors for at least part of the year, the “dreaming spires” generally aren’t, so you need an insider to gain access.