Largest Anglo-Saxon building in Scotland found

Archaeologists and community volunteers excavating the site of Glebe Field in Aberlady, East Lothian, have discovered the foundations of an Anglo-Saxon building that is the largest Anglo-Saxon structure found on Scotland. In April and May of this year, AOC Archaeology Group collaborated with the Aberlady Conservation and History Society to investigate some features of Glebe Field believed to date from the Anglo-Saxon period (7th-10th century). They were hoping to find evidence of a timber building — postholes, imprints left by decayed material — but instead found a large stone feature with a paved area on the south end.

At first they thought it might be roadway between the local church and the coast, but additional excavation revealed it to be the foundation of a large rectangular building. The feature is 20 meters (66 feet) long and four meters (13 feet) wide. The whole building appears to have been 20 by 40 meters (131 feet). The bones of a large mammal found immediately underneath the stones were radiocarbon dated to between the 7th and 9th centuries.

Ian Malcolm, from Aberlady Conservation and History Society, described the first date evidence from the site as “very, very exciting”.

He said: “It is evidence that it was an important and a wealthy site.” […]

Mr Malcolm said the structure would have to be significant because of the work that would have been undertaken to build it.

He said: “It may have been monastic, or a feast hall or a royal site. There have been other excavations but no evidence of a structure on this scale has been discovered.”

Aberlady was a port city in the Middle Ages (the port has long since silted up), and was a stop on the road between the Holy Isle of Lindisfarne, about 55 miles to the southeast, and the monastery of Iona in the Inner Hebrides 180 miles to the northwest. Significant Anglo-Saxon remains have been found there before. In 1863 a large fragment of an elaborately carved high cross was discovered in the garden wall of the churchyard. Dating to around the 8th century, the whole cross would have been about 17 feet high. The carving is reminiscent of the bird interlace style of decoration in the Lindisfarne Gospels. In the 1980s, more than 300 Anglo-Saxon coins and the greatest number of stray Anglo-Saxon metallic objects ever discovered in Scotland were found in Aberlady.

The area of the feature with the paving as an open gap left unlined that may indicate something monumental once stood there, perhaps even the base of the Aberlady Cross.

Close to the buildings, archaeologists and volunteers unearthed the remains of small walled structures. A number of large animal bones and shells were found within these walls. The team also discovered a small iron knife blade, of a size that suggests it was used more as a tool than a weapon, perhaps for working leather. Other artifacts found in the cells were an early 9th century Anglo-Saxon coin, an antler carved with the head of an animal or bird, additional antler pieces, a bone comb and a broken piece of bone that appears to have been used to practice decoration techniques for the comb. The style of the comb dates it to the 6th-8th centuries. Because of the nature of the finds inside the small structures, archaeologists believe they may have been workshops.

The group hopes to continue excavations at the site later in the year, but as the site of a scheduled ancient monument, first Historic Environment Scotland must be consulted and give its approval to the intervention.

15 thoughts on “Largest Anglo-Saxon building in Scotland found

  1. Nice spot, Aberlady. In fact, if you dodge the old mining area, the whole county (or, rather, ex-county) of East Lothian is a pretty desirable place to live: coast, farmland, golf courses, and hills; dryish climate; and all within easy reach of Edinburgh.

    1. What about the old mining area? Is the landscape scarred or environmentally blighted? I have something of a fascination with the history of mining, you see, so your list hits all the spots.

  2. Just marvelous how local volunteers, including young school children, are involved in the dig. That’s the way to instill a life-long passion for history.

  3. P.S. Are you confident in your headline? Shouldn’t it be

    ‘Largest Anglo-Saxon building in Scotland found’.

  4. By looking at Aberlady on a map, what -beyond low tide- appears to be the silted up river mouth, becomes evident. One might worry, though, about the “structure with large mammal bones underneath”.

    Of course, this is ongoing research, but some more hints would be nice to have. Was that mammal a horse, a blue whale or is it -who knows- more of the ‘(b)ovid’, possibly BBQ’ed kind ?

    What was the coastline back then ? How could, what is now Aberlady, have been looking like ? In what context comes our “large stone feature” -i.e. the mysterious “monastic royal artisanal feast site”– into play and what other towns were nearby ?

    By when was there a fishing harbor and was there at least a village, or was our “structure” solitary ? Where have the beers been stored ?

  5. I was thinking more of the housing and its inhabitants, rather than the blight. I once saw an Orange March there – not a pretty sight, though I’ll grant that it was a high-spirited, colourful sight. The local ex-mining population voted Labour but marched as Orange. The probable explanation is that at some point Irish strikebreakers had been brought in and never forgiven.

    Another ex-industry was salt-making, hence the town of Prestonpans.

    If you really like an ex-industrial landscape you should look at West Lothian and its very striking “shale bings” – artificial hills of spent shale from its 19th century/early 20th century shale oil industry. I find them rather attractive; just google “shale bings”.

  6. I have admired the corpse of a whale on an East Lothian beach close to Aberlady. There must have been many more of them around in Anglo-Saxon times; or, as I prefer to think of it, in the late era of the German invasion.

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