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Oldest Community of Monks in U.K. Discovered

The find was thanks to a community training dig

The Beckery monastery as it would have looked in the fifith century (David Lawrence)
smithsonian.com

In the 1960s, archaeologists found a cemetery at Beckery chapel on a small island in Somerset, in southwest England. The fact that all of the 50-plus bodies, with the exception of two juvenile skeletons and one woman skeleton, were adult men led them to the conclusion that it was likely a cemetery for monks. But a new dig at the site proves that they weren’t just any monks. As Caroline Davies reports at The Guardian, it turns out that these monks are the oldest community of monks to be discovered in the United Kingdom.

According to the South West Heritage Trust, the monastic tradition—in which groups of religious men remove themselves from the world to pursue religious pursuits like studying the Bible, copying sacred manuscripts or brewing beer—had spread to present-day France by the fifth century. It was believed that the lifestyle likely then spread to the British Isles shortly thereafter. Though stories of St. Patrick, St. Brigit and others had indicated that monastic life began in the area in the fourth century, evidence in support of that theory was scant. 

Rather, it was believed that the monks at Beckery came from the medieval period, when the nearby chapel was built. But after a community training dig uncovered two more bodies in May, and took bone samples of seven other individuals, researchers were given a chance to radiocarbon date the bones. What they found was that the earliest died between 406 and 544 A.D., making them the earliest monks found in the U.K. thus far. The burials continued until the seventh to ninth century, when the monastery likely was destroyed by Viking invaders.

Richard Brunning, director of the site, tells Davies that the find was a big surprise and very exciting. “Radio carbon dating has allowed us to get the answers we have been waiting for for 50 years,” he says.

The BBC reports that the site predates other early monastic communities including Scotland’s Iona Abbey, founded in the 6th century and Glastonbury Abbey, founded in the following century.

Brunning says that, though the small island on which cemetery is located on is now home to wastewater plant and industrial park, at the time it would have been a secluded spot. “It would have been very small, we're only talking about a small number of monks there at any one time, effectively it's like a large hermitage,” he tells the BBC. “It's on a small island just off Glastonbury so it’s surrounded by the wetlands and cut off from normal life, that’s probably why it’s based there. There are a few rudimentary buildings made of wattle and daub, so nothing grand made of stone.”

Brunning and his team plan to do more tests on the monks to determine if they were local people who adapted the monastic life or if they came to Beckery from another location.

One of the skeletons uncovered at Beckery (South West Heritage Trust)
About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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