I like the Northumberland coast and particularly the area around Bamburgh and the Farne Islands. This is the land associated with the early Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria and with the development of Christianity.
St Ebba was actively involved in establishing the Christian faith in the kingdom of Northumbria and is known to have founded the religious house of men and women at Coldingham, actually now in Scotland near St Abb's Head, where she died in 683 as abbess.
So, as you can imagine, I was really pleased to get involved with the site at Ebb's Nook. This is a narrow promontory, almost an island, projecting out into the North Sea, on which there is a ruined chapel associated with St Ebba, where human burials had been found over a number of years some eroding out of the ground along the footpath. The chapel is said to date from the 12th or 13th centuries in its present form. Overlying these remains are hollows and banks associated with military activity from the Second World War when the site had trenches for a lookout.
There were various possible explanations for the origins of the chapel and the burials. One was that the site began as an isolated hermit's dwelling with an oratory, to which local people came for spiritual advice and then burial next to the saint's establishment. Another was that it was a 'chapel of ease', so called because it was established to serve a local community to save them the travel to the parish church, in this case the church at Bamburgh about 5 miles away, where they would have had to have gone for services, baptism and burial. Alternatively, the site of the chapel might suggest that it had been founded as a fishermen's chapel, partly a landmark for those at sea, and partly somewhere the local fishermen could go to pray for a safe return from their fishing trips. In some parts of the country such chapels acted as primitive 'lighthouses' and the mound next to this chapel may have served as the base for a large fire, used as a sea marker.
In the end we could not have expected our research to turn out as it did and it was radio-carbon dating that provided the evidence. We found no evidence that the chapel at Ebb's Nook was as old as the seventh century and we could not demonstrate any real connection with St Ebba. The chapel may have been dedicated to her long after she had lived. We know there was revived interest in her cult in the 12th century following the discovery of her relics which were shared between Durham and the church at Coldingham. In fact, St Ebba's chapel was most likely to have begun as a small local chapel, for the convenience of the people of Beadnell. But such chapels of ease do not usually have burial rights which were normally retained by the mother church as a source of income because people had to pay to bury their relatives. A record in the Bamburgh burial register, notes that permission was given for a man to be buried next to the chapel in the 1670s (the only recorded burial for this site). Our excavation found that local people had continued burying bodies for a very long time after this, according to the C14 dates, and they seem still to have been burying people there after the chapel was ruined. Some of these burials may have been of drowned seamen washed ashore along the coast. In the more recent cases, it is as if the locals knew or remembered the Nook had been a holy place and it was therefore considered a suitable place to bury people, even though it was no longer a consecrated building with a formal graveyard. There must also have been an attraction in the fact that burial there was free, so presumably the bodies were buried when no one was looking, probably at night.
The most poignant aspect of this site, however, was finding the small skeletons of a number of children - neonates, children who had died at birth or in the few months afterwards. One can only imagine the anguish of parents as they buried their unbaptized baby next to the ruined chapel on the headland where they hoped they would lie at rest in what had once been consecrated ground. Such burials of small un-baptized infants are common in Ireland in abandoned but known Christian sites, such as abbeys and ruined churches, where they are called calluraghs or caldraghs, and local traditions there suggest that adults, particularly strangers (perhaps drowned fishermen in this case?) or suicides were sometimes also interred in these burial grounds. But they are not well-known in England. Nook is one of the first to be identified and dated, and as such it is an important archaeological discovery.