8.4.1 Paganism and conversion to Christianity

The spread of Christianity within the region during the early medieval period has been associated with the long cist burial tradition (Henshall 1958; SESARF 8.4.3 Burial traditions). However, recent research has shown that the link between inhumation burial and conversion is not straightforward (Maldonado 2013). It is also difficult to pinpoint ‘pagan’ places and practices, which makes attempts to define ‘conversion’ from them fraught.

One way to assess changes in belief may be to try and track the end of Iron Age burial practices, including cremation practice, crouched burial and communal burial in massive stone cists (Armit et al 2013). However, we should be careful not to ascribe a single cause, such as religious change, to breaks in the archaeological record, particularly when so much of the chronology and scale of the conversion process remains unknown.

The earliest evidence for Christianity in the SESARF region, and indeed in Scotland, is in the form of late Roman silver bearing Christian iconography from the Traprain Law silver hoard (Hunter et al 2022). These include spoons marked with the Chi-Rho monogram, and a flagon bearing one of the earliest depictions of the Adoration of the Magi outside of Rome (https://blog.nms.ac.uk/2019/05/30/disentangling-early-christianity-on-the-traprain-treasure/). However, this material was likely assembled and retained as hacksilver, and does not necessarily reflect the beliefs of the occupants of the hillfort in the early 5th century.

Black and white photo of excavation finds
Traprain treasure as found (12th May 1919) From a photograph album of the Curle family, 1911–1919 © HES
photograph of a silver spoon showing an engraved fish
Bowl of a silver spoon with a fish engraved inside from Traprain Law, 410–425 AD © NMS

Certainly by the middle of the 5th century, there were Latinate Christians among the Britons of the SESARF area, as shown by the early Latin-inscribed stones which began to appear at that time (SESARF 8.4.2 Early inscribed stones). The small number of these means we cannot be sure that literacy and Christianity were widespread, much less universal, but their appearance from Galloway to Lothian around this time suggests a wider adoption of Romano-British cultural forms that persisted after the fall of imperial control.

Rather than seeking pagan belief only in the Roman Iron Age, there are elements of Northumbrian cultural forms within the early medieval period which may show signs of pagan belief. For instance, a 7th-century copper-alloy buckle plate from Ayton, Scottish Borders, with parallels from Kent and Scandinavia, may bear iconography relating to the cult of Odin (Shiels 2004; Blackwell 2018, 147).

Photograph of a buckle plate, dark with age.
Anglo-Saxon buckle plate with cast or stamped decoration featuring a warrior wearing a head-dress with horns, 7th century AD, found at Ayton, Berwickshire © NMS

Just beyond the study area, the royal centre of Yeavering has the most convincing evidence for the performance of pre-Christian practices on a large scale as late as the 6th and 7th centuries. The Great Enclosure reuses prehistoric earthworks and seems to have formed the focus for a large complex of ritual structures including timber halls and furnished burials. A burial at the entrance to the Great Hall contained an object interpreted as a staff or survey device as well as a goat skull, perhaps in reference to the place-name Ad gefrin, the place of the goats (Hope-Taylor 1977, 69). Another structure associated with a deposit of cattle skulls was also interpreted as a ‘temple’, while a square enclosure with a central post has also been identified as a type of early Anglo-Saxon ‘shrine’ as seen elsewhere in Northumbria (Blair 1995). However, in 627, Roman-born Bishop Paulinus was sent to the court of Edwin of Northumbria to convert the royal family and their subjects. The regular gatherings which took place at Yeavering were appropriated by Bishop Paulinus, who according to Bede’s account preached and baptised people there for 36 days. A timber hall may have been made into a minster around this time, although the structures and the associated burials at Yeavering remain difficult to date closely.

The similarities of layout between Yeavering and the cropmark sites at Philiphaugh and Sprouston, where hall-like structures are joined with large-enclosed burial grounds, suggest a similar sequence may have taken place in the SESARF area, but these sites remain unexcavated. A note of caution here is Doon Hill, East Lothian, where the presumed cult hall and burial complex has recently been proven to be prehistoric in date (SESARF 8.2.3 Centres of power).

Aerial photograph of cropmarks in a field
Philiphaugh settlement cropmarks © HES

Despite Bishop Paulinus’s efforts, King Edwin’s successors renounced Christianity until Oswald gained the throne of Northumbria in 634. The status of the existing Christian communities in the SESARF area during this time is unknown, as we only have the accounts of Bede and other Northumbrians which often do not look favourably on British churchmen (Stancliffe 2007). Regardless of whether these events had any real impact on the faith of Northumbrians outside of royal circles, they are a useful reminder of the diversity of beliefs and practices extant in the study area in the first few centuries of the early medieval period (SESARF 8.4.3 Burial traditions and belief).

King Oswald and his sister Aebbe, later abbess of Coldingham, were said to have been converted to Christianity during their exile in Dál Riata, and upon their return to power in Northumbria, they installed the Iona-trained monk Aidan as bishop of Lindisfarne in 635. Old Melrose was said to have been founded as a daughter house of Lindisfarne shortly thereafter, though it retained a British name which suggests the existence of a pre-existing settlement. St Cuthbert, prior of Old Melrose and later bishop of Lindisfarne, was likely born in the SESARF area around this time and carried out pastoral care in the area until his death in 687. Therefore, the story of Christian conversion in the area is one that is far from a straightforward history of steadily growing converts. It involved multiple inputs from British Latin-speakers as well as missionaries from Rome, Gaul and Dál Riata, and in time, local-born saints such as Cuthbert.

Even after the Christianisation of the region, hints of pagan practice may still be found, if from new sources. A furnished burial from Auldhame, in which a male adult was buried with weapons, spurs and a Hiberno-Norse belt set, may also be indicative of Norse pagan belief introduced in the Viking Age (Crone and Hindmarch 2016). The impact of Viking Age raids and settlements in the region remains unquantified, and the monasteries of Auldhame and Isle of May seem to have experienced a period of decline, but not complete abandonment, in the course of the 9th century.