8.4.4 Burial in the landscape

The majority of excavated burial sites in the study area are ‘field cemeteries’, that is, groups of graves which are largely unenclosed and far from contemporary settlement (SESARF 8.4.3 Burial traditions). Where good sequences of radiocarbon dating are available, it is clear that these cemeteries often start in the 5th century and commonly went out of use after the 7th century. In exceptional cases, an existing cemetery became associated with a church or monastic settlement. As excavations at the monastery of Auldhame, East Lothian showed, cemeteries which are associated with churches were more likely to continue in use beyond the end of the study period, which may account for larger population sizes (here estimated at 300+), and so radiocarbon dating is crucial. Excavated examples of ecclesiastical cemeteries such as Castle Park Dunbar and The Hirsel are also characterised by a high number of intercutting graves, suggesting longer periods of use, unlike earlier field cemeteries which were used for shorter periods of time.

Aerial photograph of an excavation site, showing the outline of a building structure
Excavation of early medieval chapel at Auldhame © HES
Aerial photograph of an excavation site. on the left is a car park, and on the right is a cliff overlooking water.
Aerial view of excavations at Castle Park © HES

However, it is also worth noting that monastic settlements often had numerous satellite chapels and burial grounds, as seen at Coldingham (Stronach 2006). By the time of the ‘golden age’ of Northumbria in the 7th–9th centuries, we should expect to see ‘monasteries’ not as single sites, but large, multifocal estates articulated across the landscape (Petts 2017, 2018).

Black and white photograph showing an excavation site outside a stone church.
Excavation under way at Coldingham © HES

The long cist cemeteries of the region were formerly seen as evidence for either missionary work or early Roman influence, but they are best understood as a continuation and expansion of continuing Iron Age burial forms attested in the area, particularly in East Lothian (Maldonado 2011). As such, they join the rare but critical evidence for British settlement and potentially the archaeology of belief and could provide a window on the dramatic changes of the 5th century. Like the massive silver chains, the majority of which were found in East Lothian and the Borders (SESARF 8.5 Material Culture), these burials and the inscribed stones that sometimes accompany them represent the complicated ways in which the Britons were shaped by the frontier politics of the Roman Empire (Blackwell et al 2017).