Archeologists working at the monastery and adjacent graveyard at Beckery Chapel, near Glastonbury, have determined the monks were buried there more than 1,400 years ago, making Beckery the oldest monastery on record in the UK. The chapel was originally discovered during the 1880s, and was later excavated further in the 1960s. The cemetery contained around 50 skeletons, all but three of which were adult men, suggesting it served the monastery. Of the remaining three skeletons, one belonged to a woman, believed to be either a nun or house staff, and the last two were juvenile males, probably novices.
The Chapel is named for St. Brigid (453-524 CE), an Irish nun believed to have established several monasteries in Ireland. According to writings from the time, she visited the Glastonbury site in 488 CE, leaving behind some personal items (her wallet or purse, a necklace, etc.) when she left. Pilgrims were known to travel to a medieval chapel built at the site; some of them sought forgiveness, believing it would be granted if they crawled through a hole in the chapel’s wall.
This new excavation was undertaken specifically to unearth several skeletons to complete radiocarbon testing on to determine their age. Seven individual skeletons were radiocarbon dated, with the results showing the first burials occurred in the fifth or early sixth centuries CE, while the last monks were interred there in the seventh to early ninth centuries. The use of the site as a monastery may have stopped in the later half of the ninth century when Somerset came under attack by Vikings.
The dig was run as a community training event by the South West Heritage Trust (SWHT). The site director, Richard Brunning, said in Live Science: “It is great to show that a community excavation can produce results that revolutionise our view of the origins of monasticism in Britain and Ireland. Archaeology is providing evidence that can get us beyond the uncertainty of the historical sources. The ancient origins of the Beckery site may explain why later medieval writers linked it to figures such as King Arthur and Saint Brigit.”
Beckery, a small, rocky island, is part of the Avalon Marshes near Glastonbury. The name means either ‘bee-keeper’s island’, which is the Old English translation, or ‘Little Ireland’ in the Irish language. Smaller islands like this one were generally chosen as the sites for monasteries and hermitages during this time period, primarily because the separation from the regular work was conducive to spiritual enlightenment.
The Chapel is already known as being the place where King Arthur reportedly had a vision of Mary Magdalene and the baby Jesus. These new findings, however, tell researchers considerably more about the location, for example, that it was constructed prior to the region being defeated by the Saxon kings of Wessex in the seventh century.