York was an important military, ecclesiastical and political centre in Late Roman Britain. In the early seventh century it was under royal control of the Anglian (‘Anglo-Saxon’) kings of Deira, and later in the seventh century it developed into a major ecclesiastical centre and the seat of an archbishopric, a status it holds to this day.
In between, the historical record is a blank. There are no definite references to York between the fourth century and the seventh century, although there are one or two snippets whose meaning is less than clear (see earlier post on Post-Roman York: the documentary evidence for a summary of the documentary records). Evidence from archaeology provides some clues that may help to fill in the gap. In earlier posts I have discussed the headquarters building and the Anglian cremation cemeteries at The Mount and Heworth This post discusses the cemetery at Lamel Hill and Belle Vue House.
Lamel Hill is an artificial mound on natural rise situated south-east of the Roman fortress at York.
Map link here
The arrow shows the location of Lamel Hill. The scale is currently set to show the position of the mound. Zoom out to see the location in relation to the rest of the city, and zoom in for a detailed view showing the street names.
The mound was constructed during the English Civil War as a platform for a gun battery at the siege of York. Later it was used to mount a windmill, and then as a garden feature (English Heritage).
Lamel Hill is in the grounds of The Retreat, built as a hospital for the treatment of mental illness in the late eighteenth century and still operating in that role today. In 1847 its then medical superintendent, James Thurnam, conducted an archaeological excavation of the Lamel Hill mound, described by the York Archaeological Trust as ‘…an exemplary excavation for the period…’ (Tweddle 1999, p. 170).
Thurnam found that the main part of the mound contained a mass of disarticulated human skeletons. Below this, he identified 20 to 30 intact inhumation burials (English Heritage; Tweddle 1999 p 170-174). The skeletons were lying stretched out on their backs, oriented west-east (Tweddle 1999, p 170-174). There were no recorded grave goods, although Thurnam made drawings of iron fittings found with some of the skeletons, which were corner pieces, hinges and lock plates from chests in which some of the bodies had presumably been buried (Tweddle 1999 p 172-174). The fittings themselves have since disappeared.
Belle Vue House
Belle Vue House (now demolished) was situated just west of Lamel Hill at 99A Heslington Road (Tweddle 1999 p 236). An archaeological excavation was conducted in its grounds in 1983. This identified 38 inhumation burials, of which at least nine had been mutilated or decapitated before burial. The bodies were lying stretched out, and all but two were oriented west-east. The two exceptions were two decapitated burials oriented the opposite way round, east-west. One skeleton was accompanied by a small iron knife ‘probably of post-Roman date’, and other iron objects ‘probably of Anglian date’ and one sherd of Anglian pottery were also discovered. There was also some Roman pottery, tile and window glass, and a Roman sarcophagus lid (Tweddle 1999 p. 172, 236).
As the two sites are so close together, it is likely (though not proven as the space in between has not been excavated) that the Belle Vue cemetery and the Lamel Hill cemetery are part of the same cemetery (Tweddle 1991 p 172).
The Roman sarcophagus lid at Belle Vue suggests that the cemetery was on or near the site of a previous Roman cemetery. The orientation of the burials and the near-complete absence of grave goods is consistent with Christian burials. No evidence for an associated church was found (Tweddle 1991 p 172).
Dating evidence is sparse, as there are no radiocarbon dates and very few grave goods. The ‘post-Roman’ iron knife and Anglian pottery sherd at Belle Vue are consistent with a date some time in the post-Roman period. Tweddle et al comment that the use of chests as coffins is also known from Christian cemeteries of the seventh to ninth century, and suggest that the iron fittings at Lamel Hill may indicate a similar date. On the basis of this, the interpretation of the graves as Christian, and the absence of evidence for an associated church, they suggest that the Lamel Hill/Belle Vue burials may date to the seventh or early eighth century, after Northumbria’s conversion to Christianity and before burial in churchyards became established practice (Tweddle 1991 p 172).
The orientation of the undisturbed inhumations at Lamel Hill and the absence of grave goods apart from items that may be coffin-fittings are both consistent with Christian burial practices. It is of course impossible to say anything about the orientation or furnishings of the graves originally occupied by the disturbed skeletons in the mound, which were presumably dug up from a surrounding cemetery along with the earth used to build the Civil War gun platform. Clearly they had originally been inhumations rather than cremations (since the bones were bones and not ash). Any grave goods would presumably have been lost when the graves were dug up, and so the lack of recognisable grave goods in the mound does not tell us much. In the absence of evidence it’s a reasonable assumption that they were originally similar to the undisturbed burials under the mound, but this is still an assumption.
It is not clear how many burials had been disturbed, though the large quantity of bone in the mound suggests the number was substantial. It is also not clear how large the cemetery was, though if both Belle Vue and Lamel Hill represent parts of the same cemetery that suggests it was extensive.
The Belle Vue burials had a similar orientation and a similar lack of grave goods, also consistent with Christian burials. Why the Belle Vue graves should have had such a high proportion of mutilated/decapitated burials (9/38, almost a quarter) is anyone’s guess. It is of course impossible to know whether the burials disturbed by the construction of the Civil War gun platform had a similar proportion of decapitations, since the bones were all jumbled together in the mound anyway. If they did not, the Belle Vue site could perhaps represent a particular area of the cemetery used for burials in unusual circumstances (e.g. casualties of violence or judicial executions) or unusual individuals (e.g. strangers or followers of an unusual religion). If the Belle Vue burials were representative of the whole cemetery, that may suggest some specific feature of the population it served and/or the funeral rites in use. In the absence of more evidence, the significance (if any) of the mutilated/decapitated burials is speculative.
In the absence of absolute dating evidence, such as radiocarbon dates, the date of the cemetery rests on interpretation of the character of the graves and the small number of grave goods. As mentioned above, the orientation of the graves and the lack of grave goods is consistent with Christian burial. Bede’s Ecclesiastical History tells us that Northumbria ‘officially’ converted to Christianity with the conversion of Eadwine (Edwin) of Deira in 626-627 (Bede Book II Ch. 9, 14). If one assumes that there were no Christians in York prior to this date (an assumption!), that suggests the Lamel Hill/Belle Vue cemetery dates to the second quarter of the seventh century or later. This is consistent with the few grave goods. However, it is noteworthy that one of the grave goods (the iron knife) is described as ‘post-Roman’, one as ‘Anglian’ (the pottery sherd) and the others as ‘probably Anglian’ (the unspecified iron objects from Belle Vue). This may indicate that the date range for the cemetery that is consistent with the grave goods could include the period before 626, as the Anglian period in York is conventionally considered to span the period from the mid fifth century to the Viking conquest in 867 (Tweddle 1999, p 115).
Most of the burials at Belle Vue did not have associated grave goods, and none of the burials at Lamel Hill did. Assuming that the dates of the burials without grave goods can be extrapolated from the dates of those with grave goods relies on the assumption that all the burials were of similar date. In the absence of evidence, this is a reasonable assumption, but still an assumption. It is not uncommon for quite a small modern village churchyard to have headstones dating from the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries to the present day, a range of a couple of centuries or so. Maybe the same could apply in earlier periods. Tweddle et al suggest that burials at Belle Vue probably proceeded from the east (p 172); if I understand this correctly, this suggests that earlier burials were to the east and later burials to the west. Lamel Hill is east of Belle Vue, so if this hypothesis is correct, the Lamel Hill burials could pre-date the Belle Vue burials with the ‘post-Roman’ knife and the Anglian pottery sherd. This could be consistent with a wider date range for the cemetery, perhaps starting earlier than the ‘official’ conversion to Christianity in 626-7.
As mentioned in the previous post on documentary sources for post-Roman York, the Annales Cambriae contains an enigmatic reference that may be to York:
501 Bishop Ebur rests in Christ, he was 350 years old.
As discussed in the earlier post, the similarity of the name ‘Ebur’ to the name of a previous Bishop of York (Eborius) who attended the Council of Arles in 314 and the Roman name for York (Eburacum or Eboracum), not to mention the current title of the modern Archbishop of York (Ebor), this enigmatic reference may indicate the presence of a Christian bishop in York in or around 501 AD. If so, the bishop presumably had a flock. This could be consistent with the presence of a Christian population in York after the end of Roman administration and before 626-7. It seems to me to be at least possible that the Lamel Hill cemetery could have served such a population before the ‘official’ conversion to Christianity in 626-7 recorded by Bede, and continued to serve Christians in the area for some time thereafter. I need hardly say that this is speculative.
The inhumation cemeteries, or cemetery, at Belle Vue and Lamel Hill are consistent with the presence of a population in or near York following Christian burial practices at some time in the post-Roman period. The Roman artefacts, including a sarcophagus lid, may indicate that the cemetery was on or near the site of a Roman cemetery. If both Belle Vue and Lamel Hill are parts of the same cemetery, this suggests that it was extensive. The scarcity of dating evidence makes it difficult to give a definitive date range for the cemetery. The usual interpretation that the cemetery started in the seventh century seems to rest on an assumption that there were no Christians in York before Eadwine’s conversion in 626-7. This seems to me rather a large assumption. As far as I can see, there is nothing in the few grave goods to rule out an earlier start date for the cemetery. An earlier date could in turn be consistent with the enigmatic reference to ‘Bishop Ebur’ in Annales Cambriae, which may indicate the presence of a Christian bishop, and by extension a Christian population, in York before 626-7. As so often in this period, many interpretations are possible.
Annales Cambriae, available online
Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Translated by Leo Sherley-Price, Penguin, 1990, ISBN 0-14-044565-X
English Heritage, Lamel Hill, available online
Tweddle D, Moulden J, Logan E. Anglian York: a survey of the evidence. Council for British Archaeology/York Archaeological Trust, 1999. ISBN 1-902771-06-0.