Cemetery a clue to faith in Dark Ages

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ARCHAEOLOGISTS BELIEVE they have discovered a Celtic Christian cemetery - probably the most important yet found in England.

It is likely to shed important new light on the evolution of early Christianity in England.

Excavations at Whitby Abbey in North Yorkshire should enable scholars to solve one of British Christianity's most interesting historical riddles - the degree to which native "Celtic" Christianity managed to survive in the face of the dominant Roman version of the faith.

They believe the cemetery contains about 200 skeletons - but so far only 50 have been found, mostly in a very poor condition. Nevertheless, scientists hope to extract information from the remaining bone fragments and teeth on Dark Age diet, dental problems, childhood diseases and even family relationships.

Although there were no doctrinal differences between Celtic and Roman Christianity and both were equally "Catholic" and loyal to the Pope, there were massive cultural differences.

Celtic Christianity was markedly more ascetic, with much less pomp and ceremony than its Roman rival.

Celtic monks had their heads tonsured differently to their Roman colleagues. The date for Easter was calculated differently and the two church tendencies had different organisational and architectural traditions.

Christianity existed in the British Isles from the 4th and 5th centuries AD, but was dislodged from eastern Britain by Anglo-Saxon paganism in the 5th and 6th centuries.

The native British tradition - by this time "Celticised" - was re-introduced to the east of Britain in the 7th century, from Ireland and the west, and found itself in competition with Roman Christianity.

The Roman tradition officially won the day at an ecclesiastical conference at Whitby AD664 - but now the new excavations at Whitby Abbey are likely to reveal whether some Celtic traditions continued for many generations.

Archaeologists will be looking at the way the graves are laid out - and at the potentially Celtic-style burial practices - especially the use of shiny quartz stones in the graves. The stones were meant to contain within them the new heavenly names that deceased Christians would acquire at the Apocalypse.

The excavation, directed by an English Heritage archaeologist, Katherine Buxton, will take four years to complete.