Dark Age gospel factory found

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The "gospel factory" which produced the vellum for the 1,300-year-old Lindisfarne Gospels and other priceless Dark Age illuminated manuscripts has been discovered by archaeologists.

Excavations have unearthed the bones of scores of calves together with the remains of a vellum-production complex which appears to have consisted of a slaughterhouse, two cattle-buyers and two probable workshops.

The site is just one mile away from Lindisfarne Priory, where in the seventh, eighth and possibly ninth centuries monks produced some of the world's greatest illuminated manuscripts.

A handwritten and hand- illustrated book, the Gospels would have taken as much as two years for a monk to produce.

And each 500-page book would have needed the skins of at least 130 calves to make. Excavations in recent weeks have revealed that most of the slaughtered animals were under a year old and that perhaps a third of them were newly born - just one or two weeks old when they were slaughtered for Gospel manufacture.

Each of the tiny number of monks involved in the actual writing work would have needed more than 60 calf skins per year. Book production at Lindisfarne lasted at an absolute maximum from the foundation of the priory in AD635 to its virtual abandonment in 875 - although the main production period is thought to have been 680 to 750.

Well over 100 books - many of them illuminated - were probably produced over that period, but only a tiny number have survived - including the unfinished Echternach Gospels in Paris, the fragmentary Durham Gospels in Durham Cathedral and the Lindisfarne Gospels, which are themselves currently housed in the British Library in London. Most of the calf bones found by the archaeologists are thought to represent the last year or so of production activity before the site was abandoned in 875.

Ninth-century coins, knives and a seventh-century brooch have been found on the site, which was hidden beneath sand dunes before the excavation.

"The discovery is very exciting. It's shedding totally new light on the production processes that went into the making of some of the world's most beautiful artworks," said archaeologist Deirdre O'Sullivan, director of Leicester University's Lindisfarne Research Project, which is carrying out the excavations.