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Archaeology discovery: Medieval Christian prayer beads found on Holy Island

Holy Island of Lindisfarne
The tidal island of Lindisfarne or Holy Island in Northumberland, the U.K., on May 26, 2012. |

Archaeologists recently uncovered Christian prayer beads dating from the eighth to ninth century on an ancient island in the United Kingdom known as "Holy Island," and say the discovery will give an insight into how people in medieval Britain lived and expressed their faith.

The beads, made from salmon vertebrae, were found clustered around the neck of one of the earliest skeletons, possibly that of a monk, on the island of Lindisfarne, off the northeast coast of England, The Telegraph reported.

Lindisfarne is also the birthplace of the Lindisfarne Gospels, one of the most celebrated illuminated books in the world.

The prayer beads may have been used for personal devotion, according to Dr. David Petts, the project co-director and a Durham University specialist in early Christianity.

“We think of the grand ceremonial side of early medieval life in the monasteries and great works like the Lindisfarne Gospels. But what we’ve got here is something which talks to a much more personal side of early Christianity,” he said.

Petts noted that the beads were recognized by Marina Chorro Giner, a zooarchaeologist. “This bright, eagle-eyed researcher looked at them and said, actually these aren’t just fish bones, they’ve been modified and turned into something," he said. 

The beads were uncovered amid ongoing excavations by an archaeology social enterprise, DigVentures, and Durham University.

Lisa Westcott Wilkins of DigVentures was quoted as saying that the beads were “important enough that this person was buried with it.”

“This is the only artifact from within a grave on Lindisfarne, so it’s a significant item. As far as we’re aware, it’s the first example of prayer beads found anywhere in medieval Britain,” she said. “We believe these beads were used as a personal object of faith, especially given that our modern word bead comes from the Old English 'gebed,' meaning ‘prayer.’”

Lindisfarne is one of the most important centers of early English Christianity.

“Irish monks settled here in AD 635 and the monastery became the center of a major saint’s cult celebrating its bishop, Cuthbert,” says the British charity English Heritage. “The masterpiece now known as the Lindisfarne Gospels was created here in the early eighth century. The ruins now visible are those of a 12th-century priory, which claimed direct descent from the early monastery.”

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