‘We’re bringing emotion to archaeology’: rediscovering the lost word of Ad Gefrin

27th October 2021

Today, a new cultural centre dedicated to one of our richest Anglo-Saxon sites was announced. Here, its rich history is unearthed

It is beyond hair-raising to stand in a trench with the remains of an Anglo-Saxon feasting hall. Half-smothered in soil, the 1,500 year-old timber posts once braced its vault. They are blackened and burnt: casualties of a savage revenge enacted by one overlord on another in 633 AD.

“If you’d come to this site the week after Cadwallon, king of Gwynedd, had torched the place to the ground, this is what you would have seen,” says archaeologist Roger Miket. “And we are here, all these centuries later with that same view. When you come to it, you’re trembling.”

Today, the ancient settlement of Yeavering – or Ad Gefrin (it means “near the hill of the goats”), as it was known to Anglo-Saxon Northumbrians – is a grassy, wind-whipped plain straddling the B-road into Wooler from Kirknewton, about eight miles from the Anglo-Scottish border.

I doubt the few motorists whooshing past us notice the cairn-style roadside monument that was put up in the 1960s, after the field was first excavated. But then, even those born and bred in the surrounding villages are mostly unaware that the field played host to pivotal events in Anglo-Saxon history, not least the first conversions to Christianity in the north by the monk Paulinus, in 627.

Ad Gefrin was the summer residence of King Edwin (c586-633), whom Bede, writing in the eighth century, described as the most powerful ruler in Britain. Exiled by rival Aethelfrith when he was a child, he retook the Northumbrian throne in 616 with the help of Raedwald of East Anglia, the king some believe entombed in the longship at Sutton Hoo.

"Over about 100 years, in the sixth and seventh centuries, Ad Gefrin was built, razed and rebuilt four or five times by feuding families,” says archaeologist Chris Ferguson, as we walk towards the current excavation. Lines have been mown into the grass to indicate the feasting hall’s footprint, along with that of Edwin’s palace and a grandstand from which township business and royal justice could be dispensed. It seated around 230 people.

Formerly head of archaeological collections at York Museums and a curator at the Ashmolean, Ferguson recently became project director of a new cultural centre in Wooler that, when it opens next year, will resurrect Ad Gefrin’s lost history and the crucial role it played in Northumbria’s early medieval golden age. The centre will be part museum, part whisky distillery, whereby income from the latter (a single malt using local barley and water) will eventually sustain the former.

The Ad Gefrin centre is a family venture, born at Ferguson’s parents’ kitchen table. The land in Wooler on which it is being built is owned by his stepmother, Eileen, whose family formerly ran an agricultural haulage business from the 214-acre site. She and her husband, Alan, have raised £10.5 million for the project, and hope  it “will illuminate what we’ve got here, and safeguard it to pass on”, she tells me.

Three years ago, when the Fergusons announced their plans to the locals, they rented and renovated one of the empty shops on Wooler’s gently fatigued (if sweetly bunting-clad) high street. People drove for miles to attend: some 3,000 in the first few days, and 7,000 before the month was out.

“I think all of Glendale [the valley in which Wooler lies, incidentally the inspiration for Postman Pat’s Greendale] showed up,” says Eileen, “but what really hit me was the number of people – friends of mine I’ve grown up with – who asked where we got the name ‘Ad Gefrin’ from. And I’m thinking, ‘You live here!’ I was staggered.”

Bunt Morton had a clue. Now 94, he regaled the Fergusons with how, in 1953, lead archaeologist Brian Hope-Taylor hired him to clear Yeavering of topsoil and debris, and how he’d watched some of the dig. “You’ll find him at 6 o’clock in The Angel, playing his ukulele,” offers the office manager, Caroline, though regrettably my train back to London doesn’t allow it.

Morton also let slip that Hope-Taylor had an affair with the woman he’d lodged with in Wooler. “We’d always wondered why there was a break in the excavations,” says Ferguson. “Apparently things got awkward with her husband.”

Hope-Taylor, who died in 2001, made the discovery of his lifetime in Ad Gefrin; one that has shaped thinking about Anglo-Saxon archaeology for decades and is yielding information still: the dig that I attended was undertaken by the University of Durham, after recent geophysical surveys suggested unexplored structures underground.
Hope-Taylor was only 26 when he recognised the crop marks consistent with buried archaeological features in aerial reconnaissance photographs of Yeavering, and realised they tallied with the description of Ad Gefrin in Bede. A wood engraver and illustrator, he had become interested in archaeology during the Second World War, while creating models for bombing practice.

Nobody had ever excavated an Anglo-Saxon settlement before. “We’d known about the Anglo-Saxon dead for centuries,” says Miket, “but next to nothing about the Anglo-Saxon living, because, unlike a stone fort, what we have here are fragile timber structures which rot quickly in the ground (unless they were preserved by being burnt), leaving only a slight colour difference in the soil. The difference can be as fine as between a reddy sand and sandy red. It took Hope-Taylor, with his artist’s eye, to read those soils.”

Hope-Taylor spent 15 years excavating Ad Gefrin. His report is filled with beautiful illustrations and runs to more than 400 pages. “When he died, he still had finds from the site in his garage,” says Ferguson. “They were tagged and rigorously written up, but they’d been in those boxes for 40 years. I think Ad Gefrin had become a part of who he was.”

The finds aren’t, I should say, of the blingy gold helmet and jewelled buckle type; more ceramic loom weights and crucibles for metalworking. “Royal townships of the time were occupied seasonally,” Ferguson explains, “so when they moved on, to York or to Bamburgh, they took anything precious with them.”

Hope-Taylor did find an adult male, laid out between the great hall and palace, though time had reduced him to little more than a stain in the soil. Bar a skull fragment and a goat-shaped bronze staff head, or standard, that is. He linked the body to a description of Edwin in Bede, in which the monk writes: “So great was his majesty... he always used to be preceded by his standard-bearer.”

Bede offers other clues to the site, Miket tells me. A parable describing life as like a sparrow flying from the darkness of the night into a vast hall where he is embraced by heat, light and song, as he flies through and into the dark again, “suggests that the halls in Bede’s day must have had one door opposite the other”. 

Even so, the challenge of communicating a rich archaeological landscape when there is almost nothing to see above ground, is significant – and likely the reason so few of us have heard of Ad Gefrin. That, though, is where the design of the new museum in Wooler excels. Inside, that hall will be extended to its true length by a projection, populated by virtual characters such as Edwin and his wife Aethelburg, and Paulinus: each will break the third wall to tell their own story. 

“We’re trying to bring some emotion to the archaeology,” he says. “Often that period can feel very dry, because so little of what might make it real survives. You can hardly move two feet in Northumbria without encountering a Paulinus or a St Cuthbert’s Way – (both long-distance footpaths) – or being in a house at school named after Edwin. We really do live with our Anglo-Saxon past, but it’s about making it relevant. Making it alive.“

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Article written by Lucy Davies of the Telegraph - https://www.telegraph.co.uk/art/what-to-see/bringing-emotion-archaeology-rediscovering-lost-word-ad-gefrin/


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