How many places can you see the surviving traces of early medieval burial mounds within churchyards?
‘Not many’ is the answer. In fact, apart from the famous early 7th-century princely mound at Taplow, Buckinghamshire, and the likely mounds within St Materiana’s churchyard, Tintagel, Cornwall, which might date back to the Early Middle Ages. I don’t think I’ve visited any other churchyards with demonstrably early medieval burial monuments visible above the surface for visitors to see.
There are a fair number of churches associated with prehistoric monuments, as at Ogbourne St Andrew (Wiltshire), Stanton Drew (Somerset) or Rudston (Yorkshire). This association might reveal a connection of early medieval funerary and ceremonial reuse behind the association which might have involved the raising of new burial mounds in their earliest, 7th-century, phase. As at Ripon, we see natural featues resembling mounds adopted for burial purposes. Hence, the Early Middle Ages sees a persistent and varied reuse of prehistoric monuments that attracts some churches to prehistoric monumental complexes. However, later medieval and post-medieval church activities are likely to obliterate traces of prehistoric and early medieval features in most instances.
Therefore, I was especially excited to get the opportunity whilst recently on the Isle of Man to visit the church and churchyard of St Patrick’s, Jurby, in the north-west of the island. As well as a collection of early medieval carved stones within the church porch, in the churchyard there is a striking survival of a Viking-period burial mound.
Its location and size is comparable to others in the northern plains but its churchyard situation, surrounding the current 19th-century building, is distinctive. It is unclear whether an early medieval ecclesiastical site was already nearby (there is an early medieval keill nearby but undated) that prompted this location being selected for a high-status burial monument, most likely in the 10th century. Alternatively, was this a distinctive choice in relation to the natural topopgraphy? The situation is certainly striking, on the first ridge allowing views over the sea as well as the coastal routes, it is a prominent and distinctive, ‘commanding’ location. Whether the intention is to be visible by sea-going travellers, or more about the dynamic of land and power linking coast and inland.
How do we know the mound is early medieval? Well, it might have been positioned in relation to prehistoric monuments, but there is evidence from its scale and chance discoveries that it migth date to the Viking Age. The mound is 2m high and 14m across and allegedly a sword was found from the mound during gravedigging. A second sword has been found elsewhere in the churchyard. Hence, in all likelihood, the mound marks one or more graves dating to the 1oth century and comparable to the better-excavated graves at Ballateare and Balladoole. I discussed the mortuary practices at these sites in my 2006 book.
The aesthetics created by the mound in the 19th/20th-century churchyard context are also interesting. The mound has been ‘respected’ and reused by 19th-century graves, with large tombs planted upon them, and raised above their surrounding counterparts.
Whether aware of the mound’s potential antiquuity or not, the churchyard flows over it like a wave of modern burial and memorialisation.