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Lichfield Cathedral - a load of old bones?

By Rowan

(Originally published at Samhain 1994)

Litchfield CAthedral, West FaceDuring the course of the summer archaeological excavations took place in the north aisle of Lichfield Cathedral. Parts of the earlier Norman cathedral were found as well as the first substantial sections of the earliest (Anglo-Saxon) cathedral on the site. It is thought that the building must have been quite impressive for its day, especially as Lichfield was, for a time, the site of an Archbishopric.

The find which aroused much interest was that of a burial of the late 11th or early 12th century which was described in the local papers as being that of a ''pagan priest''. Although the burial now lies inside the cathedral, at the time the body was interred it lay outside the then Norman building, only ending up on the inside when the later 12th century Early English cathedral was built outside the old one. The custom of burying favoured corpses inside churches did not arise until right at the end of the Norman period or even later.

The skeleton was found in a stone-lined grave which had been whitewashed (i.e. a ''whitened sepulchre'') with the arms folded over the chest in a manner which is normally associated with medieval burials of priests; by the end of the 12th century the normal practice with priestly burials, along with crossing the arms, was to include a small pewter chalice and patten (dish) in the grave. This burial however predated the introduction of that particular practice.

The excitement was caused however by the discovery of what is known as a ''libation tube'' leading from ground level (outside the Norman building, remember) down into the grave itself. The archaeologist admitted that this was a survival of a pagan burial practice which had originated in the Mediterranean cultures and which had been widespread among the Romans. The purpose of the libation tube was to allow offerings to be poured into the grave by friends and relatives of the deceased on the anniversary of his or her death along with general feasting and so on around the grave. The practice still survives in some parts of Europe, when whole families visit family graves on The Day of the Dead or All Saints' Day - 1st November - to hold a picnic around the grave and let the dead know they have not been forgotten.

As a pagan practice, the inclusion of libation tubes in graves is known to have survived for some time following the introduction of Christianity into Northwest Europe. It was reasonably common, apparently, in Ireland in the century or so following Ireland's Christianisation (Guinness ...?) but it had been generally assumed that the practice had died out within a couple of centuries following Christianisation.

So what is going on with this very late and unexpected survival of a pagan funeral custom as late as the early 12th century? The archaeologist admitted he did not know what to make of it as it was far more recent than he had imagined possible, especially in connection with what was otherwise understood to be the burial of a priest. It seems rather unlikely, though, that this was a ''pagan priest'' as had been reported in a number of local newspapers. Unlikely, but not impossible. In her now largely discredited The Witch Cult in Western Europe Margaret Murray details a number of instances in which parish priests were hauled up before their bishops on charges of paganism centuries after the Church would have us all believe that the British Isles had been completely Christianised.

The priest of Inverkeithing in Scotland was tried as late as 1282 on a charge of leading his parishioners in a dance around a horned and phallic figure. The priest was found guilty but was merely ticked off - this was long before the main hysterics and persecutions of witches which began in the mid-15th century.

This is not the only interesting burial discovered at Lichfield Cathedral - during the 1860s when the floor was dug up for the laying of piping for the present heating system a grave was found of the late Viking period containing the skeleton of a man with a 5' hazel wand or staff. Pete Jennings of the Odinshof has suggested that the staff may have been of ash, rather than hazel, in which case it would probably have been the remains of a spear. The two woods are, apparently, quite easily confused. Victorian attitudes to archaeological excavation were generally cavalier to say the least and no sketches or other records were made. It can therefore not be established whether or not there were traces of decayed metal fittings such as a spearhead enclosed with the burial, or indeed whether the staff was actually hazel or not.