Lindisfarne Landscapes: Geoarchaeological Approaches to Human-Environment Relations


This project will use an interdisciplinary suite of geoarchaeological methods to investigate the landscape evolution of the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, and to reconstruct its environment and land-use during the Anglo-Saxon and medieval periods, when the island was home to one of the most important monasteries in Europe.

Holy Island of Lindisfarne is a small tidal island on the Northumberland coast, in northeast England. It is best known as the site of an important Anglo-Saxon monastery founded in AD 635 by King Oswald of Northumbria and St Aidan, a monk from Iona, and as the focus for the cult of St Cuthbert until his relics were moved to the mainland in the late ninth century in the wake of Viking attacks on the monastery. The archaeology of the island also includes prehistoric features from the Mesolithic onwards, a pond (The Lough), a ninth- to tenth-century settlement in the north part of the island known as Green Shiel, an medieval priory and village, a post-medieval castle and military fort, early modern limestone quarries, kilns and waggonways, and a fishing harbour (Walsh 1993; Walsh et al. 1995; Northumberland County Council and English Heritage 2009; Petts 2015).

Since 2016, geophysical and archaeological excavations on the island by Durham University and DigVentures have focused primarily on the presumed location of the Anglo-Saxon monastery to the southeast of the medieval priory church that remains visible today, and open fields west of the village. These have revealed an early medieval cemetery and industrial activity areas, field systems, and medieval occupation from the 13th century onwards (Petts 2017; Wilkins et al. 2017; Casswell 2018). The wider landscape beyond the Anglo-Saxon monastery and the medieval priory and village remain poorly understood, although it is clear that today’s landscape is substantially different from that of the early-medieval period due to late-medieval sand dune encroachment, the enclosure of fields and blocking of a lagoon near the priory from the 1790s, and the expansion of the village since the eighteenth century (Walsh et al. 1995; Wilson et al. 2001; Petts 2017). However, a recent geoarchaeological assessment funded by the Medieval Settlement Research Group, Durham University and DigVentures showed that there is excellent potential to reconstruct the early medieval landscape and land-use of Holy Island due to the burial of soils and wetlands by windblown sand.

This PhD project forms an essential new component of the ongoing archaeological and environmental research at Lindisfarne. Using an interdisciplinary suite of geoarchaeological methods, the PhD student will survey, sample, and analyse the soil and sediment archive preserved on Holy Island in order to model how the landscape has evolved over time, and how it has been impacted by human settlement and land-use, and by medieval and post-medieval sand drift. This project represents a unique opportunity to contribute to the understanding of how a monastic community experienced and interacted with a changing environment.


This project will use a range of techniques to survey, map, and evaluate soils, archaeological and wind-blown and water-lain/lagoonal sediments, and landscape features (e.g. sites, boundary walls, ditches, waterways, wetlands, lagoon) on Holy Island in order to reconstruct the evolution of its environment and land-use.

1) Archaeological and landscape fieldwork: Soil survey (test pits and coring) and archaeological excavation to map and sample buried soils, anthropogenic sediments/soils, cover sands, and lagoon sediments.

2) Placement with CASE Partner DigVentures: Six-month placement providing essential background information about Holy Island, the medieval and monastic communities who resided there, and their material culture; archaeological field and post-excavation research; public engagement and science communication.

3) Laboratory work: Soil micromorphology with complementary element mapping by SEM to analyse pedogenic/sedimentological processes; particle-size analysis to confirm the identification of windblown sands and (in the lagoon) tidal sands (including those reincorporated into agricultural soils); OSL dating of windblown sands; phytolith analysis of buried agricultural soils to determine vegetation cover and land-use; foraminifera analysis of lagoon sediments to determine if the lagoon was fresh water, saline, or brackish/tidal in the early and later medieval periods, before it was artificially blocked.

Project Timeline

Year 1

Oct-Dec: Research and writing of literature review.
Jan-Feb: First stage placement with DigVentures (in Barnard Castle/other offices).
Mar-June: Training in thin section production, soil micromorphology, and other laboratory methods using samples already collected from Lindisfarne.
July: First stage of fieldwork/training on Lindisfarne.
Aug-Sept: Second stage placement with DigVentures (including archaeological fieldwork and public engagement).

Year 2

Oct-June: Laboratory training and analyses and writing of technical specialist reports.
July: Second stage of landscape fieldwork on Lindisfarne.
Aug-Sept: Third stage placement with DigVentures (including archaeological fieldwork and public engagement).

Year 3

Oct-Feb: Completion of any outstanding laboratory analyses and technical specialist reports.
March-Sept: Writing and dissemination of PhD results in the form of journal articles and conference presentations. The PhD may take the form of a 80,000-100,000 word dissertation or may be publication-based (depending on the student’s choice, as decided early in the PhD).

Year 3.5

Oct-March: Completion of writing and further dissemination of PhD, including communicating science to non-specialists.

& Skills

Fieldwork: The PhD student will receive training in archaeological excavation and recording methods, soil/sediment survey, description, and sampling methods, and OSL sampling.

Laboratory work: Training in thin section production and phytolith extraction and analysis will take place at Newcastle University. Training in soil micromorphology will take place at both Durham and Newcastle Universities, while training in SEM, OSL, particle-size analysis, and foraminifera analysis be provided at Durham University. Training in bulk soil sample ‘processing’ by flotation and wet sieving will be provided by DigVentures during placements.

Project planning, logistics, and dissemination: Training and practice in project planning, budgeting, and logistics, technical reporting, training of and reporting to non-specialists, and using social media platforms as communication tools will be provided by DigVentures.

References & further reading

Casswell, C. (2018) Lindisfarne: The Holy Island Archaeology Project. Assessment Report and Updated Project Design. DigVentures.
Northumberland County Council and English Heritage (2009) Holy Island: Northumberland Extensive Urban Survey.
Petts, D. (2009) Coastal landscapes and early Christianity in Anglo-Saxon Northumbria. Estonian Journal of Archaeology 13: 79-95.
Petts, D. (2013) Expanding the archaeology of Holy Island (Lindisfarne). In N. Christie, J. Naylor, T. Vitali, T. Ó Carragáin and P. Gleeson (eds), Medieval Britain and Ireland in 2012, Medieval Archaeology 57: 262-314 (301-307).
Petts, D. (2015) The archaeology of Holy Island. The Tweed Valley, Archaeological Journal 172:sup1: 26-28.
Petts, D. (2017) ‘A place more venerable than all in Britain’: The Archaeology of Anglo-Saxon Lindisfarne. In Gameson, R. (ed.) The Lindisfarne Gospels: New Perspectives. Leiden: Brill, 1-18.
Walsh, K. 1993. Early Medieval Landscapes: Lindisfarne – A Case Study. Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Leicester.
Walsh, K., O’Sullivan, D., Young, R., Crane, S. and Brown, A.G. (1995) Medieval land use, agriculture, and environmental change on Lindisfarne (Holy Island), Northumbria. In R.A. Butlin and N. Roberts (eds), Ecological Relations in Historical Times: Human Impact and Adaptation. Oxford: Blackwell, 101-121.
Wilson, P., Orford, J.D., Knight, J., Braley, S.M., and Wintle, A.G. (2001) Late-Holocene (post-4000 years BP) coastal dune development in Northumberland, northeast England. Holocene 11(2): 215-229.
Wilkins, B., Petts, D. and Dave, R. (2017) Lindisfarne: The Holy Island Archaeology Project 2016. Archaeological Assessment Report. DigVentures.

Further Information

For further information, please contact Dr Karen Milek, at

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