Digging for Britain episode 6: In Scotland and the north of England, Alice investigates an Ice Age camp, the mystery of a medieval skeleton and the earliest evidence of salt making in Britain. In this particular installment, Alice, our dedicated guide, unravels the intricate tapestry of history in two separate but equally intriguing regions: Scotland and the northern reaches of England. These areas, steeped in the richness of historical narratives, reveal tales of survival, disease, and innovation that shaped our world.
Alice’s explorations first lead her to an extraordinary Ice Age encampment. A testament to humanity’s resilience, this camp sheds light on the earliest human civilizations that battled the harsh climates and prevailed in their struggle for survival. How did they manage to endure during such a time? What secrets and stories do the remnants of this camp whisper to us from eons ago?
Furthermore, Alice dives into the enigmatic tale of a medieval skeleton, steeped in mystery and intrigue. Uncovering clues from the past, she navigates the puzzling circumstances surrounding this particular find. Could it be a commoner, or perhaps a saint, afflicted with the daunting malady known as syphilis? The answers lay buried in the earth, waiting to be discovered.
Lastly, Alice presents a significant breakthrough in our understanding of early British industry. She investigates the traces of what could be the very earliest evidence of salt-making on the British Isles. This discovery could shift our understanding of early commerce and survival strategies employed by our ancestors. Join Alice in this riveting episode, where she brings history to life, unearthing the tales of the past and offering intriguing insights into our collective heritage.
Digging for Britain episode 6
The story of Lady Isabel German
Lady Isabel German was a remarkable woman who lived in York in the 15th century. She was an anchoress, a religious hermit who chose to be walled up in a small cell attached to a church, where she spent her life in prayer and contemplation. She was also a victim of a terrible disease that left her disfigured and in pain, but may have also elevated her status as a holy person.
Who was Lady Isabel German?
Lady Isabel German was born sometime in the late 14th or early 15th century, but we do not know much about her early life or family. We do know that she became an anchoress at All Saints Church in Fishergate, York, around 1428. An anchoress was a woman who voluntarily gave up her worldly life and possessions to dedicate herself to God. She would be sealed in a small room, usually attached to a church wall, with only a window for communication with the outside world. She would receive food and other necessities from the parishioners or a maid, and would spend her days and nights in prayer, meditation, reading and writing.
An anchoress was not a nun, but she had to follow strict rules of conduct and discipline. She had to renounce all worldly pleasures and attachments, including family and friends. She had to wear simple clothes, usually white or black, and avoid any adornment or vanity. She had to observe silence, except for confession and spiritual guidance. She had to endure hardship, solitude and penance. She had to be humble, obedient and charitable.
An anchoress was also a source of spiritual inspiration and guidance for the community. People would come to her window to seek her advice, prayers or blessings. She would also intercede for the souls of the dead and the living. She would be seen as a living saint, a model of holiness and virtue.
What did Lady Isabel German suffer from?
Lady Isabel German’s skeleton was discovered in 2007 during an excavation at the site of the former All Saints Church in Fishergate. It was buried in the apse of the church foundations, a place reserved for clergy or wealthy people. This suggests that she was a person of high status and respect in the community.
However, her skeleton also revealed that she suffered from two debilitating diseases: septic arthritis and advanced venereal syphilis. Septic arthritis is an infection of the joints that causes inflammation, pain and stiffness. Venereal syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection that causes ulcers, rashes, fever and damage to various organs. In its later stages, it can also affect the brain and cause mental deterioration.
Both diseases would have caused Lady Isabel German immense physical and emotional suffering. She would have had difficulty moving, eating and sleeping. She would have had visible signs of infection on her skin, bones and teeth. She would have experienced mood swings, hallucinations and paranoia.
How did Lady Isabel German cope with her diseases?
We do not know how Lady Isabel German contracted her diseases or how she reacted to them. It is possible that she was infected before she became an anchoress, or that she was raped or abused by someone who had access to her cell. It is also possible that she inherited syphilis from her mother or that she contracted it from contaminated objects or fluids.
Whatever the case, Lady Isabel German faced a dilemma: how to reconcile her diseases with her religious vocation. On one hand, she could have seen her diseases as a punishment from God for some sin or fault. On the other hand, she could have seen them as a gift from God to test her faith or grant her martyrdom.
The latter view seems more likely, given the evidence of her burial place and the historical context of her time. In the 15th century, there was a strong association between visible and disfiguring illnesses and holiness. People who suffered from such diseases were often regarded as special or chosen by God. They were believed to share in the sufferings of Christ and to have mystical experiences or visions. They were also sought after for their prayers and miracles.
Lady Isabel German may have been one of these holy sufferers. She may have accepted her diseases as part of God’s plan for her salvation. She may have used them as a means of purification and penance. She may have offered them up for the benefit of others. She may have even gained fame and reverence for her afflictions.
What can we learn from Lady Isabel German?
Lady Isabel German’s story is both tragic and inspiring. It shows us the harsh realities of life in medieval times, especially for women who had few choices or opportunities. It also shows us the power of faith and devotion, especially for women who sought alternative ways of expression and autonomy. Lady Isabel German’s story challenges us to think about our own attitudes towards illness and suffering. How do we cope with them? How do we view them? How do we help others who are going through them?Lady Isabel German’s story also invites us to reflect on our own spirituality and vocation. What is our purpose in life? What are we called to do? How do we serve God and others?
Earliest Evidence of Salt Making in Britain
Salt is a vital resource for human societies, as it can be used to flavour and preserve food, among other uses. However, salt production is not an easy task, especially in prehistoric times. In this blog post, we will explore the earliest evidence of salt making in Britain, which dates back to the Neolithic period, more than 5500 years ago.
The Neolithic Salt Makers of Street House
The Neolithic period, also known as the New Stone Age, was a time of transition from hunter-gatherer lifestyles to more settled farming communities. It was also a time of cultural and technological innovations, such as pottery making, stone monuments and salt production.
One of the most remarkable sites of Neolithic salt making in Britain is Street House, near the town of Loftus in north-east England. The site was occupied from the Neolithic to the Anglo-Saxon period, and has yielded evidence of various activities, such as house building, burial practices and metal working.
However, the most surprising discovery at Street House was a structure that was used for extracting salt from seawater using industrial-style processes. The structure consisted of a large pit with a narrow trench leading into it, and three hearths where ceramic pots were placed over hot flames. The seawater was heated in the pots until it evaporated, leaving behind salt crystals. The pottery shards found at the site were of a low quality characteristic of salt production.
The structure was dated to between 3766 and 3647 BC, making it the earliest known salt production site ever found in the UK and one of the first of its kind in western Europe. The structure was buried under a metre of clay, which preserved it from later disturbances.
The Origins and Implications of Salt Production in Britain
The technology of salt production may have been introduced to Britain by migrants from mainland Europe, where there is evidence of salt making from as early as 6050 BC. However, in Britain the earliest known evidence before Street House was from Brean Down in Somerset, where Bronze Age people were making salt around 1400 BC.
The discovery of Street House shows that Neolithic people in Britain were capable of producing salt thousands of years earlier than previously thought. Salt would have been a rare and highly valuable commodity at the time, as it allowed foodstuffs to be preserved for use throughout winter. The people who controlled salt production would have been some of the richest and most influential members of society.
The discovery also sheds light on the complexity and diversity of Neolithic society in Britain, which was not a homogeneous or isolated culture, but rather a dynamic and interconnected one that interacted with other regions and adopted new technologies and ideas.
Salt making is one of the oldest and most important human activities, with profound implications for social and economic development. The discovery of Street House reveals that Neolithic people in Britain were among the pioneers of this technology, and challenges our assumptions about their culture and lifestyle. It also demonstrates the value of archaeological research and excavation, which can uncover hidden aspects of our past that can enrich our understanding of our present and future.