AN INNOCENT accident between a farmer's plough and fragments beneath the soil has led to a remarkable discovery that is shedding new information on the beginnings of Christianity in eastern Scotland.
The owner of Auldhame Farm, near North Berwick, has uncovered skeletal remains while tilling the land that looks on to the Firth of Forth. Archaeologists have been astonished at their early findings.
"A church has been found, and it's a most intriguing church in the sense that it has rounded corners," says Patrick Ashmore, principal inspector of ancient monuments at Historic Scotland. "When it was first discovered it was thought it might go with some pottery from the 13th century, (but) to me it looks if the church may be earlier."
The original church measures 6.5 metres by 4.1 metres and is made of stone, similar dimensions and construction to a chapel excavated 20 years ago at the Hirsel, an estate and park near Coldstream, which was dated to the 10th century. However, what has Ashmore and the archaeologists working at the site intrigued is that the building – with its four rounded corners – is similar to houses constructed in the 7th or 8th century, making it possible the church is from the first millennium.
"I think we've got a very surprisingly early church – if the evidence turns out to be correct," Ashmore notes with caution. "It's very exciting indeed."
Up to 200 skeletons dating from the early second millennium or possibly earlier have also been found. Some bones will be tested through carbon dating and the findings should be accurate within two centuries. The people buried were probably wealthier than most at the time because jewellery was found in some of the graves.
The church was built in stages over many centuries and is located on the edge of land that looks directly out to sea toward Bass Rock, the small island home to St Baldred in the 8th century. The Celtic bishop was sent from his native Strathclyde to the Lothians to spread Christianity and establish the first churches.
With the dark rock about two miles off the coast, could this new discovery be the site of one of St Baldred's churches?
"There appear to have been three churches around the time of St Baldred and this might be the site," says Ashmore, who is overseeing the archaeological project. "More likely, perhaps it's a church but not one of the three main early churches in the area."
The site reveals two of the earliest signs of Christianity in the east of Scotland, notes John Barber, director of AOC Archaeology, the company charged with carrying out the excavation for Historic Scotland.
"We have cross-engraved slabs, and in the junction between the earlier and the older buildings we see a square stone with a rectangular … cut in the middle, and that's the sort of thing in which a simple stone cross would have been erected," Barber says. "Taken together, those tend to indicate earlier medieval – maybe 7th, 8th, 9th centuries.
"It's certainly amongst the earliest indications we have of Christianity in East Lothian," he offers.
Barber also highlighted some of the soil on the edge of the excavation as being man-made – characteristic of early Christian establishments.
"The Christian missionaries came with an information package, having had access to Roman texts on farming. They knew how to make up for deficiencies in local soils by adding manure, by adding peat to sand, by adding sand to peat, and so on. And together with the very deep ditches, it is definitely signalling the Dark Age".
The archaeologists will concentrate on the visible sections of the cemetery and church, and they hope to dig as little as necessary before Ashmore, his colleagues at Historic Scotland and other experts decide how to proceed.The artefacts found will be specially treated and safeguarded by AOC and then catalogued by the National Museums of Scotland before it is decided where they are to be displayed. They are the latest in a series of findings that include relics next to what is now the Scottish Seabird Centre in North Berwick.
"I have a real feeling that (this) is going to make us rewrite prehistory and early history," Ashmore says of the recent findings. "Auldhame will be a vital part of that."