PROTECTIVE measures are being considered for a cluster of baby burials uncovered on what for centuries has been considered a sacred site on the Northumbrian coastline.
It is known that a chapel from around the 12th Century – and probably earlier – stood on Ebb’s Nook, a headland extending out to sea at Beadnell.
The site is named after Aebba, a royal Northumbrian Seventh Century saint.
Channel 4’s Time Team carried out a dig at the site last May but the findings were kept under wraps until the broadcast of the programme on Sunday.
The dig revealed what are believed to be substantial 12th Century building remains and also an earlier adjoining smaller structure which could be the Anglo-Saxon chapel dedicated to St Aebba.
For some years locals have been finding human bones emerging on to the surface of the site.
The dig uncovered a number of adult burials only inches under the turf, including one just beneath the site’s footpath.
But the biggest surprise was the unearthing of infant burials on a knoll near the chapel site, with digging being halted after half a dozen were found.
Yesterday Sara Rushton, Northumberland county archaeologist, said that consideration is now being given to covering a dip containing the infants with protective material and the footpath may also be strengthened to prevent the erosion of other burials.
The excavated bones have been dated to between the 16th-19th Centuries, although the chapel went out of use in the 18th Century.
The bones found by villagers over the years have been handed to the Rev Jane Wood, who until last October was vicar of St Ebba’s Church in Beadnell.
The bones were placed in a container and reburied on the site of the Ebb’s Nook chapel’s original altar, which had been excavated by Time Team.
“It was very moving and very fitting,” said Ms Wood, now vicar of St Peter’s Church in Monkseaton in North Tyneside.
“We were shocked at the discovery of the infant burials. which may have been there because the site was as close as possible to what was seen as a holy place.”
One theory is that the babies were buried on the ancient chapel site and not in the village churchyard because they had not been baptised.
“The discovery of the infant burials was very surprising. We were not anticipating that at all,” said Ms Rushton.
The adult burials may also have been of people washed up over the centuries after being lost at sea, and about which nothing would have been known.
Ms Wood, who led a ceremony every year on the chapel site on St Aebbe’s Day on August 25, said: “It is looked upon by local people as a special and peaceful place.
“To stand on the excavated floor of the medieval chapel was spine-tingling.”
It is thought the chapel would have been part of a chain of holy coastal sites from the Christian Golden Age of Northumbria extending from Lindisfarne and the Farne Islands to Jarrow, Wearmouth and Hartlepool.
“Ebb’s Nook fits in very nicely with that and the dig has given us a tantalising indication of Anglo-Saxon origins because of this small, single cell building which was later extended,” said Ms Rushton.
“But the promontory, with the sea on three sides, is being seriously affected by coastal change and at some stage there may have to be more excavations to record what is there because in a hundred years’ time it may not be there any more.”
ST Aebbe was the sister of St Oswald and Oswui, who were both kings of Northumbria.
The daughter of Aethelfrith, King of Northumbria, she became the first Abbess of Coldingham, a monastery on the Berwickshire coast which was visited by St Cuthbert.
The site, named after Aebbe, is now known as St Abb’s Head.
She may also have founded a nunnery at Ebchester in County Durham.