Lindisfarne, often referred to as the Holy Island, is one of Britain's most important historical sites. It's located off the coast of Northumberland, a county in Northern England.

Every year, DigVentures and Durham University archaeologists carry out excavations at the island to learn more about its fascinating history.

Previous excavations have uncovered amazing finds such as runic namestones and carvings, coins, an early medieval gaming piece, and multiple early medieval burials. 

The finds were associated with the early monastery that went down in history after Vikings attacked it in 793 CE.

Medieval prayer beads

This year, a new and exciting piece of history was discovered – medieval prayer beads over 1,200 years old, dated between the 8th to 9th century CE. 

The beads are made from salmon vertebrae, and the bones were found around the neck of a skeleton buried within a cemetery area of a site that also includes remains of buildings.

The Kings of Northumbria established the famous monastery on Lindisfarne in the 7th century. It served as a religious center and was targeted by the first big Viking raid on Britain in 793.

David Petts, a Durham University specialist in early Christianity and the project co-director, stated that the salmon vertebrae seem to be prayer beads for personal devotion.

"We think of the grand ceremonial side of early medieval life in the monasteries and great works like the Lindisfarne Gospels. But what we've got here is something which talks to a much more personal side of early Christianity," Petts noted.

He also accentuated the importance of the contribution of zooarchaeologist Marina Chorro Giner, who recognized the significance of the fish vertebrae. 

"This bright, eagle-eyed researcher looked at them and said, actually, these aren't just fish bones; they've been modified and turned into something," Petts explained.

An archaeologist exposes a burial on the site of the early medieval monastery on Lindisfarne. Photo: DigVentures

The importance of fish to the island's medieval inhabitants

Petts stated that the fish and the sea were of great significance to the island's medieval inhabitants. He referred to a monk named Cuthbert, who joined Lindisfarne in the 670s and went on to become the most important saint in northern England in the Middle Ages.

"We also have the stories of Christ and the Apostles being fishermen and going on the Sea of Galilee and calming storms. 

"We see in Bede's Life of St Cuthbert, Cuthbert calming storms. So the sea is symbolically important," Petts added.

The prayer beads will help develop experts' understanding of how people lived in the past.

The discovery follows ongoing excavations at Lindisfarne by DigVentures. This archaeology social enterprise offers volunteers the opportunity to work alongside archaeology experts and Durham University.

"A remarkable find"

Lisa Westcott Wilkins of DigVentures described the prayer beads as "a remarkable find."

"Clearly, it was important enough that this person was buried with it. This is the only artifact from within a grave on Lindisfarne, so it's a significant item. 

"As far as we're aware, it's the first example of prayer beads found anywhere in medieval Britain.

 "We believe these beads were used as a personal object of faith, especially given that our modern word bead comes from the Old English gebed, meaning 'prayer,'" Westcott Wilkins stated.

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