In September 1994, the parish church of St Michael, Workington, Cumbria, was badly damaged by fire. Apart from the medieval tower, which escaped largely unscathed, the interior was gutted, leaving only the walls standing as a shell. The medieval church appears to have been built in the twelfth century, with the tower added later, and was largely demolished and rebuilt in 1770. Between 1995 and 1997, Carlisle Archaeology Unit, in advance of the reconstruction of the church, conducted excavations on the site. These works yielded important evidence for the existence of an early medieval Christian establishment, previously suggested by the discovery, during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, of a collection of pre-Norman sculpture. Oxford Archaeology North was commissioned in 2013 by the Parochial Church Council to complete the analysis and publication phase of this important site.
The stratigraphically earliest feature recorded was a ditch, curving slightly from the north-east to south-west, which probably extended across the entire site. Its fill contained no artefacts, and thus it could not be dated, but it does not appear to have been open for long, and thus the subsequent activity may have occurred soon after it was created. What its purpose was is unknown, though it may have enclosed, or acted as a linear boundary of, an area largely to the north and west of the modern church.
The earliest burials in the cemetery comprised some 41 graves containing 42 individuals. The graves were aligned broadly north-east to south-west (head to the south-west). This contrasts with later burials, and the medieval and post-medieval churches, which were more truly east-west. Most of the early graves were located in a swathe, broadly 3-5 m wide, along the line of the ditch, and as a cluster in the area south of the medieval church, with a few outliers to the north-west and south-east. Some of the burials had been cut into the fill of the ditch itself, and were also cut by other graves on the same alignment and presumably of broadly the same phase.
Confirmation of a pre-Norman date for this phase of burials has been provided by a series of radiocarbon determinations. These provided dates suggesting activity dated broadly to the late seventh to ninth centuries. This phase includes an unusual burial, dated to cal AD 690-900, which was of a mature adult over 45 years old, probably a woman. The area in which it was lying seems to have been disturbed, but the burial may have contained a strap end with ring-chain decoration, and a belt buckle, a whetstone, iron knife, and sickle. Whilst clothed burial is known from an early Christian context, this burial is somewhat of an enigma, as it seemed to contain other objects, presumably useful in the afterlife.
Following this phase of activity, another group of burials has been recognised, aligned more closely east-west. Radiocarbon dates from these suggest activity in the tenth and eleventh centuries, particularly the latter half of the tenth and early eleventh century. The excavations found a significant assemblage of mid- to later tenth-century stone sculpture, including cross shafts and hogback fragments, decorated with Scandinavian Borre- and Jellinge-style artwork. Seemingly contemporary with the burials, although not actually firmly associated, was an interesting group of copper-alloy belt buckles and strap ends, decorated with cast ornament, and also incised ring-and-dot motifs and boss-capped rivets. These have some good parallels from broadly contemporary Christian burials at Carlisle Cathedral, and pagan burials at Cumwhitton, dated to the early tenth century. In all probability, therefore, these burials formed part of a cemetery at an ecclesiastical establishment associated with this sculpture, though no trace of buildings or any other features that may have formed part of this was found.