26th July 2012:
A spectacular gilded crozier and a bejewelled finger ring belonging to a high-ranking clergyman was found in a burial by staff from OA North at Furness Abbey, just outside Barrow, Cumbria.
The discovery was made during archaeological works which formed part of a multi-million pound English Heritage project to shore up and underpin the whole presbytery structure of the abbey with a galvanised steel framework and massive concrete rafts. Although the analysis stage of the project is yet to begin, the burial has few parallels, and the provisional results are proving extremely tantalising, providing several clues about the man, his position, and the date when he lived.
The finger ring, found on the skeleton’s right hand, is considered by English Heritage to be of 14th-century date, and may have been commissioned by the individual buried. The square setting bears a white stone, either a piece of rock crystal, or perhaps a white sapphire. The inner part of the bezel forms a pyramidal point, and it is possible that this may have been designed to dig into the man’s finger.
The crozier, thought to be of 12th-century date, was found in the crook of the skeleton’s left arm. The head, which is largely made from gilded copper alloy, may be a composite piece that had been altered at least once during its use. Originally, the head of the cozier formed a simple loop, and terminated with the a beast’s (possibly a dog’s) head. In a later modification, perhaps carried out in the 14th century, a pair of gilded repoussé discs were inserted into the loop of the crook. The identical appliqués depict St Michael tussling with a winged dragon.
Along with a small piece of the painted ash stave, a fragment of silk and linen fabric was recovered from inside the crozier, and may be a vestige of the sudarium, a streamer-like cloth that would have adorned the junction of the stave and the head. At the foot of the skeleton was the iron ferrule that would have protected the base of the stave. Neither chalice nor patten, the badges of a priest, were identified in the grave.
Although the man’s trappings are spectacular, his grave was simple. The clergyman had probably been carried in a nailed wooden coffin and placed in a simple earth-cut grave. Examination of his skeleton indicated that he was about 40-50 years old when he died and some 5’7” tall, but like many of his peers he suffered from the spinal condition DISH, which is associated with obesity and Type II mature-onset diabetes.
While it may seem obvious to draw the conclusion that the man was an abbot, it is unusual for a Cistercian abbot to be buried in the presbytery. However, it is possible that the clergyman was an abbot who stemmed from a wealthy patronal family, or whose rule was greatly respected. Alternatively, he could be William Russell, who died in 1374 and was one of two Bishops of Man who were known to have been buried at the abbey.