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Medieval Christians were buried in simple shrouds without possessions. Death was seen as a journey of the soul, leaving behind earthly things. That is, except for bishops, who were sometimes buried in their full regalia. Excavations at Whithorn, Galloway, bring us face to face with the power of religious leaders in medieval Scotland.

Content warning: this page contains an image of human remains under excavation.


Discovering the Whithorn bishops' graves

The discovery of the bishops’ graves at Whithorn started with an accident. While waterproofing the vault of the ruined medieval crypt in 1957, workmen encountered three stone coffins. Careful excavations over the next decade revealed they were part of a series of well-built graves, laid before the high altar. Only a very privileged few were allowed to be buried here. The dead would benefit from proximity to the tomb of St Ninian, the venerated founder of Whithorn. 

Black and white photo of an excavation pit revealing deep stone foundations, within which are a row of stone cells each containing a skeleton.

The bishops' graves under excavation. © National Museums Scotland

The objects found in these graves ranged from simple dress items like buckles and brooches to exceedingly rare altar vessels and the insignia of clerical office. Most important among these finds were the ornate staffs found in three of the graves. Two were carved wooden staffs which survived only in fragments, but one was a deluxe late 12th-century gilt bronze crozier with enamel inlay.

  • Metalwork object like a cross between a staff and a fiddlehead fern. The staff is grey-blue, and a golden sun-like burst is within its coiled top.

    Whithorn crozier with stem decorated in champlevé enamelling, 12th century (H.1992.1833)

  • Closeup of the coiled top section of the crozier, revealing leaf details in the golden burst and fine golden criss-cross pattern on the metal staff.

    Whithorn crozier with stem decorated in champlevé enamelling, 12th century (H.1992.1833)

  • Closeup of detail on the grey-blue crozier staff, revealing a golden saint in a hood holding a crozier within a golden frame.

    Whithorn crozier with stem decorated in champlevé enamelling, 12th century (H.1992.1833)

  • Closeup of the grey-blue crozier staff, revealing golden patterns of fleur-de-lis, flowers, and a saint.

    Whithorn crozier with stem decorated in champlevé enamelling, 12th century (H.1992.1833)

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What is a crozier?

The crook-headed staff or crozier was the symbol of bishops and abbots, as seen in the earliest depictions on carved stones and the chess pieces of the Lewis Hoard. By the thirteenth century, bishops began to be buried wearing their vestments alongside croziers and other altar vessels. One of the Whithorn burials had a set of 110 small metal spangles found around the head interpreted as a bishop’s mitre, the ceremonial headdress of the bishop. Alongside three individuals buried with croziers, the Whithorn graves also included other dress accessories, altar gear and elaborate mortared stone coffins. These may have been priests or wealthy patrons of the Church, buried in their finery next to the bishops.

Closeup up the top of the crozier, shaped like a fiddlehead fern. The staff is grey-blue, and a golden sun-like burst is within its coiled top.

Crosier head with floral cluster (H.1992.1833)

Liturgical vessels

Bishops and priests were identified by the liturgical vessels buried with them. These include at least five chalices and three patens, although more were lost through disturbance and degradation. These vessels were used to serve the wine and bread transformed into the blood and body of Christ during the ritual of the Mass.

However, only some of these were actually used. Those made of silver were ornamented with crosses or the symbol of the Manus Dei, the hand of God, and seem to have been used for some time before being left in the grave. Others, however, were made of pewter, or lead alloyed with tin. These were copies of real altar vessels, made specifically as stand-ins for use in clerical burials.

Two images side by side. On left, a silver gilt paten (dish) with Manus Dei symbol set within a quatrefoil. On right, a silvery-gold coloured simple chalice with tang for attaching a wooden stem.

On left, a silver-gilt paten with an engraved Manus Dei within a circle, set in a quatrefoil depression, part of the rim missing, from a bishop's grave (H.1992.1837). On right, a chalice with plain silver-gilt bowl with a silver tang for fixing in a wooden stem and base (H.1992.1838)

Whithorn and the Medieval Church in Scotland

Wooden figure of a saint in flowing robes. The figure is heavily worn and darkened, its arms missing and its face eroded to seem melancholic.

Carved wooden effigy of a bishop, thought to be St Ninian (H.KL 219)

The ruined medieval church where these graves were found was the Premonstratensian priory of Whithorn. This also served as the cathedral for the bishops of Galloway, who were, at least for a time, buried before the high altar. The cathedral and priory had been re-founded in the twelfth century, but Whithorn had been a famous church for much longer.

The first named Christian in Scotland is Latinus of Whithorn who lived in the fifth century, according to a Latin-inscribed stone commemorating him and his daughter. The site later became famous as the shrine of St Ninian, a legendary bishop who was remembered for his missionary work in southern Scotland. By the eighth century AD Ninian’s life story had become famous, and his shrine continued to receive pilgrims and royal patronage throughout the medieval period.

Face to face with the dead

The excavations in the presbytery of the medieval priory turned up several kinds of burials. The earliest graves were radiocarbon dated to the eleventh and twelfth centuries, but the majority were dated to the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Overall there were at least 28 graves identified, including eight with grave goods consisting of clothing and objects buried with the dead. Some of these would have been wealthy donors and their families.

At least four individuals wore gold or silver rings, set with amethysts, emeralds and sapphires. Even those without objects in the graves would have been part of an exclusive club, enjoying the benefit of burial near the saint. Among them were at least nine infants and juveniles and at least four women, so not everyone buried here was a member of the clergy.

  • Ornate ring with a large rectangular purple gemstone surrounded by eight smaller purple gemstones mounted on a thick gold ring.

    Gold finger ring with a large bezel set with an oblong, table cut amethyst surrounded by eight small sapphires in individual collets (H.1992.1835)

  • Ring broken into two pieces on a white background. On left is a simple, thing penannular circlet. On right is an egg-shaped gold piece with a purple gemstone set within.

    Gold finger ring inlaid with ruby, emerald and garnet, in two pieces where the bezel has become detached from the ring (K.2009.212)

  • Shiny silver ring on a black background. A small rectangular purple gemstone is set within a raised silver section at the front.

    Silver-gilt finger ring with oblong bezel set with an amethyst (H.1992.1836)

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The finds and skeletal material were allocated to National Museums Scotland for curation. This has allowed for new scientific analyses to be carried out which will continue to shed more light on life in medieval Whithorn.

Stable isotope analysis, which studies the chemicals absorbed into bones and teeth, can be used to reveal more about diet and mobility in life. This showed that the bishops were more likely to have come from outside of Galloway, and ate a more marine-heavy diet. Clergy and other devout Christians were expected to fast before important festivals, and abstain from eating meat on Fridays and Saturdays; those with the means to do so could substitute fish on those days.

Facial reconstruction: Bishop Walter

With all this information, it may be possible to identify some of these privileged individuals using the historical sources. In one particular case, the evidence from radiocarbon dating, artefacts, and stable isotope analysis come together to support the identification of the grave as that of Bishop Walter (1209-1235). His was one of the most prominent burials in terms of location and furnishings.

Facial reconstruction of Bishop Walter. © University of Bradford and Chris Rynn

Bishop Walter was known to have worked in the diocese of York, becoming bishop of Whithorn in 1209. This individual was a mature adult male with signs of obesity, and evidence of a rich diet high in fish, whose teeth reveal he was raised in Galloway. He was buried fully dressed in a clay-bonded stone coffin with wood lining, along with a wooden crozier, a gold ring set with rubies and emeralds, and a copper-alloy buckle preserving fragments of textile.

Using the latest forensic techniques, a team from the University of Bradford has been able to reconstruct the facial features of some of the dead. Facial reconstruction is the process of estimating a face from a skull, with forensic accuracy, to produce a recognizable depiction of an individual.

Revealing the layers. The facial reconstruction of Bishop Walter prior to adding skin layers, colour, and texturing. © University of Bradford and Chris Rynn

Another individual was a priest with a cleft palate, who was buried among the elite but without any of the vestments and dress items. His highly asymmetrical face provided a unique challenge, and can help raise awareness of this condition. New genetic sequencing is being carried out on the remains in partnership with the Crick Institute, London, which can be used to help determine eye and hair colour.

Discoveries like these are rare opportunities to ask new questions about medieval life. They may only be showing us how a narrow elite were laid to rest, but they also reveal ongoing debates and anxieties about the afterlife and the fate of the soul, even for those who spent their lives cultivating an understanding of the spiritual world.

Wooden figure of a saint in flowing robes. The figure is heavily worn and darkened, its arms missing and its face eroded to seem melancholic.

Carved wooden effigy of a bishop, thought to be St Ninian (H.KL 219)

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