Rituals of thousand years ago honour ancestors

THE Lord's Prayer was said in Anglo-Saxon, Latin and "Prayer Book English" yesterday as residents of a North Yorkshire market town gathered to honour a group of their ancestors who lived 1,000 years ago.

Young and old attended a service at St Mary's Church in Masham to re-bury 57 skeletons which were found 20 years ago when excavations were carried out to build new public toilets near the Little Market Place.

Carbon dating carried out last year by experts from Bradford University established that the people whose remains were found in what was confirmed as an Anglo-Scandinavian cemetery had lived between AD679 and 1011.

The Vicar of Masham and Healey, David Cleeves, told yesterday's service: "This is a unique occasion, respecting the fact that these bones represent the mortal remains of past inhabitants of Masham. It will be the first time in many centuries this magnificent building has heard the language of those who first built it and worshipped here nearly 1,000 years ago.

"And two great realities intersect at a moment like this: time and eternity. As human beings, all we have is time: promising, sinuous, fruitful, but untenable time.

"Today is a sharp reminder for us of the speedy passing of time – as we are, so were these members of our community whom we remember today. These were people who mattered to others, sons and daughters, wives and husbands, brothers, sisters, children."

Mr Cleeves said two of the people they were re-burying were under a year old, eight were between one and 13 and nine were aged 45 or more. He said: "They mattered to their families, friends, other members of their community.

"They loved and laughed, wept and hoped as we do – once loved and loving human beings, a physical reminder of the reality of life that has been lived in society and community, they were people and they matter to God. And as they are so will we be.

"There is a reminder for us today of the shortness of time."

Pupils from Masham and Kell Bank Church of England Primary Schools joined the congregation who watched as one casket of the remains was carried in procession from the original burial site to the church. It was later placed in a mass grave in the churchyard alongside caskets containing the other skeletons.

During the service, children and staff from Masham School gave a presentation about a visit to Bradford University to view the bones and to learn how their age had been established by carbon dating.

Mr Cleeves said respect for the dead was a feature of most world religions and Christian burial grounds began to be consecrated in England in the eighth century.

"The churchyard is the final resting place of many parishioners' relatives and ancestors and a communal space of great social and historical value. It is in many senses an icon for community memory."

He added: "Let us give thanks for those who over the last 1400 years have passed on the Christian faith here. We stand in a long continuum of faith – and we are called to pass the faith on in our turn.

"So today we commit these bodies to the ground again. We deliver them into the safe custody of God who will restore them.

"We do not cast them away as lost and perished carcasses, but carefully lay them in the ground, as having a seed of eternity and in sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life," he said.

After a prayer by Egbert, the Archbishop of York, who died in 766, and a blessing from the Book of Cerne, a ninth century Anglo Saxon Prayer Book made for Bishop Aethelwold of Lichfield between AD 820 and 840, there was a procession to the graveside where the remains were sprinkled with Holy Water. A stone commemorating the reburial is to be erected beside the grave.

CLUES POINT TO CHRISTIANITY

Evidence suggests the original burial site was a Christian cemetery because no personal items were found in the graves and the bodies were aligned east-to-west.

Archaeological research has shown that at first the cemetery was the resting place for Angles but was later used by Viking settlers, which is why it was described as an "Anglo-Scandinavian" site.

Two events relating to the discovery of the skeletons will take place in Masham later this month. Kevin Cale, of Community Archaeology Ltd, who carried out some of the original excavations in 1988-89 when the skeletons were found will speak about the discovery in the Town Hall at 2.15pm on Saturday, October 17.

On the same day there will be a free exhibition by the Pott and Agill Study Group in the Town Hall from 11am to 4pm. At 3pm, Lord Masham will unveil a plaque commemorating the Anglo Scandinavian cemetery at the Community Office and Tourist Information Centre.