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The Bernician Studies Group was formed by Colm O’Brien and Max Adams in 2009 from inside the University of Sunderland’s Lifelong Learning programme.  Recognising that within the Early Medieval modules of the programme there was a significant number of students whose interests, knowledge and skills went beyond what the programme could offer, they recruited an initial core of members.

The BSG met (and meets) fortnightly during term term.  Either one of the convenors or, more importantly, one of the students, led sessions with a critical review of a piece of literature (it might be a monograph, an early medieval text or a strand of research initiated by one of the members) after which discussion, often very lively, was taken up across the group.  As more students joined it became clear that the group was capable of embarking on research agendas of its own: ancient woodland in Northumbria, or the landscapes of Lough Swilly in Donegal, for example.  Since early Medieval Northumbria was at the heart of what one of the members, Cowan Duff, called the Ecclesiastical Superhighway (monks, books and ideas passing through monastic establishments across Europe from Constaninople to Iona) it seemed that there were few natural bounds to what BSG members might be interested in.

In 2011 O’Brien and Adams made their first visit, by invitation of Cowan and Catherine Duff, to Donegal, where a long-term project was born exploring early links between Northumbria (which boasted one 7th century king born in Donegal and its own key links to the Ionan paruchia of St Colm Cille) and the northernmost county of the Republic of Ireland. That project continues.

A year later, thanks to the generosity of the University of Sunderland, the group took possession of a Fluxgate Gradiometer which means that we are now able to conduct minimal intervention of sub-surface archaeological features.  The success of the geophysics programme, now run autonomously by students in the group, has already led to significant publications.  Current and future programmes include surveys on land at the North of England Open Air Museum, Beamish, in County Durham; and at Heavenfield on Hadrian’s Wall, where the existence of a possible very early Irish monastic establishment is hypothesised.

The Lifelong Learning programme has now itself become independent, run entirely by and for students; The Explorers programme of the Joseph Cowen Centre now kindly hosts the BSG whose numbers now stand at nearly twenty, with a number of leading scholars as welcome satellites.


by Bliss Drive Review