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Archaeological excavations have uncovered the earliest known monks in the British Isles, experts have said.

Radiocarbon dating of bodies in a monastic cemetery in Somerset, by archaeologists re-investigating the site of a medieval chapel linked to the legends of King Arthur, has revealed the earliest monks died in the 5th or 6th centuries AD.

It shows that the monastery began before Somerset was conquered by the Saxon kings of Wessex in the 7th century and provides the earliest known evidence of monasticism in the British Isles, the South West Heritage Trust said

The excavation, run as a community training dig by the Trust, re-investigated the medieval chapel site which was previously excavated in the 1880s and again in the 1960s, when an extensive cemetery of at least 50 people was uncovered.

Almost all the bodies were adult males, which experts said left little doubt that it was a monastic graveyard.

The bodies of two juveniles may have been novices, while the one woman's body may have been a patron or visiting nun.

In the latest dig, funded with a £1.8 million Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) grant, some skeletons were uncovered to allow radiocarbon dating, with samples taken from six individuals in graves and one leg bone found in the backfill of the 1960s dig.

The earliest monk died between 406 AD and 544 AD, with burials continuing in the 7th to early 9th centuries, the tests found.

Archaeologists said the monastic use of the site, a small island in the Avalon Marshes, may have ended in the later 9th century when Somerset was attacked by Viking armies.

The chapel at Beckery, whose place name either means Bee-keeper's Island in old English or Little Ireland in Irish, is connected to legendary visits by King Arthur, who is said to have seen a vision of Mary Magdalene and the baby Jesus there.

The Irish Saint Bridget also reputedly visited it in AD 488 and left some possessions at the site, which later became a place of pilgrimage.

Site director Richard Brunning from the South West Heritage Trust said: "It is great to show that a community excavation can produce results that revolutionise our view of the origins of monasticism in Britain and Ireland.

"Archaeology is providing evidence that can get us beyond the uncertainty of the historical sources.

"The ancient origins of the Beckery site may explain why later medieval writers linked it to figures such as King Arthur and Saint Bridget."

Nerys Watts, Head of HLF South West, said: "This discovery just goes to show the incredible hidden heritage and untold stories still to be discovered within our landscapes."