The 2017 excavations on Iona – now online!

Ewan Campbell drawing trench 2 on Iona, May 2017
Ewan Campbell drawing trench 2 on Iona, May 2017 (still frame from Digging for Britain, BBC4, 6 December 2017)

As you may have seen, our work on Iona was recently featured on the popular BBC documentary series Digging for Britain (360 Production), still available to view on BBC iPlayer for those within the UK. We couldn’t be happier to have been selected for inclusion this year. Still very strange to see yourself and your friends on television!

Adrián Maldonado with Dr Alice Roberts in the studio (still frame from Digging for Britain, BBC4, 6 December 2017)

But of course, our segment was just ten minutes long and could only act as a sort of snapshot of what we accomplished on three weeks of excavation this May. So we’re happy to announce that the data structure report, our interim statement of what we did and what we found, is now available to download here.

The project page includes a summary of some very significant new dating evidence among much else; we are still in the process of putting this together but will make all of our radiocarbon dates available through our project pages very soon and let you all know.

In the meantime, here’s a glorious photo of Team Iona 2017, and find out more about these characters here. Stay tuned for more news about our Iona work in 2018!

Team Iona 2017! Bottom row from left: Heather Christie, Adrián Maldonado and Megan Kasten. Top row from left: Ewan Campbell, Derek Alexander, Jamie Barnes, Aurime Bockute, Anouk Busset, Peter Yeoman, and Cathy MacIver. Not pictured: Joss Durnan, but catch him on the Digging for Britain segment!

The media afterglow

Collage of headlines about Columba's cell
Collage of headlines about Columba’s cell

Last week we were finally able to announce some of the new radiocarbon dates obtained from the archives of the Charles Thomas excavations on Iona 1956-63. The press release focused on what is perhaps the most exciting result of this, which was the dating to AD 540-650 of the wattle hut on Tòrr an Aba. By focusing on this story, we were able to touch on several strands of our ongoing Iona research: the monastery of the founder St Columba; how the original monastic settlement grows into a pilgrimage site; the problems and opportunities represented by the surviving historical record and the place-names; the importance of going back to the archives and museum collections; and of course, the impact of the excavations led by the late Prof Charles Thomas.

The coverage for this news was astounding: most of the major UK press picked up on it, with a wide reach in particular for articles posted online by BBC News, Independent, Times, Telegraph and Scotsman. It inspired a short but thoughtful editorial from the Glasgow Herald on the significance of the findings for pilgrims to Iona, and the news was also widely reported on specialist Christian news outlets such as the Church Times. Science and history outlets also gave it a big push, with a report in Archaeology magazine opening it up to the North American audience. One of the best performing pieces was written by one of the project members, archaeologist Adrián Maldonado on The Conversation.

But, as always, there is a lot that gets left out of a news story: for science reporting in particular, it is difficult to express degrees of uncertainty and nuances of interpretation. We’ll be addressing all the finer points of why we believe the excavated structure dates to the time of St Columba in a forthcoming journal article. Those attending the 8th International Insular Art Conference in Glasgow last week got a great keynote delivered by lead archaeologist Ewan Campbell which highlighted some of the new questions opened up by our archival research. Across the next three days there were also various papers showcasing the breadth of new research on Iona.

Another aspect of the story that was ‘tidied’ for the media was the input of the actual excavators of the site. Charles Thomas obtained the funding and oversaw the excavations, but did not do all the digging himself, of course. As with any excavation, a good deal of the records that we have from the 1956-1959 seasons were produced by his crack team of archaeologists, and most prominently featured are Elizabeth Burley (later Fowler) and Peter Fowler. They are the archaeologists who took it upon themselves, with Thomas’ blessing, to write up the results of the trenches they excavated on Tòrr an Aba in 1956 and 1957. You can download their 1988 article free from the Archaeology Data Service (PDF).

Finally, there were 10 successful C14 dates we were able to obtain from the Thomas archival material; the Tòrr an Aba dates are just the beginning. We’ll be making the rest of these dates available through this page soon, so be sure and use the link in the sidebar to subscribe and get email alerts when we post anything new!

Iona announcement at the Insular Art Conference, 11 July 2017

The 8th International Insular Art Conference being held at the University of Glasgow next week will have a strong Iona theme this year. It begins on Tuesday 11 July with a keynote lecture by by Ewan Campbell and Adrián Maldonado on their recent work writing up unpublished excavations by Charles Thomas on Iona. In this lecture they will make a big announcement about some of their initial results.

In addition, the conference logo uses one of the unpublished artefacts from the Charles Thomas excavations. The keynote lecture will be followed by four papers from leading experts on the early medieval monastery on Iona.

For more information on the conference and to download a programme of events, head to their home page.