Day 18: A Visit from Alexander III

We had a particularly exciting find from the Abbey trench this week in the form of a silver coin from the reign of Alexander III of Scotland! Alexander ruled from 1249 to 1286, and also saw the return of the Hebrides to Scottish rule. The coin also dates to just after the founding of the Benedictine Abbey, and is most likely connected to activities there.

While this coin dates to the 13th century, it was in one of the debris layers from the modern stonemason’s yard. It may have been churned up in the activity and deposited with the debris, as were several bronze objects and medieval ceramics.

It’s been particularly sunny and warm the last few days, with Iona finally starting to feel like summer! Our trench at the Abbey will be active for the weekend, after which we will begin covering it with geo-textile and filling it again with all the dirt we’ve dug out over the last three weeks.

Tomorrow, for any who are interested and in the area, we are giving a talk at the Village Hall at 7:30pm, beginning with an update on the excavation followed by a discussion of the oldest portrait of St. Columba, found in a manuscript in Switzerland.

Day 16: Pins and People

As we’ve mentioned in the last few posts, this year we are only investigating modern deposits associated with the rebuilding of the Abbey. However, these works have disturbed earlier deposits, bringing some finds from earlier periods into these later layers. The most exciting of these finds is a small, beautifully modelled bronze pin. This dates to the 7th century, and is of a type known as a nail-headed pin.

The nail-headed pin found at Iona Abbey.

This type of pin was manufactured widely in early medieval Scotland at sites such as Dunadd, the royal inauguration site of the kings of Dál Riata. Most of these pins are fairly undistinguished, utilitarian items. The one we’ve found, however, is beautifully crafted with a hip shank, in which the shaft is slightly wider in the middle to help keep it securely fastened to hair or clothing. There is a very similar example from Buiston Crannog in Ayrshire, which dates to the 7th century AD, but ours on Iona is smaller.

We don’t know whether this pin was worn by a man, woman, or child. Christian burials from this period generally do not have any grave goods in them, so we do not know as much about typical styles of dress as in other areas of Britain.

From left to right: Adrián Maldonado, Judy Russell, Cecilia Russell, and Ewan Campbell.

We have met a large number of people over the last two weeks, but an especial treat on Saturday a visit by Judy and Cecilia Russell. The Russell family have been associated with Iona for over a century, and Judy and Cecilia’s grandfather gave generously to and was greatly supportive of the reconstruction of the Abbey in the early 20th century and particularly the renovations carried out by the Iona Community from 1938 onwards. Particularly relevant to our excavations, their father sponsored the series of excavations on Iona by both Charles Thomas and Richard Reece from the 1950s to 1980s, without which our own excavations would not have occurred. It was wonderful to hear Judy and Cecilia’s first-hand reminiscences of these groundbreaking excavations!

If you happen to be in the area, we are excavating until the end of this week. Feel free to stop by and say hello!

Day 15: The Stonemason’s Yard

Yellow sandy layer showing outline of stonemason’s yard

One of the main objectives of this year’s excavations is to understand how the older archaeological deposits have been affected by the complex series of landscaping and reconstructions events which have taken place around the Abbey over the last 150 years. In our last post, we mentioned that we had found evidence of the stonemason’s yard from the building works that took place between 1902 and 1910. The evidence is quite extensive, and covers a wide range of the manufacturing process for the stones now incorporated into the Abbey. The tough, yellow sandy layer we mentioned last week is the dust created from the stonemasons shaping the stone. Its outline in our trench shows the walled area of the yard – the dust only travelling as far as the walls allowed it to go.

Cobbled area indicating the location of the stonemason’s bench.

Directly east of the yellow stone-dust layer is a layer of cobbles, which served as the surface upon which the masons placed their bench (or banker). Here, they would shape the stones by chipping off unwanted pieces, which we found in a tough, compacted layer to the south of this bench. Within these layers of stone-working debris, we have also found a piece of window tracery (or mullion), a finished wall stone, and a chamfered block from an arch.

From left to right: a pile of chipped stone, window tracery, shaped stone for a wall, and a chamfered stone from an arch.

Directly to the east of this yard we have found a large spread of limpet and periwinkle shells, which were used to create mortar for the renovation works. There are also several spreads of mortar to the east of the mason’s yard.

When the building works were completed, the debris was left largely in place. We believe the leftover shell was spread across the site to even out the ground layer. Otherwise, the majority of the debris has remained untouched for just over a century, allowing us to reconstruct the workstations of the stonemasons from 1902.

We have met a large number of people over the last two weeks! If you happen to be in the area, we are excavating until the end of this week. Feel free to stop by and say hello!

Day 12: Building Materials

Yesterday we mentioned the pit of large stones we found in the western extension. These stones are part of the building materials used to conserve and rebuild the abbey in the early 1900s, most of which was dumped and levelled in the area of our trench to create the small rise that is seen today.

Photographs from 1870 show the abbey largely in ruins – similar to how the nunnery down the road looks today. The eastern side fared better than the west, which was largely marked by piles of collapsed wall. The bottom of St. Matthew’s cross still stood in its base, but the well and St. Columba’s shrine were piles of rubble.

In 1878, some conservation and consolidation works were completed to preserve the footprint (or outline) of the monastery. We can see the well was built up again, as well as the eastern walls. The exposed edges of the standing walls were also conserved and reinforced.

Postcard from 1899 showing the Abbey

In 1899, the Duke of Argyll transferred ownership of the abbey and nunnery to the Iona Cathedral Trust, who extensively rebuilt the abbey church from 1902-1910. The majority of new building occurred on the western end of the church, since that was the side that had the most damaged. The church as seen today is a reconstruction of the Benedictine church, built on site primarily in the 12th and 13th centuries.

Construction creates a lot of debris and leftover materials: rubble, chipped stone, gravel, mortar, shells used to make the mortar, etc. In the early 1900s, the much of the creation of these materials and discarding of the debris occurred directly south of the Abbey. The result of this, at least as pertains to our excavation, is that we have a large number of layers relating to this construction from 1902-1910: layers of yellow-green sandy mortar, of periwinkle and limpet shell, of chipped stone and large chunks of rubble, and pits full of big stones. Rather than remove all of the debris when they had finished, the builders instead used it to level and landscape the western lawn of the abbey into the slight platform that it is today. The remains show the outline of the stonemason’s yard and the bench where they dressed the stones during this rebuilding phase.

Yellow sandy layer showing outline of stonemason’s yard

To have a chance of finding even the top of the early medieval stone structure we have been chasing, we must remove these layers of modern construction debris, which has given us a fairly clear picture of the building activities from the turn of the 20th century.

We have met a large number of people over the last two weeks! If you happen to be in the area, we are excavating for another week. Feel free to stop by and say hello!

Day 11: Trench Extensions and Photogrammetry

Over the past few days, the primary activity on the trench has been drawing plans and taking photographs while investigating some of the modern layers we had not yet excavated. We expanded the trench to the west to determine whether we can find other portions of the structure, and have uncovered a large pit of stones from the conservation work in 1904 (more on that tomorrow). In the north extension, we have discovered a second, rectangular stone setting. We are unsure if this is connected in some way to the wall we have been investigating or if it is something else, but we are excited to see what we find!

Some of the team have also spent the last three days making a photogrammetric 3D model of St. Martin’s Cross, the only high cross at the Abbey that has yet to be 3D modelled after efforts by the Discovery Programme in 2016 and the Concrete and Not-Concrete project at the University of Stirling in 2017. The cross stands just over 5m (16’8″) tall (including the base), which makes it a challenge to model safely. Our team required the use of a 5m (16’4″) pole, a large stepladder, and three individuals over two days to make it work. We think the results are definitely worth it, but will have to wait until we are back at the university to process the full model.

We have met a large number of people over the last two weeks! If you happen to be in the area, we are excavating for another week. Feel free to stop by and say hello!

Day 7: Music to Our Ears

Yesterday we had the absolute pleasure of hosting Christina Smith and Calum MacKinnon, both highly trained fiddle players in the West Highland tradition. Last year, Christina gave a marvellous performance in front of the high crosses in the museum. This year, we were delighted to have both Christina and her teacher return to the museum and play again in front of the high crosses.

Day 6: Apse or No Apse?

Yesterday was a very productive day for most of us, but not for things relating to the excavation. The wind was up to 40mph for much of the day and driving rain made it particularly unappealing. As one of our team put it, ‘If you jump, you’ll land in Treshnish!’ Some team members briefly checked on the site to make sure our equipment was secured, but in general we called off the excavation due to high winds. Instead, we all stayed in the house and wrote various reports, theses, and dissertations. The wind died down by about 6pm, so a group of us took an evening stroll to the Abbey to try to catch it in a different light.

Even more exciting, though, was the spotting of our resident corncrake! Corncrakes are both very rare and very elusive, so this was particularly special. We have heard a corncrake in the garden both this year and last, but had only briefly spotted it once when it dashed from one end of the garden to the other. Last night, we not only spotted our corncrake, but watched it for about ten minutes while trying to capture it on video! The quality isn’t great due to the sun having set, but you can see and hear our garden corncrake well enough.

Today was somewhat cold, but brilliantly sunny. We began by excavating many of the modern layers we began digging on Thursday.  We excavated a large layer full of shell, which was used to make mortar in the rebuilding of the abbey in 1904.

As for the stone structure, we began excavating the area just beyond last year’s trench boundary, and we found the stones continue! The curious news is that the stones seem to continue in a straight line, and least for the next half-metre. This either means that our structure doesn’t have an apse in the eastern end, or that the structure (and its apse) is a lot wider than we thought it was. We’re hoping it’s the latter. Whatever it is, we’ll keep you posted!

 If you happen to be in the area, we are excavating for the next several weeks. Feel free to stop by and say hello!

Day 4: People, Plans and Porcelain

Yesterday was very windy and wet, so we didn’t excavate at the Abbey. Instead, we had a lovely day (albeit wet and windy!) teaming up with the National Trust to teach primary school students from Bunessan and Iona how to be good archaeologists! We set up at the library, where there were stations on reassembling broken pots, interpreting the material culture around Bob the Skeleton, and finding artefacts in the sand pit. We then took the kids outside where they tried their hands at plane-table survey, then excavated some test-pits in line with the Thistle Camp’s trench before heading over to the Abbey to check out the excavation there. Everyone was enthusiastic despite the wind and rain, and we found a fair amount of porcelain and charcoal to boot!

Today started with a sun shower (complete with rainbow!) followed by high winds and then a brief horizontal hailstorm – all before 9am. Luckily the weather cleared by 9:15 and remained sunny the rest of the day. We spent the day drawing a plan of what we had dug so far, taking levels (measurements of the three-dimensional coordinates of certain locations or areas of the trench), and slowly beginning to dig through context fairly modern overburden to see what we can find in the newly expanded trench. So far, we have found a fair amount of porcelain, medieval pottery, some nails, and disarticulated animal bones. This layer is also full of limpet and periwinkle shells, which were most likely used in the production of mortar.

We saw a LARGE number of people over the course of the day – thank you to all who visited! If you happen to be in the area, we are excavating for the next few weeks. Feel free to stop by and say hello!


Day 2: Thirty Tonne Tuesday

Today got off to a slow start due to poor weather conditions. Archaeologists generally don’t excavate in heavy rain because we would likely damage the archaeology or lose track of our soil layers. In effect, we would often do more harm than good, so we avoid digging in heavy rain. Instead, we spent part of the morning making signs for community notice boards and organising various notes and records.

The weather did clear relatively quickly, so we got to site around 10 or so. We immediately set about joining the section we hadn’t gotten to yesterday and then cleared out all of the backfill from last year’s trench. We also cleaned the top soil off of the newly excavated areas of the trench and revealed the wall for the first time in a year. So far as we can tell, all of the survey nails and context labels we left in last year (assuming we would be back for further excavations) have survived and remained in-place.

The view from above – Trench 2 fully ready for excavation.

Despite our late start, we managed to finish all that by 4:30, so visited the trenches being dug by the National Trust Thistle Camp and then called it a day. We calculated that in the end, our team of 6 has shifted over 30 tonnes of material by hand in the last 48 hours – according to the site director, ‘this is one advantage of having experienced (and fit!) diggers!’

We saw a LARGE number of people over the course of the day – thank you to all who visited! If you happen to be in the area, we are excavating for the next few weeks. Feel free to stop by and say hello!


Day 1: De-turfing

Today marked the first full day on site! As with most trenches in archaeology, ours was still covered in grass and vegetation, so step number one was to deturf the trench. We’re starting out with a 6×6 metre trench, with the possibility of expansion later on. This morning was rather misty, so the grass was wet and the pieces of turf somewhat heavier than they might be otherwise. It took an hour and a half to expose the entire trench, and we ended up with a turf structure that we decided resembled a little mini Antonine Wall.

After de-turfing, we needed to define the boundaries of the trench from 2017. We exposed one corner yesterday, when a small team laid out the location of the current trench, but the rest remained underground. After some serious digging, we ended the day having defined most of the boundaries of the original trench, with just two to still be joined up tomorrow.

The Iona Research Group is excavating on Iona for the next few weeks. If you’re in the area, feel free to stop by and say hello!

The result of Day 1: Turf removed and most of the 2017 trench outlined.