Hot Off the Press: A New Jerusalem ‘At the Ends of the Earth’

Dr. Ewan Campbell and Dr. Adrián Maldonado have published a new open-access journal article on Iona titled ‘A New Jerusalem ‘At the Ends of the Earth’: Interpreting Charles Thomas’s Excavations at Iona Abbey 1956–63.’ It combines information gathered from Thomas’s impressive campaign of excavations on the island from 1956 to 1963 and information recovered by Campbell and Maldonado’s recent campaign of excavations and fieldwork from 2016 – 2018. Of particular interest is the new insight into the layout and function of the monastic complex, leading the authors to draw parallels to Jerusalem as imagined by Adomnán in his De Locis Sanctis as well as comparisons of the monastic layout on Iona with other known early medieval monasteries across northern Britain and Ireland.

This article follows on from that published last year (Furnishing an Early Medieval Monastery: New Evidence from Iona) and is entirely open-access!


Campbell, E., & Maldonado, A. (2020). A NEW JERUSALEM ‘AT THE ENDS OF THE EARTH’: INTERPRETING CHARLES THOMAS’S EXCAVATIONS AT IONA ABBEY 1956–63. The Antiquaries Journal, 1-53.

New Publication: Identifying Social Transformations and Crisis during the Pre-Monastic to Post-Viking Era on Iona

Another Iona paper has been published!  This paper discusses the scientific environmental work (pollen and insects) carried out as the result of our 2017 re-excavation of Charles Thomas’s 1957 trench across the monastic enclosure ditch and banks. One of the main findings was that there was a short-lived environmental event, noted through the impact on the vegetation, around the time of the early 9th-century Viking raids on the island. The paper, whose main author is Samantha Jones at the University of Aberdeen, is published in Environmental Archaeology and can be accessed here.


New Publication: Furnishing an Early Medieval Monastery

The first of three papers on Iona has just been published! This one, published in Medieval Archaeology, discusses some of the important artefacts from Charles Thomas’s excavations and other unpublished material from the site. It includes discussion of a small bronze human head, and a 3D lion figurine, both possibly from shrine fittings.

Campbell, E, Batey, C, Murray, G & Thickpenny, C 2019 Furnishing an Early Medieval Monastery: New Evidence from Iona, Medieval Archaeology  63 (2), 298-337

Click here for the open access electronic version.


Letting the St John’s Cross Speak

In 1970 a concrete replica of the St John’s Cross arrived in Iona sitting incongruously on the deck of a puffer delivering the island’s annual supply of coal. What is the story behind this intriguing replica? How does it relate to the world’s first ringed ‘Celtic cross’, an artistic and technical masterpiece, which has been at the heart of the Iona experience since the eighth century? What does it tell us about the authenticity and value of replicas? This is what I have been researching with my University of Stirling colleague, Professor Siân Jones.

Full replica of St John’s Cross, Iona.

Replicas of historic objects are widely used in heritage sites and at museums, often in response to challenges, including damage, destruction and restitution. However, they are usually considered insignificant in their own right. Iona’s extensively-copied, iconic St John’s Cross made an excellent case study. In 2017 and 2018 we undertook ethnographic fieldwork, funded by the Royal Society of Edinburgh and Historic Environment Scotland. You can read all about the results and implications of that research in free-to-download articles in International Journal of Heritage Studies and Conservation and Management of Archaeological Sites. We are now putting the final touches to a highly visual book – My Life as a Replica: St John’s Cross, Iona (order your copies, with pre-publication discount here! Supported by further grants from Historic Environment Scotland, Iona Cathedral Trustees and the Strathmartine Trust, this interdisciplinary study is to be published by Wingather in Spring 2020. It is one of the first qualitative studies of historic replicas at heritage sites, and the first in-depth cultural biography to give primacy to the life of a replica.

Our research shows how replicas can acquire authenticity. It unravels the part that social relations, craft practices, creativity, place and materiality play in the production and negotiation of their authenticity. Yet, underlying stories of human creativity, skill and craftsmanship are rendered invisible when replicas are treated as mere surrogates for a missing ‘original’. Challenging the traditional precepts that seek authenticity in qualities intrinsic to original historic objects, we will show how replicas are important objects in their own right; they acquire value, authenticity and aura. The life of a replica generates networks of relationships between people, places and things, including the original historic object, and authenticity is founded on what these relationships embody. Authenticity is also founded on the dynamic material qualities of the objects. The cultural biographies of replicas, and the ‘felt’ relationships associated with them, play a key role in the generation and negotiation of authenticity while, at the same time, informing the authenticity and value of their historic counterparts through the ‘composite biographies’ that are produced. We argue that replicas can ‘work’ for us if we let them, particularly if clues are available about their makers’ passion, creativity and craft. They have their own creative, human histories, biographies that people can connect with.

The book – which we hope you will read! – will also tell important new stories about the much-loved, world-renowned island of Iona, and its internationally significant carved stones. In 1970 a concrete replica was erected in situ to replace the original St John’s Cross. This had fallen for at least the fourth time in its life in 1957. We expose and explore, for the first time, the in-depth life of this replica, in relation to the life of the original and lives of its many other copies.  The St John’s Cross is a composite monument thought to be the progenitor of the ringed ‘Celtic’ cross. Erected in the mid-eighth century AD, it stands like a sentinel outside the entrance to an intimate stone building enclosing St Columba’s place of burial. The cross and shrine-chapel were probably erected as part of a highly innovative programme of architectural and artistic works to enhance the religious experience of pilgrims to St Columba’s grave. With St Columba the best known of the early medieval saints who introduced Christianity to Scotland, St John’s Cross has always been at the heart of the Iona experience, of pilgrimage to and around Scotland, indeed around western Europe. The St John’s Cross is arguably best known through its copies, not least the 1970 replica. But, the story of the concrete replica is scarcely known and largely untold. Turning half a century in age in June 2020, it is therefore timely to investigate the authenticity, value and significance of this historic replica, and to consider the wider implications of our findings for little understood historic replicas at heritage places.

Our book has three sections. In Crafting lives, we will seek to convey a sense of how and why we have written such a book, one in which we think it is important that a replica ‘speaks’. Chapter 1 discusses how lives of objects can be constructed. We justify our approach, methodologies and choice of subject in terms of the latest thinking on replicas in heritage and museum contexts. Chapter 2 reveals the ways in which Iona is a particularly complex and special place, in material and social terms. Famously described as a ’thin’ place, we show that it is ‘thick’ from an ethnographic and temporal perspective. Chapter 3 offers a temporal perspective on the values of Iona’s multiple communities, illustrating the agency and symbolism of the island’s carved stones in this regard.

Creating and cultivating the cross will explore the 1200-year-plus cultural biography of the St John’s Cross, drawing on extensive primary research, including previously unpublished antiquarian sources. Chapter 4 covers the life of the cross from its creation to 1957, when the cross fell for the last time. Chapter 5 is about the long gestation of the concrete replica and how it came to be born, while Chapter 6 spans the period from the 1980s to 2016. Chapter 7 presents the findings of our ethnographic research, with an emphasis on what they tell us about contemporary authenticity and value.

Celebration in concrete, celebration of concrete invites new thinking about replicas. Having examined the role of the St John’s Cross replica in the production and negotiation of authenticity and value, we will explore the implications for those who look after historic replicas, or who continue to create them.

While you wait for the book to appear, you might like to look at Murdo MacKenzie’s 1970 homemade cinefilm about the arrival and erection of the replica on Iona, and the snapshot it offers of Iona life at that time.

Dr Sally Foster, Senior Lecturer in Heritage and Conservation, University of Stirling.


2018 Iona Excavations – Now Online!

We are happy to announce that our data structure report, our interim statement of what we did and what we found during our 2018 excavation, is now available to download here.

Thanks again to Historic Environment Scotland and the University of Glasgow for funding the excavations, and Richard Strachan, John Raven and Simon Stronach of HES for support through the project. Our partners in the National Trust for Scotland and in particular Derek Alexander have been crucial to our understanding of the wider island context. Thanks also to Emma Wilkins (NTS ranger), Jane Martin and Gordon Rutherford of the HES staff on Iona for much help on site. Thanks to Andrew Prentice, the tenant farmer, for helping with access to Site D and interest in the excavations. As well as the main site team thanks are due to Gert Petersen, for organising and delivering our equipment for the excavation.

Another Mysterious Structure

In addition to the large trench at the Abbey, we also excavated a narrow trench in the field just to the south, between the St. Columba Hotel and the eastern shore. Geophysical survey in this field in 2012 discovered a strange, rectangular feature with rounded corners measuring roughly 40 x 30m. We thought it might be a ditched enclosure, but the shape is unusual for this area. It also wasn’t clear that the structure was associated with either the early monastery or the Benedictine abbey, as it lies outside the Abbey’s outer perimeter.

Geophysical results showing a rectangular feature just south of St. Marys Chapel.

To try to understand this structure a bit more, we opened up a 7 x 1.5m trench on the southern side of the structure, where it was cut by a trench for a now disused water pipe. The feature was indeed a ditch, and we found a fair amount of medieval pottery and some evidence of iron working. Further down the ditch was a stone setting of largely local granite. The stones looked very similar to those used in St. Mary’s Chapel and were probably taken from it, most likely after the Reformation in the mid-16th century. We’re unsure as to the use of such a structure at the bottom of a ditch, but we think it may have been used as a causeway across a particularly boggy portion of the ditch. Shortly after uncovering this stone setting, the soil became increasingly silty and eventually we hit the water table at the base of the ditch.

The excavated ditch trench, looking east.

So the structure is indeed a ditched enclosure, and likely dates to the later medieval period, given the finds. Aside from that, however, its function is unclear. It may have been used for craft working of some kind, given the presence of iron working evidence, but the finds are somewhat sparse. The ditch could also have been used for drainage, as this field continues to be rather boggy, but there was no evidence found for that either. For now, then, the structure remains yet another mystery, but samples of charcoal from the base of the ditch should allow us to date it more accurately.

Day 26: What was our mysterious early building?

Back around Day 6, we discovered that our stone structure continues in a straight line where we originally thought it would curve into an apse. It only continued for about a metre before disappearing into lower layers, so we proposed that it may still be an apse – just a larger one than we thought.

It turns out that our structure doesn’t form an apse at all, so far as we can tell. Instead, it continues straight towards the Benedictine Abbey. We found a continuation of the wall in the northern extension, badly damaged by modern landscaping and stone robbing. It still does not curve and must be at least 10 metres long.

So what does this mean?

Well, for one thing, it means our structure probably isn’t the early church. The structure is far too large for what we know of early churches, and rounded corners are unheard of in early medieval Scottish churches.

But that doesn’t mean our structure isn’t interesting or exciting! It is currently the oldest stone structure we know of on Iona and the earliest stone structure associated with a church in Scotland. But even more interesting is that this structure is large enough to possibly be the ‘magna domus’ or monastic Great House mentioned by Adomnán in the late 7th century, where the monks would have lived and worked. If our structure is the Great House, then it could provide a large amount of information about the daily lives of monks in Scotland during the early medieval period.

Day 25: That’s a Wrap!

We have officially reached the end of our digging season for this year. We dug all the modern layers we could by the Abbey and now we need to put everything back! We covered the trench in geo-textile to protect the base before returning all the rocks we had dug out. We then had some much appreciated help from Gordon, the works manager, who helped us lift and transport our 60 tonne-bags of dirt and dump them back into the trench. We finished re-turfing the trench this morning, and our excavation is officially over. We plan to reward ourselves sufficiently with ice cream and cake!

We also had a wonderful turnout for our talk in the village hall on Friday, with over 60 people attending! We would like to say a huge thank you to all who came and listened to the update from this year’s excavation and to an interesting talk about the earliest portrait of St. Columba by team member Peter Yeoman.

We would like to thank everyone who came to visit us and ask questions about the dig! 

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!