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!

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!