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in Medieval Archaeology, discusses some of the important artefacts from Charles Thomas’s excavations and other unpublished material from the site.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.

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.