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.


Iona Excavations 2018: Why Excavate Again?

Having excavated three trenches on Iona in the 2017 season, you may be wondering why we’re going back. Last year, we recovered large amounts of organic material from Charles Thomas’s original 1956 trench through the western portion of the vallum, located just outside the MacLeod Centre. The organic material from the base of the ditch dates to 580 – 660 AD and is likely one of the earliest features of the monastery. We also uncovered a stone structure and numerous medieval-period finds from just south of the Abbey. The stone structure predates a layer rich in iron-working debris dating to 665 – 770 AD. This suggests that the stone structure could be as early as the 7th century and therefore the earliest dated stone-built feature on a Scottish monastery.

So why go back?

Well, while we found the stone structure in Trench 2 last year, we still don’t really know what it is. The portion we were able to uncover in 2017 consists of a relatively straight wall running roughly east-west, which then curves to the north before running into the edges of our trench. Our excavations last year couldn’t investigate the footprint of the wall further, because we did not have permission to excavate a wider area. This year, we are going back to trace the footprint (or outline) of the structure and follow it as far as we can within the limits of our trench to determine what it actually is (hopefully).

The Iona Research Group is excavating on Iona from 5 May – 2 June 2018. If you’re in the area, feel free to stop by and say hello!

Aerial view Trench 2 (Site B) from tower of Iona Abbey
Aerial view Trench 2 (Site B) from tower of Iona Abbey (A Maldonado 2017)