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!