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.


Over the Sound of Iona… Eventually

The journey to Iona from Glasgow is beautiful, meandering, and usually unpredictable. It generally takes about 5 or so hours by car, if you time the ferries right, but can take longer if using trains and buses. The drive takes you by Dumbarton Rock, the early medieval capital of the Kingdom of Strathclyde, then north along Loch Lomond, which hosts an entire island inhabited only by wallabies. It continues north through Tarbet, which formed part of a Viking portage route, before you inevitably find yourself stopping for coffee and a bacon roll at the Green Welly.

This portion of the journey was perfectly pleasant for us, save for a bit of dreich, drizzly-mist for much of the drive along Loch Lomond. The coffee was warm and the bacon rolls delicious. We were worried about making our ferry on time, so we stopped only briefly before hopping back in the land rover and heading west to Oban.

We made surprisingly good time, arriving in Oban about an hour before we absolutely needed to be there. We ended up exploring the seaside a bit before meeting up with some other members of the team and heading onto the ferry. We had now been travelling for roughly 4 hours.

The ferry takes you past Dunollie Castle, a major centre in the early medieval period. The castle was attacked three times, in 686, 698, and 701, then rebuilt in 714 by Selbach mac Ferchair – the very man who was credited with destroying it in 701. The site used to be covered in ivy, but it has since been conserved and is now quite prominent in the view from the ferry. You also pass Duart Castle on Mull, which dates to the 13th century and is known as the seat of Clan MacLean.

Then begins the hour-long drive across Mull to the small village of Fionnphort. We spotted an eagle being attacked by a crow shortly after setting off – a fantastic sighting this early in the trip. The drive takes you past several lochs, one of which has an old crannog, or loch-dwelling. Crannogs were fairly common in Scotland and consist of a man-made island often connected to the mainland by a narrow bridge or pathway. It was around this crannog that we received a text from another member of the team that the Iona ferry wasn’t running at the moment – technical problems meant they couldn’t take people across. Other boats were taking pedestrians, but vehicles were out of the question until the ferry had been fixed.

So we stopped worrying about getting to Fionnphort in a timely manner and instead meandered along through Pennyghael and Bunessan. Upon arrival in Fionnphort, we hashed out a plan for how to get all our gear across with fewer vehicles and then sat down to a tasty lunch at the seafood shack just next to the ferry port.

The ferry was indeed fixed, and we did make it to Iona today, though we honestly weren’t sure that would happen for a while. A journey that usually takes around 5 hours actually took about 8, but we are all on the island and settled in. The equipment got across and we dropped what we could at the Abbey to begin organising everything tomorrow. We moved into our house for the month, set up some equipment, and then most of the team immediately set about making dinner. So we got here in the end, but with a bit of a hiccup in the middle that, in the end, involved a degree of problem-solving and a nice lunch.

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!