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!