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.

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!