Day 26: What was our mysterious early building?

Back around Day 6, we discovered that our stone structure continues in a straight line where we originally thought it would curve into an apse. It only continued for about a metre before disappearing into lower layers, so we proposed that it may still be an apse – just a larger one than we thought.

It turns out that our structure doesn’t form an apse at all, so far as we can tell. Instead, it continues straight towards the Benedictine Abbey. We found a continuation of the wall in the northern extension, badly damaged by modern landscaping and stone robbing. It still does not curve and must be at least 10 metres long.

So what does this mean?

Well, for one thing, it means our structure probably isn’t the early church. The structure is far too large for what we know of early churches, and rounded corners are unheard of in early medieval Scottish churches.

But that doesn’t mean our structure isn’t interesting or exciting! It is currently the oldest stone structure we know of on Iona and the earliest stone structure associated with a church in Scotland. But even more interesting is that this structure is large enough to possibly be the ‘magna domus’ or monastic Great House mentioned by Adomnán in the late 7th century, where the monks would have lived and worked. If our structure is the Great House, then it could provide a large amount of information about the daily lives of monks in Scotland during the early medieval period.

Day 11: Trench Extensions and Photogrammetry

Over the past few days, the primary activity on the trench has been drawing plans and taking photographs while investigating some of the modern layers we had not yet excavated. We expanded the trench to the west to determine whether we can find other portions of the structure, and have uncovered a large pit of stones from the conservation work in 1904 (more on that tomorrow). In the north extension, we have discovered a second, rectangular stone setting. We are unsure if this is connected in some way to the wall we have been investigating or if it is something else, but we are excited to see what we find!

Some of the team have also spent the last three days making a photogrammetric 3D model of St. Martin’s Cross, the only high cross at the Abbey that has yet to be 3D modelled after efforts by the Discovery Programme in 2016 and the Concrete and Not-Concrete project at the University of Stirling in 2017. The cross stands just over 5m (16’8″) tall (including the base), which makes it a challenge to model safely. Our team required the use of a 5m (16’4″) pole, a large stepladder, and three individuals over two days to make it work. We think the results are definitely worth it, but will have to wait until we are back at the university to process the full model.

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!

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!