Mid-summers day: progress report

Its mid-summers day and time is flying on our archaeology dig! We are now four weeks in to Season 3 excavations, have so far made great progress,  despite the less than clement weather. We have also already had to say goodbye to some of our students.


Lucas, Eddie, Kevin, Will, Erin, Kayley, Martha, Anna and Jen & Ryan at the Newgrange passage tomb entrance – all but Anna & Kayley gone already!

We have, so far, been concentrating our efforts in Cutting 3 (Cuttings 4 & 4A have been put on hold); this cutting has a section of the southern cloister wall exposed, a charnel or ossuary pit to the immediate south of that, a significant quantity of disarticulated human bone in the upper disturbed layers in the southern end of the cutting, and so far two newly identified burials in southern end of the cutting.

Erin & Kayley cleaning back at the south end of the cutting
Rain stops play in cutting 3;
Rachel shows Jenny Immich and her students (University of Minnesota), around the site

We started by going over the entire cutting with trowels to clean it back; our first task was to resolve the slate layers identified at the end of Season 2. Erin, Kayley, and Martha worked around the stone feature identified in Season 2*. We removed the layer to the north east of the cloister wall; Anna and Eddie were rewarded in their efforts with a beautiful fragment of carved stone. The slate layer comprises slates with perforations, so we are provisionally interpreting this as a roof tile collapse from the roof of the cloister.

Beautiful carved architectural fragement recovered from the slump of roof slate

While this work was ongoing, Rachel set supervisor Lucas to work in recovering the skeletal remains of an infant from the western baulk, to the south of the cloister wall; this had been indentified at the very end of Season 2 but left in situ as substantial excavation is required to fully access the remains, such is the depth of the burial in this location. This is a work in progress and complicated by fragility of the remains. The arrival of supervisor Jessica was timely in this regard as she had been involved in the excavation of the infant burial identified in Season 2 and is familiar with the care and patience required for this work. These burials would indicate that this site may have been used as a cillín, a burial ground for unbaptised children**.

 Lucas excavating an infant burial in the western bauk

Immediately south of the cloister wall, on the eastern side, and to the north of a small later medieval wall, is another slate layer; this however seems to comprise mostly un-perforated slates – its situation between the cloister wall and the wall of the church may represent a surface related to the cloister garth or walk way. Will & Kevin did a sterling job in troweling this area and the eastern section face above it, in preparation for the removal of the wall to the south…

Will cleaning back to the south east of the cloister wall

We decided to remove this small wall, built almost above the line of the church wall; this looked like a higgledy-piggledy stone wall or fence and when dismantled we discovered that it was even less substantial that we had thought, comprising just a few cut stone elements and a lot of clay. Its removal however finally facilitated easier access to the charnel pit, located to the immediate south of the church wall, on the eastern side of the cutting.

 The charnal pit after the removal of the small wall, where Megan (in red) is working, with Gereme and Jennifer

The charnel pit consists of part of the robber trench identified in Season 2; the digging of the robber trench, to access the stone for removal, disturbed a number of burials. The burials seem to have originally consisted extended inhumations (heads to west) and there is at least one burial with evidence of a violent death. Following the digging of the robber trench, the ‘robbers’ then replaced the disturbed bone in the pit, reburying the remains. This week Gereme uncovered a western edge for the pit, where large stones were used to enclose the area on that’s side. We have yet to locate the southern edge, and the eastern edge is under the baulk to the east.

  Gereme just about to locate the western edge of the charnal pit
Western edge of the charnal pit defined bit stone on foreground

At the south-eastern end of the cutting, the excavation of more of the slate layer has revealed a clay layer with more disarticulated bone, similar to the layer on the western side of the cutting here; *the two sides are divided by elements of a stone structure which may be the base of a rood screen (separating the nave & choir). Kevin and Martha worked in the eastern side, and Fin & Beannán on the western side, in order to establish the extent of the stone and the nature of the clay layer. Jessica and Sean have taken over in the eastern corner and are working to indentify the extent of the disarticulated human bone.

Work at the north end of the cutting has revealed two more burials in this area, those of small children. One is complete, and in good condition (excavated by Julie & Morgan) though the tiny bones are fragile; the second seems to be incomplete but has been damaged in antiquity so the remainder may yet be identified (excavated by Aurelien, Anna & Colleen). Project bio-archaeologist, Prof. Rachel Scott has been closely supervising the excavation of these burials.

 Julie excavating a child burial
Aurelien, Anna and Colleen excavating the adjacent child burial

This is our last week with Rachel as she is leaving us on Friday to head to London; Rachel is co-director of the 2012 Summer Seminar Health and Disease in the Middle Ages at the Wellcome Library:


 Rachel showing us how its done!

**The occurrence of cillíní (plural of cillín) is not unusual in Ireland but is usually associated with the burial in older, pre-Christian or pagan monuments; this burial practice may have its origin in the Roman tradition though current dating from excavations would indicate that most are of late or post medieval date. In the medieval period, the church took the position that the unbaptised, having not been cleansed of their ‘original sin’ could not be buried in consecrated ground. Historical sources indicate that the Church of England specified who could not be interred in consecrated ground, this included the unbaptised, suicide victims, excommunicates, and individuals killed in duels (Donnelly & Murphy 2008). It is possible that after the suppression of the religious houses by Henry VIII in the 16th century, that Blackfriary may no longer have been officially considered sacred ground, and or that there was no-one present to enforce the rule, allowing people to access the site and use it for burial.


Donnelly CJ and Murphy M. 2008. The Origins of Cilliní. Archaeology Ireland, Vol. 22, No. 3 (Autumn, 2008), pp. 26-29. Wordwell Ltd. Dublin.


About Irish Archaeology Field School

The Irish Archaeology Field School (IAFS) is Ireland’s leading provider of university accredited, site based archaeological research and training. Our archaeological and heritage programs include research projects in a number of locations in Ireland, including in Co. Wexford and Co. Offaly (with satellite schools frequently undertaken elsewhere). We provide credited and uncredited programs (and internships) for novice and experienced students, and also specialise in the preparation of purpose-built faculty led programs incorporating excavation, historical research, remote sensing, non-invasive survey, ground investigation, landscape assessment etc. Whilst our programs are excavation-centered and aimed primarily at students of archaeology, anthropology and history, courses are open to all, and are guaranteed to give you an enriching and thoroughly worthwhile study abroad adventure.
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