Finding the edge

We have resigned ourselves to the fact that our search for the church walls will have to wait while we continue through the many burials and layers containing disarticulated human bone within the area of the church.

We had a break through this week as we have finally found possible grave cuts! For those of you who have experience of archaeological excavation you will know how exciting it is to finally find the edge of a feature so you can start to accurately assess the scale, depth and nature of what you are digging. Some of our students had never experienced this joy until the distinct line between some mid-brown pliable clay and a compact orange-brown marly clay appeared – hurrah!

Edges! John & Florice discussing the difference between the material in the grave cuts (brown-ish) and the clay they have been cut into (orange-ish)

These possible grave cuts certainly seem to separate areas of burial, but to be sure we will carry out further excavation to see if the surface expression of these possible cuts does  indeed extend down to define the vertical extents of the burials. The subtlety of soil changes aside, the reason why this is so important is that we finally have secure contexts for the bones in this area, and we may even have complete burials!


Sean in his grave cut

Another significant find this week is wood; thus far we have been coming across plenty of medieval nails, discernible by their flat heads (though mostly quite corroded). We know the nails must have been used to hold something together, and now we have the first indications that that something might indeed have been coffins. The wood identified is in tiny fragments, identifiable by its fibrous nature. We’ll consult with palaeo-environmental archaeologists to find out what type of wood we have found which could tell us more about what it might have come from, and also whether or not we have enough wood fragments for dating purposes.

Wooden coffins are known from earlier contexts in Ireland; at the site of the Early Christian cemetery at *Scotch Street, Armagh (Excavations 1985:08) where a date from the sixth century was obtained from wooden coffins. At *St. Brendan’s Cathedral in Ardfert, Co. Kerry, coffin nails were found in association with 13th century burials (Excavations 1991:062).

We need to do further work in these areas however, if indeed the wood is from coffins, it is probable  that these burials date from the late medieval period. Although we do not have much dating evidence so far, we have recovered a nice piece of Saintonge pottery.  Saintonge pottery, characterised by the white ceramic fabric and green glaze was produced in France from the 13th century. The vessels were used to import wine and other goods from this area.

Saintonge pottery and a large fragment of wood from Cutting 3, area of burials

This pottery would indicate that our burials are likely late medieval or post medieval in date. If we assume that burial in the church was undertaken in the  period post-Dissolution, these burials might date to the late 16th or early 17th century.

The question of the location of a Catholic burial during this post-Dissolution period is something that we are keen to pursue and are hoping that the excavations at Blackfriary might answer this. We can look to similar sites to see how this played out elsewhere in Ireland, such as the site of the **Augustinian Friary at Dunmore in Co. Galway (Excavation 206:793). At Dunmore ‘ (from) the results of the excavations it is clear that the local, much put upon, Catholic population continued to use the Abbeylands cemetery long after the Augustinian Friars had been expelled up until at least the Jacobite war in the 1690′s‘ (Quinn, 2007).


IAI Environmental Sampling Guidelines:

IPMAG Excavation Database 1985-1995:

Read more:

*O’Sullivan, A, McCormick, F, Kerr, T & Harney, L. 2008. Early Medieval Ireland: Archaeological Excavations 1930-2004. [Web published]

 **Quinn, B. 2007. Gunmoney, Dragoons and Gideon of Dunmore. [Web published]

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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.

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Blackfriary: the official launch!

On Friday evening, June 8th, the Irish Archaeology Field School officially launched the third season of excavations of the Blackfriary.

All formal events for the field school so far have bucketed rain and this was no exception! Due to the poor weather and muddy site conditions, the on-site element of the event was called off, but thankfully this didn’t stop people braving the elements to show up to the re-located launch in the warmth of the Trim Castle Hotel.

Trim Town Council Cathaoirleach Cllr Jimmy O’Shea and the Meath County Council Cathaoirleach Cllr Eoin Holmes both were on hand to help officially launch the 2012 excavation season; Cathaoirleach Cllr Jimmy O’Shea talked about the significance of the site and Cathaoirleach Cllr Eoin Holmes discussed the importance of heritage and of  community archaeology to the town of Trim and the county of Meath.

Following this, a joint lecture was given by field school director Steve Mandal and Principal Investigator Finola O’Carroll. Steve explained both the history of the school and the origin of the community project, along with the importance of communication and engagement with the local community in helping to preserve the archaeology. Fin then gave a lecture on the archaeology and history of the site, findings from previous seasons and finished off with the excavation plans for the 2012 season, leaving everyone feeling excited about the project and the students anxious to get out digging again!

During the Q&A that followed we were interested to hear what people thought of the project and suggestions for the future of the site. The obligatory tea & coffee break gave guests, including international and Irish students, academics, local people and visitors, a chance to chat further about the project.

Tea & coffee with the splendid backdrop of Trim Castle

Despite the weather, the evening was a success and we are grateful to everyone who attended in showing both interest and support. Thanks to Trim Town Council and Meath County Council also for their support, and to Trim Castle Hotel for their hospitality.

(L-R) Noel French (Trim Chamber of Commerce), Trim Town Council Manager Des Foley, Prof. Gabriel Cooney (UCD), Cathaoirleach Cllr Eoin Holmes, Meath Heritage Officer Loreto Guinan, Finola O’Carroll (IAFS), Steve Mandal (IAFS), Cathaoirleach Cllr Jimmy O’Shea

If you missed us at the launch, mark July 22nd in your calendar for the site community open day (chances are you will need your waterproofs). This will be a day event and include activities for children as well as site tours.

And of course you can visit us at any time to see work in progress on the site for the duration of the excavation season.

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Blackfriary Season 3, week 1

It’s the first week of Season 3 Blackfriary, and glory be, the sun shone, the sky was blue and the temperatures hit into the twenties, definitely Blackfriary weather!!!

So after a few preliminaries, the safety spiel from Bairbre, the site tour all around the field with Ian it was time to get down and dirty! Within a few hours the plastic was off and folded away, and the errant weeds that had tried to colonise the cuttings were assaulted with vigour.

L-R: Kayley, Erin, Joan and Anna cleaning back in Cutting 3

Kayley, Erin and Ian examine some bone fragments from the east facing baulk in Cutting 3

Dr. Rachel Scott has come all the way from Arizona State University to be with us for the next four weeks. She lectures in bio-archaeology in Arizona State University and has a research interest in medieval leper hospitals in Ireland. So it is wonderful to have her here as we are returning to deal with the skeletal remains we had begun to uncover within the nave of the church and the cloister area last season.

Rachel and John

Day 2 and we were down to serious clean-back and already disarticulated human bone is coming up. We decide to clean down the baulks (vertical faces of the cutting sides) in Cutting 3, and in doing so confirm that we are coming across infant bones with some frequency in the destruction levels, those which formed after the friary buildings had been taking down, plundered to build Georgian Trim. They are full of stone and mortar fragments, and an inhospitable place for such tiny bones. We decide that we will systematically clean the section faces to see if we can isolate any particular area the bones are coming from, and unsurprisingly they are coming from the southern half of the western face, in the area where we had an infant burial last season (south of the cloister wall), and further south of this. This strongly suggests that part of the site was used as a Cillín, a burial ground for un-baptised children which are post-medieval in date.

Rachel assessing bone fragments with Anna; Lisanne & John looking on

Archaeology supervisor Joanne, has joined us to put order on the office, and manners on our recording of finds and samples. She will show the students how to deal with finds when they come out of the ground and will reinforce the need to keep proper records.

Finds from the rubble layer, a post medieval metal fragment

Day 3, and the students are being initiated into the mysteries of using the trowel and mattock. Tiredness has set in, jet-lag for some, but they rise to the challenge.

Student supervisor Lucas, and recent graduate of Boston University, was with us in our first season; has re-joined us this season and has uncovered what may be a relatively complete infant burial, so he is going to be busy for the next day or so!

Lucas excavates an infant burial in Cutting 3

At the end of the week we are heading to Trinity College Dublin to attend the Space and Settlement in the Middle Ages 2012 Conference.

The cows are sitting down – only a 60% chance of rain!

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Setting up for Season 3

The sun is splitting the stones at Blackfriary this week and preparations are underway to get the site ship-shape for the opening of the excavations next week. With students arriving on Monday, the cabins have been delivered, tables and chairs are being dusted off, industrial sized boxes of teabags ordered, feature sheets and registers printed, finds bags sample bags organised, and we are nearly ready to go!

We can’t wait to start digging again 🙂

Cabins arriving to site

Cabins being lowered into position

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Irish DNA Atlas

We are pleased to report that as part of our community engagement, we will be working with the Genealogical Society of Ireland (GSI) and the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland to promote the Irish DNA Atlas.

This joint project will compile an Irish DNA Atlas through the collection of birth briefs and DNA samples to investigate the diversity of the Irish genome, which is a valuable, yet largely unexplored, resource of the Irish nation. As an island population on the edge of Europe, Ireland has a rich cultural heritage that is the product of ancient migrations from the neighbouring island and from mainland Europe.

The project aims to collect DNA from individuals who can trace their family back three generations in the same area. Participants can chose to opt in or out of the health aspect of the survey.

To explain further how individuals may become involved, here is a quick introduction from Séamus O’Reilly, Director of Archival Services:


The Genealogical Society of Ireland has embarked on its most exciting group project to date, the ‘Irish DNA Atlas’, in collaboration with Dr. Gianpiero Cavalleri, a senior scientist and population geneticist at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, St. Stephen’s Green, Dublin. The project aims to further our knowledge of the population history of Ireland and to help us understand how genes influence health in Ireland. The specific objectives of the ‘Irish DNA Atlas’ are (1) to create a DNA collection that allows genetic analysis of population structure within Ireland and ethnic groups across the island. Analysis of such a collection will reveal ancient demographic movements and inform us on the ancestry of specific regions and ethnic groups within Ireland. (2) To create a DNA collection to act as controls in population based studies of health in Ireland. Participants should have ancestry on the island of Ireland and all of their eight great grandparents should have been born in the same general area. Therefore, with all eight great grandparents originating from a certain area of the country their DNA represents a particular region and thus building a “DNA atlas” of the island of Ireland. For further information or to participate contact the Director of Archival Services, Séamus O’Reilly, FGSI, on or checkout the information on

With a baseline survey of the Irish population, there will be scope to carry out comparison work with ancient DNA collections, and look at migration and settlement patterns across the island of Ireland.

For futher information on the project, and to get involved, check out the Irish DNA Atlas project page

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Blackfriary architecture & conservation

IAFS architectural heritage recorder Aislinn Collins, along with project principal investigator, Fin O’Carroll, spent a day at Blackfriary with the project conservation architect and consultant, James Howley:

Armed with a camera to record the exposed stonework, James toured the site in the company of Fin and Aislinn; he was particularly interested in the sections of the friary that have been exposed during field seasons (Season 1, 2009 & Season 2, 2010) including the cloister wall and the church tower.

Blackfriary Cutting 1 Collapsed stone arch at the church tower

He carefully examined the remains of the collapsed tower and commented on the quality of the medieval masonry, confirming opinions already held by Fin, and architectural heritage expert Kevin O’Brien! The strength of the mortars used in the C15th tower’s construction is also of interest; the mortar has survived for over 500 years, and the deliberate removal of stone from the site for re-purposing elsewhere in Trim town.  Analysis of this mortar may be undertaken to determine its composition, and to compare this with mortars at other sites from this period.

Some medieval mortar still present on an architectural fragments

The slate roof tiles, uncovered beside the cloister wall in Season 2, were also examined and James is going to compare them to his own collection to see if he can work out whether these have come from an Irish quarry or whether they were imported from overseas for use on the friary buildings.

Towards the end of the visit James concentrated on the collection of dressed architectural fragments, including sections of the columns and arches from the cloister, which have been uncovered from site during the Season 2 excavations.  The stone used has been identified as Purbeck Marble, not a true marble but a limestone which can be finely polished to look like a marble.  The stone comes from the Purbeck peninsula of Dorset, England and has been used in medieval church architecture extensively throughout the south of England.  Evidence from other sites in Ireland show that Purbeck stone was imported into the country during the medieval period, for use in decorative architecture.

Detail of the Purbeck stone: a limestone that, when polished, resembles marble

James, was invited on board the Blackfriary project to provide practical conservation advice to the field school.  James’ practice combines expertise in the fields of contemporary design and conservation.  He has been involved in a wide variety of conservation projects on buildings ranging from medieval to modern date including Rahan Church, Co. Offaly, the Town Walls of Athenry, Co. Galway, and his ongoing work at Lambay Castle, Lambay Island, Co. Dublin. James remit is to advise on conservation strategies for the architectural fragments that have been recovered from the site so far, and to further the research on the architecture of the Blackfriary.

He is on hand during the upcoming field season in order to view the excavation in progress, and the recovery of architectural fragments. We might even try to convince him to “Be an Archaeologist for a Day”….


Athenry Town Walls Project (Co. Galway):
Rahan Church Conservation Plan (Co. Offaly):

Post by Aislinn Collins MA PGDip EIS Mgt MIAI



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