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Archaeological Evaluation

Date June 2012 - July 2012

Event ID 997717

Category Recording

Type Archaeological Evaluation

Permalink http://canmore.org.uk/event/997717

Archaeological excavations were carried out in June-July 2012 by John Hunter in an attempt to identify the traditional site of the early Christian monastery on Eigg reputedly founded by the monk St. Donnan in the early part of the 7th century AD. It was also intended to provide a deeper insight into the nature and continuity of worship and burial in that area, and to present a small sample of the island’s archaeology through time. Work undertaken was non-invasive (geophysics) and invasive (excavation) and followed from survey previously conducted in 2008.

The area under investigation had clearly been subject to intense activity over time, not only through burials, but also through robbing, re-use of materials, runrig, and ploughing. The depth down to hard bedrock varied considerably; in places it was less than 0.2m entailing considerable mixing and disturbance of existing archaeological deposits, especially by post-medieval burials. As a result many of the archaeological features are likely to have been lost; those which had survived had done so on the basis of lower bedrock depth in certain places, and through the substantial nature of some of the larger earthfast stones. Most archaeological features had been decimated, or had simply not survived, and the finds (on the basis of pottery at least) were mixed.

One of the two main purposes of the excavations was to locate evidence for the monastic community associated with St Donnan (died c. 617) and although this could not be said to have been fully achieved, there was ample evidence to demonstrate the presence of later Iron Age activity on the site, arguably contemporary with Donnan. This was partly on the basis of working cobbled surfaces, burnt daub and sets of post-holes associated with coarse post-broch pottery (notably Site B, Trenches 7 and 8), and partly on the discovery of a ditch and timber enclosure. Pottery in the west is notoriously difficult to date in view of its conservatism, but the occurrence of rim forms argued to lie from c. 250 AD (see Pottery Appendix) provide a useful terminus post quem for types that may have persisted for centuries. Further excavation in this largely vacant area between the Catholic and Protestant graves would almost certainly produce more evidence of occupation work in this period as well as earlier activity, but the evidence would inevitably be fragmentary due to the shallow soils and later cultivation. The ditched enclosure was elliptical in shape and lay directly below the same oval outline of a 19th century burial ground at the south of the site which clearly respected it (Site C). The ditch had silted and had been recut. The ditch phase is undated at present and would usefully benefit from future excavation focused towards this end. Nevertheless, there is a strong argument, based on the spatial correlation between the two enclosures, to suggest continuity of place and religious association. Moreover, the shape of the early ditch broadly conforms to the vallum or cashel system of delineation characteristic of Celtic monasticism and likely to have been followed by Donnan. These ecclesiastical boundaries were normally of stone (Church Island) or of earth (Iona) – a ditch would have provided a similar method of symbolic demarcation in the absence of other materials.

The second aim of the work was to assess the continuity of worship and to test the richness of the archaeology. Here the results were more tangible. Ecclesiastical sites traditionally develop within a common area, by utilisation of existing buildings, superimposition, or an adjacent new-build – a ‘special place’ which often stretches further back in time than Christianity itself. Kildonnan provided outstanding evidence for this with the remains of a Neolithic cairn located between the oval burial ground and the standing chapel (Trench 8). This was located on the highest ground; it probably represents original activity on the site and is testimony to the subsequent importance of place. The cairn was both robbed and disturbed, although there was some evidence for secondary activity; it may also have exhibited kerb stones, although there was no evidence for overall shape or for a chamber. Pottery found within its construction is of the Beacharra type, characteristic of cairns of the Clyde group (although somewhat of an outlier), dated according to current views around the middle of the 4th millennium BC.

Other than the interpretation of the pottery, there is little to link the vast period of time between the Neolithic and the advent of Christianity, but the excavations were essentially ‘keyhole’ and, like most archaeology, inevitably raise more questions than they answer. Interestingly, continuity from the later Iron Age onwards is evident not only from the standing 14th century cross shaft located in the centre of the site and the later standing roofless chapel, but also by a general smattering of medieval and post-medieval pottery from the excavations, and by the two Viking burials nearby. Moreover, the excavations around the chapel (Site A) identified earlier stone-built structural remains lying below, and projecting from under the chapel itself. Once again this indicates the extent of structural continuity in the area as a whole. Exactly what this walling represents will be difficult to establish in view of the concentration of burials.

Perhaps more perplexing, however, are the remains of a substantial building of unknown size, constructed of mortared foundations and lying within the oval burial ground to the south (Site C Trench 5). Foundations of this magnitude represent a structure of significance, and arguably in this location, a chapel or other ecclesiastical building. The fact that this should lie within the confines of the burial ground (i.e. pre-19th century) and within the area of the earlier ditched enclosure speaks volumes for both continuity of place and the building’s importance. It had been drastically damaged by later burials and its nature and function remain open to interpretation. That said, it lay at right angles to, and may have joined, a substantial linear feature lying to the south beyond the burial ground identified on the geophysical survey. Further excavation work in this area would be fundamental to its proper understanding, and might be tied in with additional work on the ditched enclosure (above). The building’s position implies social stature and, if not a church, is a monument of a type of and magnitude more normally associated with a laird’s dwelling of even a castle.

Overall, the excavations have presented a dynamic new insight into the history of activity on Eigg and, without doubt, Kildonnan was (and is) a ‘special place’. In its history some events are archaeologically more visible than others: the evidence pertaining to St Donnan sits within the shadows, but this is just one part of a tangible tradition of burial and worship reaching back over five millennia.

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