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Iona, Early Christian Monastery

Monastic Settlement (Early Medieval)

Site Name Iona, Early Christian Monastery

Classification Monastic Settlement (Early Medieval)

Canmore ID 21649

Site Number NM22SE 4

NGR NM 286 244

NGR Description Centred NM 286 244

Datum OSGB36 - NGR

C14 Radiocarbon Dating

Permalink http://canmore.org.uk/site/21649

Ordnance Survey licence number 100057073. All rights reserved.
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Administrative Areas

  • Council Argyll And Bute
  • Parish Kilfinichen And Kilvickeon
  • Former Region Strathclyde
  • Former District Argyll And Bute
  • Former County Argyll

Archaeology Notes

NM22SE 4.00 centred 286 244

St Mary's Abbey

and remains of

Abbey

(Benedictine-founded 1203)

on site of

Celtic Monastery [NAT]

OS (GIS) MasterMap, November 2009.

NM22SE 4.01 NM 2861 2453 Torr an Aba 'Cell'; Building; Cross-base

NM22SE 4.02 NM 286 244 Vallum Enclosure; Sanctuary marker

NM22SE 4.03 NM 2861 2450 Columba's Shrine Shrine

NM22SE 4.04 NM 28632 24504 St Martin's Cross Cross

NM22SE 4.05 NM 2865 2450 St John's Cross Cross

NM22SE 4.06 NM 2865 2450 St Matthew's Cross Cross

NM22SE 4.07 NM 286 244 St Oran's Cross Cross

NM22SE 4.08 NM 28636 24531 Old Guest House Excavation

NM22SE 4.09 NM 28578 24565 Guest House Excavation

NM22SE 4.10 NM 28648 24551 Carpenter's Shed Excavation

NM22SE 4.11 NM 28665 24558 Working Area Excavation

For (restored) Iona Abbey or St Mary's Cathedral (NM 2867 2451) and Nunnery (NM 2843 2410), see NM22SE 5 and NM22SE 14 respectively.

(Area: NM 286 245) A monastery was founded on Iona by St Columba in 563 and existed until about the turn of the 8th - 9th centuries when the wooden complex was destroyed by Norse raiders. After periodic rebuilding in wood and destruction, the monastery was rebuilt in stone and survived comparatively intact until 986 when it was again destroyed.

Queen Margaret (1069-93) is said to have attempted to restore the monastery and another attempt at restoration was made in 1164 in which year Culdees are mentioned, but the dispersion of the possessions of the monastery may have begun in the reign of William the Lion (1172-8) and there is no record of the Celtic community after 1204.

Of the original monastery nothing remains above ground except possibly the vallum (NM22SE 4.02) and the cell on Tor Abb (NM22SE 4.01), but excavations, which have been taking place since 1957, firstly by Thomas (1957; 1959) and later by Reece (undated), sponsored by the Russell Trust and DoE, have shown that the Columban monastery, which consisted of about a dozen huts and a small church, lay in the vicinity of the Abbey buildings, especially of the Abbot's House, the Refectory, the cloisters and the west part of the Cathedral. Sleeper-beam trenches and post-holes also suggest the existence of large wooden buildings in the small field between the Abbey and the Relig Oran (NM22SE 10) and south of the "Old Guest House" (NM 2864 2452) between Tor Abb and the Abbey. Beside and beneath the last was an empty cist lying N-S and measuring only 1.5m x 0.3m.

A working site of the Columban period was excavated about 10 yds N of the rebuilt 'Abbot's House' (NM 2868 2454) but its purpose was not established. Possibly from the same period is the well outside the west door of the church. It is surrounded by a wide foundation, which could have carried a high building - an Irish-type round tower has been suggested.

A few grave-slabs of the 7th and 8th centuries, generally simple incised or outline crosses, occur, some of them now just outside "St Columba's Shrine" (NM22SE 4.03). Evidence of the Norse presence is provided by

the finding of a Viking cremation in a boat-shaped grave on the bank of the Vallum near the graveyard, and a later incised Runic cross of about 1000.

A small, stone building whose NW corner is still visible at the SE corner of the cloister garth may be the church of the later stone-built monastery. Its orientation and the mass burial of skeletons found against the walls in 1957 support this theory. A large rectangular building, lying N-S and now overlain by the crossing of the Cathedral, may also have belonged to this phase, as do the high crosses (NM22SE 4.04, NM22SE 4.05, NM22SE 4.06, NM22SE 4.07 ) and certain cross-bases.

D E Easson 1957; I B Cowan 1964; D M Wilson and D G Hurst 1965; D M Wilson 1967; D M Wilson 1969.

Apart from the remains on Tor an Aba and the Vallum, no ground evidence of the Celtic Monastery survives.

Visited by OS (RD) 9 June 1972.

Wooden turning-wasters.

J Barber 1984.

Interference by recently completed developments and the prospect of further development work in the vicinity of the Abbey necessitated excavation in four areas. Two of these, immediately NW of the modern coffee house and on the southern bank of Sruth a'Mhuilinn immediately opposite Tigh an Easbuig, produced no deposits of archaeological significance.

A large area, c10m by 12m, was excavated immediately NW of the abbey buildings, partially overlapping earlier excavations in the area undertaken by Reece. The upper level consisted of a very thick layer of an artificially made medieval garden soil. The lower levels of the layer produced small quantitites of pottery, possibly of English origin, and dating to circa the 15th century. The lower levels also produced several metal objects and a large sample of animal bone.

The creation of this garden soil resulted in the truncation of many earlier features. Inserted into the underlying subsoil were two spreads of cobblestones and a stone drain. The latter was lintelled and drystone walled. Its orientation indicated that it originally would have led to the reredorter or latrine block of the medieval abbey complex to which it carried fresh water.

(See NM22SE 4.2 for fourth excavation on vallum.)

F McCormick 1989.

A small area was excavated inside the "infirmary" in anticipation of the re-erection of St John's Cross (NM22SE 4.05). No structures were present but finds from the ploughsoil include crucible fragments and medieval pottery.

F McCormick 1990.

Site recorded by AOC (Scotland) Ltd during an archaeological survey of the lands controlled by the National Trust for Scotland on Iona. This survey was conducted in late May and early April of 1996. The full report of this survey has been deposited with both the local SMR and the NMRS.

NM 2856 2469 Vallum, abbey, burial ground

NM 2863 2476 Structure and enclosure

Sponsor: National Trust for Scotland

T Rees 1996.

Activities

Excavation (1966)

In 1966 a rescue excavation was undertaken in advance of proposals to build a New Guest House immediately N of the Abbey.

Richard Reece 1981, 3, 15-17

Excavation (1967 - 1974)

In 1967 a rescue excavation was undertaken in advance of proposals to build a New Guest House. The trench was further extended in 1968 and 1974.

Richard Reece 1981, 3, 29

Geophysical Survey (January 1973)

A geophysical survey was undertaken over part of the monastic vallum in January 1973.

N. Balaam, 1981, 5

Trial Trench (1973)

A section was excavated across the strong linear anomaly running west from the shore towards the St Columba's hotel. The section revealed that the anomaly was caused by a ditch, over 2m deep and nearly 3m wide.

N. Balaam 1981, 5

Trial Trench (1974)

In co-operation with the RCAHMS, a series of trenches were excavated around the abbey church to test certain points and difficulties of the interpretation of the restored Benedictine buildings.

Richard Reece 1981, 55

Excavation (1974)

In 1970 an excavation was undertaken in advance of building work for the modern equivalent of the monastic guest house which openned in 1972.

Richard Reeece 1981 2-3, 27-28

Excavation (1974)

In 1973 the last of the temporary buildings put up to house the Iona Community during rebuilding, the carpenter’s shed, was dismantled and cleared from its site north-west of the refectory. As the site was to be levelled a short excavation was undertaken in 1974. Very little structured evidence was found in the trench. In contrast there were three very datable finds: imported pottery, moulds and a bell.

Richard Reece 1981, 3, 19

Field Visit (September 1980)

Early Christian Monastery, Iona

Early visitors to Iona believed that the original monastery founded by St Columba in the 6th century was represented by the buildings of the medieval abbey (NM22SE 5). The existence of other significant remains was first noted in 1772 by Pennant who, after describing an earthwork NW of the Abbey, added 'the whole of their religious buildings were covered on the north side by dikes' (1). During the early 19th century there was a growing appreciation of the medieval date of the standing buildings, coupled with an awareness that the structures described in Adomnàn's Life of Columba were constructed of impermanent materials, but continuity in the occupation of the site, and particularly of the burial ground, Reilig Odhràin (NM22SE 10), was assumed by scholars such as Reeves (2). This traditional location was, however, challenged by W F Skene (3) who argued, mainly on the basis of his interpretation of certain incidents recorded by Adomnàn, that the Columban monastery was situated about 380m to the NNE, in the area between Clachanach (NM286248) and Cladh an Disirt (NM22SE 7). He also suggested that the settlement was transferred to the abbey area and rebuilt in stone in the 9th century, after Norse attacks had destroyed the earlier monastery. Skene was aware of the existence of the earthwork described by Pennant, some 200m NW of the Abbey, but he failed to distinguish it from other features , probably old raised-beach terraces, extending to the NE, and did not examine in detail its relevance to his theory. His views enjoyed general acceptance for half a century (4), although they were disputed by one Irish scholar, who pointed out that Adomnàn's topography was too imprecise to support the conclusions drawn from it and proposed a small Columban settlement in the w part of Reilig Odhràin (5).

Fresh light was cast on the problem in 1933 by O G S Crawford (6), who demonstrated by field-survey that the earthwork mentioned above, which could be identified as part of the vallum or rampart of the early monastery, returned to the SE some 50m s of Clachanach, excluding the site favoured by Skene, and that its W limb extended at least as far S as Reilig Odhràin. The vallum was further investigated in the late 1950s by Professor A C Thomas, who excavated a cross-section W of Cnoc nan Cirnan; several other ditches were identified in the abbey area, but the interpretation of these as sections of a continuous boundary (7) can no longer be sustained. During the preparation of the present account, detailed ground-survey and further excavation have been supplemented by aerial photography and by geophysical survey, especially in the area S of the Abbey where there are no visible surface remains. This investigation shows that the vallum was a complex system of boundaries, probably representing more than one period of construction and incorporating internal subdivisions.

The internal structures of the early monastery have also been examined in a series of excavations on behalf of the Russell Trust, begun in 1956 under the direction of Professor Thomas, and continued since 1962 by Dr R Reece and Mr M Redknap; further excavations were carried out in1979 by the Central Excavation Unit of the Scottish Development Department, under the direction of Mr J Barber. These have revealed remains of timber buildings, working-areas and other occupation-deposits, in the area between Reilig Odhràin, Tórr an Aba and the Abbey, and there can no longer be any doubt that the Columban monastery was situated close to, and partly underneath, its medieval successor. The following description is confined mainly to the physical evidence for the pre-Benedictine monastery. The important series of memorial and other carved stones is described on [RCAHMS 1982] pp. 179-219.

See RCAHMS 1982 31-49 for a full description of the site, the vallum, internal structures and a history.

RCAHMS 1982, visited September 1980

(1) Pennant, Tour (1772),1,296.

(2) Adamnan, Columba (Reeves), 361

(3) Skene, W F, 'Notes on the history and probable situation of the earlier establishments at Iona ... ', in PSAS, 11 (1874-6), 330-49; Skene, Celtic Scotland, 2, 95-101, pl. opp. p. 100.

(4) E.g. Eccles. Arch., 3, 47 ; MacMillan, Iona, 87-9; Trenholme, Iona, 27,99-103; Ritchie, Iona, 7.

(5) O'Reilly, P, 'The site of Columb's monastery on Iona', in JRSAI, 30 (1900), 334-42.

(6) Antiquity, 7 (1933),460-3.

(7) Thomas, Early Christian Archaeology, 30-1 , fig. 8.

Excavation (July 1990)

A small area was excavated inside the "infirmary" in anticipation of the re-erection of St John's Cross (NM22SE 4.05). No structures were present but finds from the ploughsoil include crucible fragments and medieval pottery.

F McCormick 1990.

Aerial Photography (2 September 1994)

Field Visit (April 1996 - May 1996)

Site recorded by AOC (Scotland) Ltd during an archaeological survey of the lands controlled by the National Trust for Scotland on Iona. This survey was conducted in late May and early April of 1996. The full report of this survey has been deposited with both the local SMR and the NMRS.

NM 2856 2469 Vallum, abbey, burial ground

NM 2863 2476 Structure and enclosure

Sponsor: National Trust for Scotland

T Rees 1996.

Aerial Photography (2 June 1997)

External Reference (28 October 2011)

Scheduled as element within 'The monument known as St Mary's Abbey, Iona, monastic settlement [comprising] the remains of the large early historic monastic settlement founded by St Columba in AD 563, St Martin's Cross, and parts of medieval buildings associated with the Benedictine Abbey of St Mary founded around AD 1200.'

Information from Historic Scotland, scheduling document dated 28 October 2011.

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