The Blackfriary Community Archaeology Project in Trim, Co. Meath Ireland, now in its fifth year, focuses research led archaeological excavation at the site of the 13th century Dominican Black Friary in Trim, Co. Meath. Founded in 1263 by Geoffrey de Geneville Lord of Meath, the friary was a significant site for centuries until the Dissolution of the monasteries in the mid 16th century. It was finally razed to the ground in the 18th century when sold off as a quarry. During the past five years university students, under the direction of the Irish Archaeology Field School, have been excavating the buried remains of this friary, and rediscovering its secrets.
The 18th century activity on the site had a devastating impact on the majestic architecture of the friary; the quarry men dug ‘robber trenches’ to access the wall foundations and remove as much of stone work as they could from the buildings. The stained glass windows were also removed and the lead harvested for recycling. The glass was discarded and, as we have found, beaten out of its lead matrix leaving behind only fragments of the stained glass windows that would have adorned the east window of the church, and possibly elsewhere in the friary precinct.
This year, working westward from the ecclesiastical buildings towards the garden range, students have uncovered three surviving fragments of stained glass window, with the glass still in its lead matrix.
This is an unprecedented find for the site, and due to the extreme fragility of the glass, we immediately sought advice from Head of Conservation at the National Museum of Ireland, Rolly Read. Rolly advised that the window fragments should be block lifted and came to the site himself to undertake the block lift. Block lifting is a technique used by conservation professionals to recover delicate or sensitive archaeological objects.
The block lifting took place over two days; to facilitate this we excavated a small regular area around the window fragments, creating a pedestal for each piece. This work required precision excavation to ensure that the window fragments remained supported by the soil matrix in which they had survived, while allowing scope to undercut each pedestal when they had been prepared for block lifting. When Rolly was satisfied that we had excavated to a sufficient depth around each piece, he got to work. With the assistance of a number of our staff and students, and an audience of most of the rest of the crew, he started by packing each pedestal with moistened acid-free conservation grade tissue paper, to support the delicate leadwork. Each piece was then wrapped in film to consolidate and protect it from the final stabilising stage. Once sufficiently wrapped and stable, Rolly used a quick drying mesh bandage to ‘cast’ each piece. This required precise and quick execution to ensure each piece was fully wrapped before this material started to set. The setting or curing process took about 20 minutes. When set this mesh formed a solid case around the piece, encasing it in the surrounding soil matrix. The final undercutting was carried out using trowels. Each piece was deftly flipped over into a tray, and further stabilised with film wrap, ready for transport. Each piece will now be fully excavated in lab conditions by conservators, allowing them to carry out consolidation and conservation work as they uncover the window fragments.
There are few surviving examples of medieval windows from archaeological contexts in Ireland so we are absolutely thrilled to have uncovered these pieces, and to have had expert guidance and assistance from the Museum to ensure that they may be consolidated in the best possible conditions!