Irish Archaeology Field School

Expert Guidance from the National Museum of Ireland Conservation Department

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.

 

Stained glass window within its lead matrix

Stained glass window within its lead matrix

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.

 

Site director Finola O'Carroll and supervisor Laura Corrway excavate the plinths

Site director Finola O’Carroll and supervisor Laura Corrway excavate the plinths

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.

 

Rolly Read, Head of Conservation at the National Museum of Ireland, wraps the glass as the IAFS crew look on

Rolly Read, Head of Conservation at the National Museum of Ireland, wraps the glass as the IAFS crew look on

Rolly Read, Head of Conservation at the National Museum of Ireland, 'casts' the stained glass

Rolly Read, Head of Conservation at the National Museum of Ireland, ‘casts’ the stained glass

 

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!

 

 

 

The glass is ready to be lifted and taken to the museum for conservation

The glass is ready to be lifted and taken to the museum for conservation

 

Burials & the Last Day on Site

Who are we?

Irish Archaeology Field School is a research project and teaching dig based in the Boyne Valley in Co. Meath, Ireland. We have three sites, one at Blackfriary in Trim, a C13th Dominican abbey, one in Rossnaree, near Slane, a multi-period site, and one at Bective Abbey, a C12th Cistercian Abbey. Blackfriary is a community archaeology initiative with support from the Department of Arts, Heritage & Local Government, the local authority, and the American Institute of Archaeology Site Preservation Fund. The sites at Rossnaree and Bective are being excavated by our research partners, with funding from the Royal Irish Academy.

Blackfriary: A day in the life:

Blackfriary Abbey in Trim, Co. Meath is the site of the abbey has lain abandoned for decades and been surrounded by the expanding town. The abbey walls have largely been robbed out and the site is mostly under grass.

The current season’s research programme was designed explore the interface between the church and the cloister, which is situated immediately to the north of the church. The first month of excavation revealed lots of loose stone, evidence of the deliberate destruction of the abbey walls (the stone was likely reused elsewhere) and it is only in the last few weeks that we are finally accessing the base of the walls with foundations and stone work in situ. We are only using hand tools to excavate so there is a lot of mattocking and shovelling involved, to move a lot of material:

Plate 1: Melissa Clarke wields a mattock

While the cloister wall was found reasonably quickly, the north wall of the church was heavily robbed out, and we are also reaching levels that contain f burials, both disturbed and undisturbed.

Following the dissolution of the monasteries in C16th, the abbey was no longer officially a religious centre. However people still considered the site as sacred and such sites were often used as graveyards in the centuries following. The abbey graveyard, lies to the south west of the church. There are also burials within the church. As yet we have found no conclusive diagnostic material to date them – we may have to wait for radio-carbon dates. What we do know is that we have 3 distinct burials, but we at least 6 individuals are represented by the skeletal remains recovered so far.

When a burial is uncovered, we first try to find a grave cut – that is the evidence that might remain of the grave that was dug for the burial. We then photograph it, to add to the record. The photo board notes the site registration number, the number assigned to this burial, area of the site in which it occurs, the date, and the initials of the photographer:

Plate 2: Malika Hays photographs Burial 3 prior to excavation

Burial 3 is that of a young child or infant; the remains are in reasonable condition however the bones are fragile and are particularly difficult to recover. The tools of an archaeologist include a standard trowel, and a leaf trowel for intricate or delicate work but is this instance we improvise with some wooden skewers; these are useful for precision and because the point is softer.

Plate 3: Malika excavating: using a wooden skewer for precision

Excavation of material this delicate is slow work: the soil must be cleaned off each fragment of bone and stored for sieving, and each bone fragment lifted and placed in a specific box for that burial. Given the age of the individual when he or she died, the bones are small and delicate, only partially fused in some instances. Some bones are so small they may not be identifiable during excavation and may only be recovered from the sieved material. We had barely made any progress on the excavation of this burial by the end of the day so the burial has been carefully packed with bubble wrap and covered to protect it and keep it from drying out overnight.

Rossnaree – today was a day of logistics:

The dig at Rossnaree finished up today. The site is in a rapeseed field and with the harvesters on the way, the heat was on to backfill the excavations, to ensure that all the recording of the archaeological features is complete and that every detail has been noted.

Behind the scenes though is the inevitable demobilisation of the site. At Rossnaree, there was a small crew of 8-10 people for most of the four week excavation. The contents of their site cabin fitting into the back of our small van:

Plate 4: Mattocks and sieves – tools of the trade

After loading up all the equipment, finds, samples, registers, plans and notebooks, all that’s left to do is close the gate behind us…. until next year!

Plate 5: The laneway to Rossnaree archaeological site, located in the Boyne Valley – Knowth passage tomb is just out of view behind the trees on the right.

References