Centuries in sod – excavating the Black Friary, Trim, Co. Meath

In its sixth season of excavation, the archaeological research project at the Black Friary, Trim, Co. Meath, Ireland, has thus far uncovered, through archaeological excavation, the outline remains of the 13th century AD Dominican church and cloister, with the west, north and east ranges including the chapter house, and burials within these. Non-invasive survey is ongoing and through LiDAR and geophysics, the kitchen gardens have been identified, along with numerous other walls, boundaries, ditch features and additional potential burial cuts.

In 2015, Season 6 excavations are seeking to further understand the phases of construction and destruction of the church (the site was eventually sold off and used as a quarry in the 18th century). To do this we have been extending an existing investigation area centred on the south aisles of the church. This has required hand de-sodding of an area that in grass.

The Black Friary site was designated a National Monument in 1972; the modern expansion of the town in this period rendered the site an island surrounded by houses, effectively isolating it from the archaeological and historical fabric of the town. As it was well out of general sight, it fell from collective minds and the grassed over remains became a place that was used for unwanted household appliances at best, and at worst, a dumping place for construction waste including topsoil and rubbish that has been used to fill in and even out the medieval ditch and bank features of the site. The research project and student training dig is working with the Blackfriary Community Heritage and Archaeological Project to increase awareness of the site, change attitudes to it, and in turn, hopefully, result in respect and protection of the site.

De-sodding involves the manual cutting and lifting (with spades and shovels) of grass sod to expose the underlying soil, which can then be hand excavated (with mattocks and trowels). Any items found are collected and placed in trays with information on the area of the site, and the required archaeological recording information. In the sod, we find the modern remnants of the site’s most recent past; these are recorded as in a non-secure context – interpreted as a jumble of items from decades of disturbance. While not strictly archaeological, the items recovered do give us insight into the recent past and events on the site. This short photo essay charts the evidence from the last century of activity on the site, from bed springs to poly-filler, from bathroom tiles to butchered animal bone, from jam jars to early 20th century currency. And underneath it all, a prize – (our fourth ever!) fragment of medieval decorated line-impressed floor tile. While much of this will be discarded as refuse, the items are all kept in record, in photos and notes, to inform later interpretation of the underlying, yet to be discovered archaeological remains.

For more on our project, see www.iafs.ie and on our dig diary.