Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Seminar report: "Insular Monasticism and Royal Patronage in the glen of Aherlow"

This week the society had the pleasure of welcoming Dr. Thomas O'Carragain from University College Cork who spoke about his excavations and surveying of the early medieval Christian site of Toureen.

The talk began with Dr. O'Carragain giving a brief explanation of why he chose this site. His main reason was that few midland sites have been explored: due to threats of erosion, sites along the West coast of Ireland gain precedence. Toureen was exciting as it was understudied and a potential example of 7th century monasticism. The Irish Annals mention the site on several occasions; the church was founded by Beccan in the 7th century, was sacked by the Vikings in 833 and declined in importance as a religious site in the 9th century. Toureen was situated within the parish of Killardy controlled by King Ui Maic Laire of Cashel and later an estate of the Arch Bishop’s of Cashel.

The site itself is situated on a slope on waterlogged land with only a small area suitable for habitation. Several trenches were opened on site; inside the Romanesque church and in areas identified as possible features through geophysical survey.

Trench A to the North of the site uncovered an enclosure from the medieval period which was only used for a short period.

Trench B also in the North uncovered a stone platform which is believed to have been put in place to reduce waterlogging.

Trench F was opened within the church ruins which uncovered a number of medieval and post-medieval burials. These burials were very close together, sometimes mere centimetres apart. The most notable was that of a young man from the fifteenth century, his grave was separate from the others and well protected, he had also suffered a sword blow to the head. The excavators had to deal with damage to soil cuts at the East end of the church due to the OPW's activities in the 1940's, However more fragmentary early medieval burials were discovered nearby with part of a name stone found under a skull.

Trench G uncovered the remains of a post medieval house.

A natural stream channel was also uncovered complete with stepping stones and consolidated bank which Dr. O’Carragain described as a fluke find.

The excavators were able to establish three phases of activity;

  • Phase1: Late 7th to early 8th century. These dates were based on radiocarbon dating of post holes found on site.
  • Phase 2: Traces of a large circular building were found measuring 9 meters internally and 13 meters in total and dating between 659-772 AD. It was possibly a defensive structure with possible gate and bridge slots. A second rectangular building was also uncovered nearby measuring 1.5 meters in diameter and 3 meters across.
  • Phase 3: The industrial phase, the 8th to 9th century. There was possible evidence of cereal drying or iron working.

Finds at the site included a large number of name stones, around 70 in total making it one of the largest collections in Ireland, a bead, small hammer and a pin. The base of a stone cross, originally 3 meters in height has geometric capitals inscribed on it which read “Pray for the soul of Beccan by whom it was made” This has led Gifford Charles Edward to believe it is one of, if not the, earliest stone crosses in Britain and Ireland.

The Toureen project was funded by the Royal Irish Academy and volunteers included around 200 University College Cork students as well as professional archaeologists.

By Mollie Christina Dogherty

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