The Story so far (June 2022)
It seemed very unlikely to us that the wet rushy Glebe Field below the church on Lismore would have held clues to the past, but community archaeological work led by Dr Clare Ellis of Argyll Archaeology since 2015 has revealed that the area was one of the busiest parts of the island from prehistoric times until medieval times.
The finding of worked flint artefacts and scatters of flint fragments (possibly the first flint found on the island) solves one of the puzzles about Lismore’s past: we have so many cairns and cists but where did the people live? Once we have radiocarbon dates from the 2022 dig, it will be possible to say if the stone-built Clachan roundhouse (found in the foreground of the above image) dates from that time or the later Iron Age, but the finds in 2021 and 2022 do indicate that Neolithic and Bronze Age people lived and worked at Clachan.
Probable Bronze Age thumbnail scraper
Neolithic leaf-shaped arrowhead
Entrance to the Roundhouse
The Early Church
Thousands of years later, Christianity came to Lismore, traditionally with the arrival of Moluag from Ireland in 561, and his establishment of a monastic community. Up until recently, the only firm evidence for his presence was the record of his death in 592 in the Annals of Ulster, although fragments of an 8thC cross have survived (preserved in the island museum). This changed in 2018 when archaeology revealed the burial of an adult male dating from the 7/8thC, within an older cemetery wall immediately to the east of the modern church house. We await the radiocarbon dates of sixteen more intact burials which were recovered nearby in 2022, next to the Sanctuary Stone (S. Stone on the Sketch map below). If our bone specialist Dr Angela Boyle can recover intact Petrous (lower ear) bones from these burials, then the Crick Institute in London should be able to provide a great deal of information about each individual by DNA sequencing (as part of the 1000 Ancient British Genomes Project).
Burials discovered in 2021
Resistance Survey Map, showing traces of round and square structures in the blue area.
Excavation in 2021 and 2022 around 50m to the east of the modern church house, guided by a thorough geophysical survey by Rose Geophysics in 2019, revealed the roundhouse mentioned above (8.5m diameter, wall thickness 1.5m) which may be Bronze Age or Iron Age, possibly even reused at a later date. Further east, an area of intense occupation, associated with metal working, yielded numerous crucibles and fragments of fine moulds. These would have been for copper, tin, lead or silver (not iron), used in the manufacture of jewellery. A preliminary examination of images of the crucibles by staff of the National Museum of Scotland, places them in the 7/8thC. Fine metal working appears to have been an activity common to several Early Church monastic sites (Portmahomack, Iona, Inchmarnock).
Fragments of moulds, including a ring mould (bottom right)
Elsewhere in the same area, excavation revealed fine wood and bone carving. Detailed post-excavation analyses of the many artefacts recovered (such as a fine rubbing stone) may indicate other activities such as leather production, preparation of vellum and weaving. Fragments of finely carved stone derived from crosses or grave slabs have been found in other parts of the field (below). Subject to confirmation by radiocarbon dating, these findings suggest that the area occupied by the Early Church monastery covered a large part of the Glebe Field below the modern road, with craft working reaching almost to the east boundary wall.
Fragments of carving in stone (top row) and in bone (bottom row)
At a time when the metal work was in full production, the lower glebe field must have been drier than it is today. With this information, the cobbled way discovered in 2018 following the east wall (the supposed vallum of the monastery, see below) may, as we originally supposed, demarcate the monastic boundary.
The cobbled way
Some Preliminary Ideas about the monastic site
Sketch map of the monastic site at Cllachan, assuming that the chapel was on the site later occupied by the cathedral
It is not known if the upper area of the cemetry was used by the Early Church.
The outer ring indicates the proposed boundary of the site.
We will have more information about the low-lying area to the east of the cemetery, including some interpretation of the round house, once the post-excavation analyses are complete. However high-grade metal working of the type found at Clachan involved considerable investment in materials but also in the work of the specialist artisans, whose feeding and other living costs must have been supplied by a prosperous monastic community. It, in turn, was bankrolled by wealthy patrons. In return, the artisans produced valuable artworks for the church and these patrons. This, alone, indicates the national importance of the site.
Later Medieval Developments
The bishopric of Argyll was established on Lismore around 1200 but radiocarbon dating of the cathedral mortar confirmed historical evidence that a start was not made on building the
Excavating the cathedral nave and tower, 2017
cathedral until the middle of the 13thC. The founders would not have placed the bishop on Lismore without an existing church building, possibly a chapel serving a community of Celi Déi (monks of monastic movement that originated in Ireland, commonly referred to as Culdees). Until there is evidence to the contrary, and in line with findings elsewhere, it has been assumed that traces of both Moluag’s chapel and any succeeding church building lie below the medieval cathedral (as in the sketch map).
At some point in the medieval period, the early church cemetery area next to the Sanctuary Stone was abandoned, to be occupied both as a residential area (as shown by hearths, pottery, copper alloy jewellery, and a Jew’s harp) and as an industrial site, with evidence for iron working (many finds of slag, although it is not yet clear whether from smelting or smith work), stone mason work (many chips of sandstone, which is not found naturally on the island), and possibly lime burning.
Miscellaneous finds from the Sanctuary Stone area 2021
Iron working slag
An Edward I silver penny from 1280 from this level places the activity in the period of building the cathedral. The area appears to have been the location of the various workshops for the medieval builders, forging nails for the roof, shaping imported sandstone for the details of choir and nave, and burning sea shells for mortar.
One major question is what happened on Lismore during the Viking Ages. Had the monastery ceased to function by 900 as at Portmahomack? Was the island subjected to violent attack, as at Iona, or occupied more peacefully by settlers? To date, Norse place names on Lismore, and the finding of a piece of “hack gold” are the only clues to the events during that period. We have a 10thC radiocarbon date from a (possibly Christian) burial in the monastery cemetery (no grave goods and apparently peaceful). Analysis of some of the burials recovered in 2022 (dating and evidence of cause of death) may help in interpreting this period.
Robert Hay and Clare Ellis
24 June 2022