Dig reveals secrets of 'green' monks

Tue, Aug 4, 2009, 01:00

AN ARCHAEOLOGICAL dig has unearthed evidence about a monastic order with a “green agenda” in medieval Co Meath, where a group of monks dependent on handouts battled to become self-sufficient.

Over the past month, a large team of archaeologists and volunteers has helped uncover the secrets of one of Ireland’s oldest abbeys.

The dig, which finished last Friday at the Cistercian Bective Abbey in Co Meath, was led by husband and wife archaeological team Matthew and Geraldine Stout, from St Patrick’s College Drumcondra and the Archaeological Survey of Ireland respectively, and assisted by over 30 volunteers.

Dr Geraldine Stout said the Cistercians had brought a “green agenda” to Ireland.

“They were the first monastic order to become self-sufficient. Until then, monasteries had been dependent on receiving food as gifts from local lords. The Cistercians at Bective Abbey were far more sustainable, as they farmed 4,000 acres of land, processed their own corn and began a programme of land reclamation.”

The dig began on July 6th with a blessing and turning of the sod by Abbot Father Augustine McGregor, the Cistercian Abbot of the larger Mellifont monastery, a predecessor of whom founded Bective over 800 years earlier.

Bective Abbey, founded in 1147, is the oldest Cistercian foundation in Co Meath and the second-oldest Cistercian foundation in Ireland.

The importance of Bective is indicated by the fact that it was chosen to hold the remains of Hugh De Lacy, who had been made Lord of Meath by Henry II.

The abbey at Bective was dissolved in 1536.

Dr Stout said that the dig had been a huge success, and pointed to the discovery of a deep medieval defensive ditch and a 13th-century building, believed to have been a guesthouse, as the most exciting finds.

“We’re delighted. We’ve only sampled quite a small area so to find the guesthouse we were extremely lucky. We’ve been able to identify it as a guesthouse, because of the waste we’ve found in a drain that was against the wall,” she said. “It was full of a range of animal bones and oyster shells, which would have been for guests, rather than the monks, who only ate fish.”

Dr Stout said the dig was helping to uncover the details of the daily lives of the monks.

“This is what I’m interested in – the daily life of how the monks ate and worked, not just the spiritual side of the monastery. It’s like painting a picture and gradually bringing more detail into it. Obviously, the more detail we put in, the better we can understand medieval life.”

About half of the volunteers are trainee archaeologists from the Irish Archaeological Field School, which is run by CRDS Ltd, an independent historical consultancy company that has sponsored the dig this year.

The students have been supervised by the Stouts, who have over 30 years of archaeological experience, and a number of younger professional archaeologists, who have been “working on the front-line of archaeology in the past few years”.

One student, John Alannis (23), a third-year archaeology student from Dundrum, said that working at Bective had given him “a practical summation of what can’t be learnt in the classroom. We’ve learnt all of the necessary tactics for an excavation. I’m raring to go again next summer and I’ll be trying to get a few of my classmates to come with me.”

Many of the volunteers were locals. Said Dr Stout: “I think it’s so important to link archaeology to the local community, because after all, this is a National Monument, so it belongs to everyone, not just archaeologists.”