Archaeology students from NUI Galway (NUIG) have discovered a 1,000-year-old church linked to the Italian monastery founded by Ireland's St Columbanus.
The students, who were working with international colleagues, uncovered the Romanesque remains within the basilica dedicated to the Irish missionary at Bobbio in northern Italy.
The charismatic Columbanus, who died 1,400 years ago, has long been regarded as Ireland's "first European", and attracted controversy over his criticism of Pope Gregory the Great.
The medieval church was located during recent field school excavations involving students from NUIG, Italy’s Università del Piemonte Orientale in Vercelli, and the eastern French Université de Franche-Comté in Besançon.
The students located the threshold stone and door jambs of the Romanesque church about 1.5m below the existing floor of the basilica.
NUIG archaeology lecturer Dr Conor Newman described how steps descend to the original nave, which occurs at the same level as a 12th century mosaic floor identified a century ago.
“Fragments of stucco, wall-paintings and dressed stone suggest that the early church was an impressive and ornamented structure,” he said, and plans were afoot to extend the excavation.
The church would have been built in the same location as Columbanus’s original monastery, he explained. The practice to build over existing structures was common,and aimed to preserve the “sanctity of the ground”, he pointed out.
Columbanus famously described Pope Gregory's method of calculating Easter as "worthy of ridicule and pity", Dr Newman said, and his monasteries were among the most important in early medieval Europe.
One of the peripatetic missionary's biographers, the late Archbishop of Armagh Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich, described how he set out with a group of 12 monks and reached Brittany, France, when already 50 years of age.
From there, he headed for the
mountains, founding three monasteries.
After he fell out with the Merovingian dynasty ruling the "Franks" or Germanic tribes of the Rhine area, he took a boat down the river into Switzerland and travelled over the Alps into Italy. Many locations in Europe bearing his name testified to his "cult status".
The recent excavations were directed by Italian archaeologists Dr Roberta Conversi and Prof Eleonora Destefanis, as part of an international programme of research involving 22 institutions across Ireland, France, Italy, Britain and Switzerland.
A century ago, a small wooden box was found in the crypt at Bobbio with the remains of a small Irish reliquary dating from the 7th century.
A close match to it was found in Clonmore, Co Armagh, in 1990 – suggesting that the Bobbio reliquary may have been made there.
The Columbanus project was initiated by NUIG's Moore Institute in 2008, where it was co-funded by the Higher Education Authority's Programme for Research in Third Level Institutions and the New York-based philanthropic Andrew Mellon Foundation.
The latest finds and related research on the Irish saint are being discussed at three conferences: in Bangor, Co Down (May 22nd-24th); Luxeuil-les-Bains, France (September 18th-20th) and Bobbio, Italy (November 21st-22nd). For further information see Columbanus2015.eu