Bective excavations Blog

Preliminary Report on the Archaeological Excavations at Bective Abbey 2009
January 21, 2010, 6:09 pm
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This report describes the results of archaeological excavation E4028 (Consent No.C353; Metal detecting license R180) that that was carried out within the southern precinct of Bective abbey, Bective, in county Meath in July 2009 under the direction of Dr Geraldine Stout and Dr Matthew Stout. The site is located in the townland of Bective (NGR 285890E, 259930N) c.0.7km south-east of the village of Bective and c.6km north-east of the town of Trim, Co. Meath. Bective abbey is a National monument (RMP ME 31:26). Excavation over four weeks revealed two main phases of activity of medieval and post-medieval date, the former represented by the south-western corner of a building with an external drain and enclosed by a medieval ditch and the later represented by a demolition event, erection of a property boundary and a single burial of human remains.

Prior to excavation a topographical survey revealed the remains of what appeared to be a rectilinear enclosure that lay west and south-west of the abbey remains. It was defined by a platform and external ditch, which had a maximum length from east to west of c.56m and a maximum width from north-south of c.53m. In the south it had been damaged by both a post-medieval property boundary that runs on a roughly east-west axis and the demolition of a building that is marked on the first edition OS map, foundations of which still survive. The enclosure was defined in the west by a narrow bank or collapsed wall that connects with the present boundary wall at the west end of the nave of the abbey church. This bank also forms one side of a trackway, which is shown on the on the 1st edition OS 6 inch map to run from a former entrance off the main Trim road in a north-north–westerly direction. This provided access to a number of buildings that are indicated on the 1st edition OS 6 inch map. The topographical survey suggested that the north-eastern quadrant of the enclosure may underlie the medieval abbey and therefore be the earliest known structure on the site. It was postulated; that further archaeological investigation of this rectilinear enclosure would provide evidence for the initial foundation of the Cistercian abbey in the Twelfth century.

The excavation revealed that the rectilinear enclosure is a post-medieval creation resulting from the juxtaposition of a disused trackway and a seventeenth century property boundary. The area enclosed was artificially raised when the debris resulting from the demolition of masonry buildings was spread across the site probably in the Seventeenth century However, what was most significant about this demolition layer is that it sealed valuable archaeological deposits and structural features, which provide tangible evidence for medieval use of the precinct during the lifetime of Bective abbey. Excavations exposed the south-western corner of a building with an external drain and enclosed by a medieval ditch. The drain, which runs along the outside of its south wall, produced an array of medieval pottery, oyster shells and animal bones which provide an important clue as to the probable function of this building as the monastic infirmary. Tangible evidence for infirmaries within the precincts of Irish abbeys is rare; two possible examples have been identified in county Tipperary at Holy Cross and Kilcooly This highlights the significance of the Bective findings and the necessity to fully investigate this structure in a future programme of excavation. Results of the remote survey and topographical survey at Bective have also identified numerous areas of archaeological potential within the abbey precinct where the remains of medieval outbuildings may still exist and have been pinpointed for further investigation.

Fig. 1 General site location map showing areas of excavation

1.1 Site Location

The excavations were located at the highest point in a relatively level field in front of Bective abbey (Fig. 1). It is in a rural context in a relatively flat area of a gently undulating landscape. The soil is well drained and under pasture at 53m O.D. To the east of the abbey the ground slopes gently towards the river Boyne, which is located c.200m to the east. The surrounding landscape consists of gently undulating fields under pasture and tillage with small wooded areas.

The site is located in an outlier of Upper Carboniferous sandstones and shales. The surrounding bedrock (less than 500m-1km to the north and south) consists of Lower Carboniferous Age Limestone, a fine-grained grey/blue calcareous rock. The bedrock is not exposed at the site. It is covered by boulder clay. The limestone is exposed at a quarry immediately due east of the site on the opposite bank of the river Boyne. This was probably the source for much of the building material at Bective abbey. The soils of the area consist of grey/brown podzols and are generally very fertile.

Bective abbey and its lands are nestled in the enfolding waters of the river Boyne as it runs on a northern course from Trim through Navan and west of Tara Valley. The abbey gives its name to the townland and parish of Bective in the barony of Upper Navan, which was the focus of its estate. Its lands were drained by the river Clady, and the river Boyne. In broad terms it is located in the ‘eastern triangle’ a part of Ireland, which receives less rain and contains less bog and mountain than any other area of similar size in the country. It also represents the traditional geopolitical focus of Ireland.

The area was well served in medieval times by a network of roadways with available crossing points on the rivers. Bective is located at a junction of routes running north-south and east west. The lands encompass two fording points. To the north Ath an Sidhe (ford of the fairies) thought to be one of the old Tara roads crosses the ford and goes straight to Teltown (Moore, B. 1961, 63) where the present railway line crosses the Boyne today and to the south is Beal an Atha (mouth of the ford) which is reflected in the townland name of Ballina. Nearby Tara was the focus and origin of many roadways with ‘Rót na cCarpat, for example which extended from Tara to Tlachtga (Hill of Ward) and on to Uisneach the ford at Bective being conducive to such a route (O’Lochlainn, C. 1940, 472). A roadway recorded in the life of Finnian extended from south to north via Cill dara, Ráith Imgain (Rathangan) and passing close to Clonard, proceeded in a north-easterly direction towards Rossnaree (Walsh, P. 1915, 73–7). It too would had to have negotiated the river at Bective. The nearby townland of Shanbo indicates an early routeway to the north. A dis-used road runs along the western boundary of nearby Balgill.

1:2 Archaeological and historical background

Bective abbey, latin name Beatitudo Dei meaning the blessedness of God and dedicated to the Blessed Virgin was founded in 1147 with an endownment from Murchad Ua Máel Sechnaill, who ruled over the kingdom of Mide from 1106 to 1153. It was the first daughter house of Mellifont, established only five years after its foundation. Bective abbey was established during a period of some political upheaval with Ua Máel Sechnaill fighting to maintain his dominance in Mide. The boundaries of this kingdom were undergoing a gradual disintegration; a partition of Mide imposed by Tairdelbach Ua Conchobair, king of Connacht in 1144, saw the over-kingdom divided between Tigernán Ua Ruaic (northern part), Diarmait Mac Murchada (eastern part) and Murchad and Donnchad Ua Máel Sechnaill (western part) (Clinton 2000, 372–405;Walsh 1941, 163–83; Byrne, F.J. 1987, 1–42). It was also a period of intense competition for the high kingship between Ua Conchobair, Ua Lochlainn and Ua Briain.

The lands around Bective were formerly occupied by the sub-kingdom of with their principal royal centre at nearby Tullyard (Walsh, P. 1940, 509). This grant was, therefore, a strategic move on the part of Ua Máel Sechnaill because the grant of lands to Bective abbey would have had a debilitating effect on the kings of Lóegaire and would have strenghtened the Ua Máel Sechnaill hold on a part of the kingdom east of Lough Ennel. It would also have been prestigous to become a patron of the Order and the first daughter-house of Mellifont abbey.

The monks established themselves in an area with an existing settled community in excellent farmland. This was not a wilderness far from the concourse of men. There were open, unprotected settlements in the area indicated today by the presence of souterrains at Bective (MH 31:9; MH 31:18). These subterranean structures can be dated to the last centuries of the first millennium and the earliest centuries of the second millennium (Clinton 1998, 139). In county Meath a high percentage were associated with open settlement sites dependant mainly on tillage for a living (Clinton 1998, 61).

Meath lies in an area of relatively low ringfort densities but there are high-status ringforts at Bective; to the west of the river crossing is the remains of a bivallate ringfort (diam. 56m) with others on or near the Cistercian estate at Balbrigh, Ballina or Bective and Dunlough. There is a reference under the year 1150 in AFM to a ‘Dun Lochad’ in Lóegaire The destroyed ringfort at Dunlough could be a possible location (Moore, M. 1987, 100). There was also a religious presence. Clady is probably an early church site and another early church, possibly sixth century and credited to St Finian is suspected at Ardsallagh (Eascair Branáin) townland which may also have been an early route from Clady church (Cogan 1862, i, 113; Gwynn & Hadcock 1970, 373).

The high status of the foundation at Bective is indicated by the fact that it was chosen to hold the remains of Hugh De Lacy in 1196, nine years after he was killed (Leask 1917, 96). In 1217 the abbot of Bective was involved in a riot at Jerpoint and was further charged with imprisoning a man in a tree stump until he died. He was sent to Clairvaux for trial. Subsequently, the prior of Beaubec in Normandy was appointed as abbot of Bective in 1227. During abbot Stephen of Lexington visitations to Ireland the following year in 1228 he visited Bective and described it as a strongly fortified place which could be used to help Clairvaux subdue the abbeys of Mellifont and Boyle (O’Dwyer 1982, 23). They agreed to strengthen Bective and enlarge it so that in future it could assist its mother Clairvaux. In 1228 it was affiliated to Clairvaux with the abbot of Buildwas as a visitor (ibid. 49, 55). The small abbey of Shrule was affiliated to Bective. In 1380, the abbot of ‘Bekedy’ received a writ from King Richard II, directing that no Irishman or any enemy of the king were to be admitted to its community (Leask 1917, 47).

The earliest description of their estate dates from 1384. Bective is referred to as Bekty and Bexty and is given custody of certain lands and tithes. These include a grange called Lekbla in County Meath; the tithes of the churches of Loghcrue (Loughcrew) and Demor (Damor); the grange of Raynghan; including 60 acres of arable land and 1 meadow in Kilgheny. They also included custody of a messuage and fishing weir in Balkyndroght (Leask 1917, 47). In 1358 Brother John, abbot of Bective went to Flanders for two years on business and nominated John Young and Ralph Dylan as his attornies in Ireland (Maxwell Lythe 1911, 83). About 1488 Ismaena, widow of Jorel Comyn, brought a writ against the abbot for a third of a messuage and sixty acres of land at Ballybret (Balbrigh) at which time she paid a fine of one marc, whereupon the abbot agreed that a chaplain would celebrate a constant service for the repose of her soul and the souls of her ancestors (Archdall, 1786, III, 517). In 1488 John abbot of Bective received a royal pardon from Henry VII. An abbot of Bective attended the general chapter of Citeaux in 1512 and was also one of four appointed to investigate the affairs of the Cistercian nunnery in Derry in 1512 (Hogan, 1976, 3).

Bective was still functioning as a regular community in 1534, just two years before it was dissolved in May 6th 1536. The abbot was John English and the names of three other members of the community are specifically mentioned in documentation i.e. – the prior Thomas Prowd, the cellarer or burser John Byrrell and a monk Edmund Fyne (Hogan 1976, 6). Bective abbey was amongst the first of the monasteries to be suppressed. In the following year Sir John Alen, Master of the Rolls wrote to the kings commissioners in Ireland advising that stones from the abbey should be used in the repair of Trim castle (Potterton 2005, 15). In 1537 the site of the Abbey of Bective and the lands of Bective, Balbroy, Cloncullen, Dunlough, Balgill, Balbradagh, Reneghan, Monktown by Trim, Balsoon, and Balaughe in the counties of Meath and Louth, were leased to Thomas Agarde of Bective for 21 years and the lease was renewed again in May 1545 (de Burca 1994, 52).

The extents made at Bective on the 5th of October 1540 are the most detailed accounts of their estate that is available and are printed in an edited form below ( (White, N.B. 1943, 267-70).. At the time of the dissolution the estate contained an estimated total of c.1, 580 acres, valued at eighty-three pounds, eighteen shillings and eight pence. There were eight granges reflected in the present townlands in the immediate area of the abbey, comprising Bective, the Grange (of Bective); Balgill, Balbrigh, Balbradagh; Dunlough, Cloncullen, Balsoon; Yellowwalls, a detached townland at Monktown near Trim, lands attached to the parish church at Balsoon and lands in Westmeath. There were nineteen tenants and 20 cottiers. The extents would indicate some deterioration and desertion from the land after dissolution. There are two cottages in ruins in Balbrigh and another messuage in Bective laid waste for the want of a lessee.

The 1540 extents indicate that a basic settlement hierarchy had developed on the estate with messuages (a dwelling house with out-offices and land) and cottages in each grange. The presence of a messuage suggests that individual property boundaries were in place, the greatest nucleation being at the Grange of Bective with 5 messuages and 4 cottages. By the 16th century mixed farming was being practised on the granges with a major percentage of arable to pasture and meadow. In each land division there was a generous allotment of land for common pasture. The customs of the estate tenants refer to carting grain and hay in the demesne. This could also be to the monastic mill. Some of the tenants have their own ploughs others share a plough. They also had to help with the harvest. The tithes to the abbey were paid in unit of copule of grain an indication that cereals, a tillage based economy is being practised. Within the farming system there is the resources of a mill and a fish weir at Bective. The monks themselves were farming 250 acres under tillage, 7 acres of meadow and 23 of pasture. The farms outside the demesne varied in size from 15 to70 acres. At Bective the extents refer to ‘other buildings necessary for the farmer’ suggesting that there are outbuildings within the precincts of the abbey.

A subsequent series of inquisitions to ascertain the possessions of this abbey also mention five orchards within the precincts of the abbey; a fulling mill erected by the farmer of the abbey, a watermill and a fishing weir on the Boyne. They also mention the fifty acre wood of Scryboke-, a dove-house, the right of fishery of the Boyne, from Ardsallagh to Dunkerry, also the rectory of Bective, the extent of which, and the limitation of titles, as usually collected in the parish, are precisely defined in each townland.

By the 16th century the Cistercians in Bective had become great landlords with the main source of income coming from rents, together with tithes, altarages from the rectory of Bectiff and oblations from the church of Bective. After the expulsion of the monks the community retired to a residence in the neighbourhood. One of the more colourful abbots was Sebastain or Stephen Shortal who became a Cistercian monk in the monastery of Nucale in Galicia, Spain. He became Titular abbot of Bective in Meath and died 3rd December , 1639 (Cogan 1862, 120).

The abbey and its possessions were purchased in 1552 by Andrew Wyse, Vice -Treasurer of Ireland for sum of £1, 380 16s. 7d. There is a memorandum of the receipt of the money in the Calendar of the Patent and Close Rolls 1552 (Morrin, J. 1863, 265). A memorandum of the grant is also given reciting all the rights and privileges attached. The grant repeats much of the detail contained in the 1540 extents. It reads as follows:-

Grant to Andrew Wyse, esquire, Vice-Treasurer, in consideration of the Irish, of the monastery of Bectife, with the manor and Lordship, and all edifices, churches, belfry, cemetery, woods, gardens, meadows, pastures, mills, and fishing weirs, in the county of Meath: the manor of Revaghe in the county of Westmeath, with court leet and view of frank pledge, fairs, markets, tolls, and customs, wards, messuages, and escheates, advowsons, donations, patronage of churches, vicarages, rectories, and all things spiritual arising out of the lands of Bectife, alias Grange of Bectife, Scribke, Claidaghe, Ballgill, alias Grange of Balgill, Ballradaghe alias the Grange of Ballradaghe, Douloghe, alias Dielogh, Clonecoylan, alias the Grange of Clonecoyellen, the two Balbrois, alias the Grange of Balbroy, Monketon near Trim, Balston, otherwise called Balsune, in the county of Meath; Renaghan, alias Renaghe, in the county of Westmeath; the rectories or chapels of Bectife and Cladaghe, with all the houses, edificies, churches, tithes, alterages, and oblations belonging to the same:To hold for ever by Knights service, by the service of one knight’s serviceas scutage runs in Ireland: Rent £ 4 5s 4d:-No date

Owing to financial difficulties in 1552 Andrew Wyse was granted a licence to alienate to Richard Dillon, of Perteston, John Wycombe, of Dublin; and Richard Cox, the site and possessions of the late abbey, monastery, or religious house of Bective including Scriboke, Cladaghe, Balgill, otherwise called the Grange of Balgill (de Burca 1994, 213). In 1558 Jacques Wingfielde was farming the lands for the queen. In 1560 he conveyed Bective and other property to one Gregory Cole, citizen of London , or agent of his wife , Anne , Countess Dowager of Sussex, who re-conveyed them to him soon after. Following the death of Wyse in 1567 Bective passed to his son-in-law, Sir Alexander Fitton, and afterwards to his son-in-law, Sir Bartholomew Dillon of Riverstown castle (Kavanagh 2005, 45). Bective seems to have declined after this period and in 1619 the abbey was described as deserted (Hogan, 1976, 10). In 1630 there was a grant to Henry Stanes, as assignee of Roger Nott, of London,

‘of the abbey, monastery, or religious house of the Bectiffe, with all the towns, villages, hamlets, lands, tenements, tithes, profits, and commodities…and also the manor of Renagh, in the county of Westmeath; to be held of his majesty in capite’.

The premises were created into a manor, to be called the manor of Bectiffe, with Court leet and court baron, waifs and strays-July 23 and the abbey buildings were adapted to create a manor house which served as the centre of the estate. In 1639 Bective became the property of Sir Richard Bolton, of Brazille, in County Dublin. They were chiefly resident in Brazille, and Bective abbey was leased to others including Sir Thomas Taylour whose descendants in recognition of this became Earls of Bective and resided there to the late 18th century (Kavanagh 2005, 50). The Civil Survey 1654–56 reports that the lands at Bective were owned by Sir Edward Bolton of Brassele-Protestant (Simington 1940, 239). In the Civil Survey of 1654-6 within the townlands of Bective, Grange, Gillstowne, Ballybradagh, Bailbreagh, Cloncullen , Dunlogh, Screiboy are one castle, an abbey, a church (Clady), two mills and two weirs at Bective . It remained in Bolton hands until 1862, the abbey farm passing to a relative Rev. Martin who vested the abbey ruins in the Board of Public Works in 1894 (Leask 1917, 49).

1.3 Previous archaeological work: Excavations and geophysical survey

Five archaeological assessments have been carried out in the townland of Bective in recent years, three of which were located at some distance from the abbey and the results of these were of no archaeological significance. Two excavations have been carried out in the immediate vicinity of the abbey. A phase of testing was carried out in 1999 by Mr. David Sweetman in the field to the south-west of the abbey (99E0095, NGR 28594/25996). The testing was carried out as part of a proposed OPW scheme of road widening and installation of a car park for Bective abbey. Four areas were investigated and no archaeological material was recovered.

A further phase of testing was carried out in December 2006 under the direction of Ellinor Larsson of CRDS Ltd. Geophysical survey in 2005 by Earthsound Ltd (Fig. 2) identified a number of potential archaeological features to the south of the abbey, which had little correlation to the visible earthworks on site (Bonsall & Gimson 2005). Subsequent test excavations positioned over the location of these anomalies (Fig. 3) showed that they were archaeological in nature and that the area had a very high archaeological potential. They provided tangible evidence for multi-phase medieval occupation, which was thought to be contemporary with the lifetime of the abbey.

The test excavations comprised the excavation of Test Trench A 67m west of the abbey and another Test Trench B, 23m south-west of the abbey. Test Trench A revealed a rectilinear feature defined by a ditch, which was 0.50m below ground level and measuring 3.5m wide and 0.56m deep. Charcoal from the fill of the ditch confirmed a date range of between 1660–1950A.D., based on a C14 dating of a grain of carbonised barley. The ditch fill produced medieval pottery and an iron object. This suggests that its construction resulted in the disturbance of earlier medieval deposits. The pottery found on the site was of three different types (all local) and of 12th–13th century dates. The animal bones showed an unusual amount of fish bones (mainly retrieved from the samples) and bird bones, and most of the larger animals were quite young.

Test trench B exposed a low bank, which forms part of the rectilinear platform that is apparent to the south of the abbey (Larrson 2008). This produced one sherd of medieval pottery and was cut by a pit that was dated from C14 analysis of charcoal to 1040–1230 AD. This pit contained a pea, cereal grains including oats and wheat, animal bone remains of cattle, pig, fish and a bird.

Further geo-physical survey took place at Bective abbey in June 2007 (Fig. 2, Appendix 3). Gradiometer and resistance surveys were undertaken to the north and east of the perimeter wall surrounding the upstanding remains. They recorded the location of a significant number of anomalies thought to represent possible structural remains and features pertaining to former settlement. The majority of these anomalies extended to the north-east and beyond the survey limits.

The gradiometer Survey identified anomalies indicative of structural features, slot trenches and possible pit remains associated with the former choir and northern transept. The foundations of the former choir and northern transept were shown to extend within the area of investigation. The possible remains of a walled foundation lay north of the north transept. One potential burnt/fired structure was located to the south-east possibly indicating a floor surface and building south-east of the east transept. There was also a pit-like response, and a curving stone wall running at a diagonal to the abbey wall. This was also picked up c. 8m out from the wall in the ground radar survey. It is thought to be an estimated c 6m wide.

Fig. 2 Results of geophysical survey 2006–09

In July 2009, further geophysical survey was undertaken by Joanna M. Leigh Surveys in the south and west precinct of Bective (License No. 09-R-149; Leigh 2009) (Fig. 3). The objective of this survey was to identify features within the abbey precinct that may relate to the original occupation of the abbey. A clear high resistance linear response between the present boundary wall and the south elevation suggests a wall or structural remains with a terminus or gateway. This curves in the west suggesting an enclosing feature. It may be a foundation of the south wall of the original south range, which stood on the site prior to fifteenth century re-modeling. South of this area beyond the boundary wall within a rectilinear banked enclosure identified in a topographical survey s (see below) high resistance responses suggest the location of two possible buildings and internal divisions. In the western precinct the resistance survey had identified the probable remains of a wall, running on a north–south axis and a silted up pond east of it.

2. Archaeological Excavations

2:1 Overview

In July 2009 a narrow cutting E (Figs 3, 5) (2m wide by 10m, 20m2) was excavated through the south section of the enclosure ditch, to determine the original form, sequence and construction date of its enclosing elements and to investigate anomalies identified by the geophysical survey in 2006. Two further squares (5m wide by 5m) were placed within the interior of the enclosure in order to reveal any structural evidence (Fig. 5). These were de-sodded and then excavated by hand. Feature numbers were assigned consecutively to all cuts, fills and deposits encountered. Partially excavated features were excavated to the limit of the squares/cutting and to the base of the cut. The fully exposed features were subjected to full excavation. They were fully recorded in plan and documented in section in order to get vertical representation. A full photographic record was compiled and samples were taken from all relevant features. The written record, which constitutes the site archive, includes the individual feature sheets, small finds records, drawing record and sample record.

Fig. 3 General plan of excavated features 2006/2009

Fig. 4 Results of the topographical survey with the 1st ed. OS 6 inch map overlay

2:2 Square A

Square A was located within the south-east corner of the rectilinear enclosure. It was orientated north-south/east-west and measured 5m by 5m (Fig. 6). The square was selected in order to investigate the interior of the rectilinear enclosure. The topsoil (F1) was a dark, rich clay loam with no stone inclusions and was an average depth of c. 0.20m. It produced artefacts of a broad date range including window glass, medieval and post-medieval pottery, a relief-impressed floor tile, and an iron pot-handle. Below the topsoil was a stony layer (F2) with a depth of c. 0.27m. Its surface sloped gradually from north-west to the south-east. It was made up of loosely compact, angular stones with an average size of 0.09m by 0.08m. It produced a medieval floor tile fragment, medieval and post-medieval pottery, nails, and clay pipe stems. There was a concentration of larger flagstones in the south (F3) measuring 1m in length and 0.50m wide and in the north a concentration of larger blocks of limestone and sandstone (F4) measuring 1.30m in length, and 0.80m wide, the blocks average size of 0.30m by 0.28m.These were initially thought to be a floor surface and a collapsed wall but later interpreted as an accidental groupings of stones within the stony layer. A thin charcoal spread (F5) extended to the west and south-west of these features and extended into square B. It measured 3m in length and 2.3m wide, 0.03m deep.

A light brown clay surface with less stone inclusions (F6) lay beneath the stony layer in the south-west corner of the square. It produced pottery of uncertain date. The south side or outer lip of a shallow, linear drain with a flat base (F23) continued across the northern half of the square. Its excavation revealed the full width of this feature, which was 5.40m wide and 0.30m deep. It had a similar humic fill (F9) to the section excavated in Square B (see below), with higher concentrations of charcoal in deposits at the east end of the drain/depression (F020) which probably represents rake-out from hearths. This produced large quantities of medieval pottery and iron objects. This fill spilled over onto a sterile stony gravel deposit that could be the remains of a bank or medieval ground surface (F7). Medieval deposits below this produced a large quantity of medieval pottery (F29).

Fig. 5 Plan and section of Square A

2:3 Square B

Square B was located within the south-east corner of the rectilinear enclosure and immediately to the north-west of Square A (Fig.7). It was orientated north-south/east-west and measured 5m by 5m. The square was selected in order to investigate the interior of the rectilinear enclosure. The topsoil (F1) was a dark, rich clay loam with no stones and was an average depth of c. 0.20m. It produced artefacts of a broad date range from medieval to early modern, a buckle, nails and slates. Below this a stony layer extended across the full extent of the square

In the south-east quadrant the stony layer overlay a partially excavated charcoal and burnt clay spread (F008). It was 1.30m long and extended west for 0.16m.The charcoal was 0.05m deep and immediately underneath it was a red burnt layer, which was also c. 0.05m deep. This hearth rake-out produced no finds and could represent the uppermost fill of a linear drain (F23). The stony layer sealed this broad, flat bottomed drain with a gradual sloping side in the north, running roughly east-west across Square B (excavated width 4.70m and 0.70m deep) and extending eastwards into Square A. It was filled with rich dark loamy clay (F9) that produced habitation debris of consistently medieval date including smaller animal bones, a spiral-headed stick pin, medieval pottery, fragments of mortar, oyster shells and cobbles. This linear drain cut into a layer of light orangey brown sandy clay with mortar and stones (F21). This layer was also cut into when the foundation trench for the post pads were constructed (see below). The upper fill of this linear depression on the west side of the cutting had a rich concentration of habitation debris (F22). The linear drain ran parallel to the exposed section of post pads suggesting it was contemporary with this building. Its construction robbed out part of a masonry feature (F24) which survived as a short section of wall that was 1.40m long , 0.20m high and 0.1m wide rising to two courses.

Excavations in square B revealed the south-western corner of a building (F23). This was evident by two post pads with a space of 0.60m between them running on a roughly east-west axis for a distance of 3.25m into the section face. The western post pad is c.0.50m sq, the eastern was 0.70m long and 0.50m wide. They survive to two/three courses and are made up of angular limestone set in mortar. The western post pad is built up against a stone-revetted face that continued into the north section face indicating a corner of this building. The post pads are set into a foundation trench that was cut into light brown, sandy clay with charcoal flecks. It was filled with a very loose loam to a depth of 0.46m, which contained lenses of charcoal and burnt clay intermixed (F27). This fill extended to the area north of the post pads, probably the interior of the former building. This fill produced a sherd of Saintonge pottery, medieval wares and iron objects. It also produced animal bones (S93, S117) and shells. This fill was very distinctive from deposits to the south and outside the building and was sampled for environmental analysis (S92, S103).

Fig. 6 Plan and section of Square B

2:4 Cutting E

Cutting E was excavated through the south section of the ditch that appeared to define the rectilinear enclosure (Figs 4, 8). It was orientated north-south and measured 2m wide by 10m long. The cutting was selected in order to determine the original form, sequence and construction date of its enclosing elements and to investigate an anomaly identified by the geophysical survey. The topsoil (F1) was a dark, rich clay loam with no stones and was an average depth of c. 0. 16 m. It produced artefacts of a broad date range from medieval to early modern, including a buckle, nails, slates, brownwares, animal bones and blue China. It extended across the cutting.

When the topsoil was removed a stony layer was uncovered which was made up of loosely compact, uneven angular stones with an average size 0.09m by 0.08m mixed with gravel. All the stones appear to be limestone. This stony layer produced pottery of a broad date range from medieval to post medieval, clay pipes, and nails. The stony layer was absent in the north-west corner of the cutting where an anomaly identified in the geo-physical survey was exposed as a dark staining on the surface. Further excavation revealed a pit (F11), which ran into the north and west section face and, was therefore, only partially excavated. The pit was defined in the east by a single course of slabs lying at an angle around its upper mouth (F13). This pit had been cut into the stony layer (F2) and lower bank material (F10). It had an upper fill of charcoal-enriched soil with stones c.0.30m.This produced a clay pipe and clay pipe stems, knife and a copper alloy spoon. Below this fill was a single layer of slates, laid horizontally, which covered disarticulated human remains that included a skull. These lay at the base of the pit on a stony gravel surface that overlay the upper fill of a medieval ditch.

The stony layer was also absent in the south end of the Cutting where it had been cut when a shallow modern drain (F17) was constructed. This ran on an east-west axis and was excavated to a width of 1.60m and depth of 0.50m. It had concave sides and a flat base and was filled with fine sterile gravel. It continues west as a shallow depression in the ground surface. Re-deposited boulder clay (F16) immediately north of this produced two leather buttons.

Below the stony layer there was a deposit of grey/brown sandy clay loam with small stones (F10). It was c. 2.75m wide. This produced medieval and post medieval pottery, metal objects, animal bones, shells and slates. This probably represents the upcast or bank material associate with a ditch (F15) immediately south of it. The upcast or bank material was lying on a medieval layer (F28) that had been cut into for the construction of a ditch (F15). The ditch was almost flat-bottomed, 3m wide and 0.30m deep running on an east-west axis. It was sealed and filled by the stony layer. It produced one sherd of earthenware in the basal fill indicating a construction date in the later half of the Seventeenth century and ante quem date for the stony layer. This feature may represent a Seventeenth century property which was defined by a ditch and external bank.

Below and sealed by the upcast of the seventeenth century ditch is a loamy layer (F28) which produced perforated stone slates, lumps of mortar, mussel shells, medieval pottery, floor tiles and animal bones. This was cut into for the construction of a medieval ditch that was revealed below F10 and F11 at a depth of c.0.95m below ground level. This feature ran into the north and west section face and was therefore partially excavated to a width of 2.90m and depth of 0.98m.It appeared to run on a roughly east-west axis. The basal fill (F30), a mix of orangey-brown sandy clay with charcoal flecks and stones. This produced a quantity of medieval pottery, animal bones, shells, slate and building material. The upper fill (F31) had a high content of slates and building like-rubble and animal bones.

Fig. 7 Plan and section of Cutting E

3. Archaeological Finds

3:1 Overview

A total of 584 were retained during the course of excavation E4028 (Appendix.1). The finds were retrieved from 16 separate contexts from which (F1) consisted of topsoil in Squares A, B and Cutting E. The finds from stratified contexts made up 375 representing 64% of the finds. The provisional totals are:

528 ceramic finds

32 metal finds

17 clay pipe fragments

5 glass fragments

1 Plough pebble

1 leather button

Finds were subject to limited remedial conservation on site where necessary, bagged according to material and suggested date and forwarded to the post-excavation facility in CRDS offices, Greenanstown, County Meath for storage. All finds are listed in the Finds Register (Appendix 2) with the material, suggested period, feature number, Square/Cutting and finds number listed.

3:2 Prehistoric Finds

Only one piece of worked flint was recovered during the archaeological excavation.

3:3 Medieval Finds

An estimated total of 419 sherds of pottery were found during the archaeological excavations of which an estimated 300 were from stratified contexts. These included Leinster Cooking ware, Trim, Dublin wares and Saintonge. The wares are being analysed by Ms Clare Mc Cutcheon.

Metal finds were found during the excavation of which an estimated 8 were from stratified medieval contexts. These consisted of a spiral-headed pin, nails/rivets, part of an iron cauldron and unidentified objects. One plough pebble was found.

3:4 Post-Medieval Finds

An estimated 89 sherds of post-medieval pottery, which included Sgraffito ware, Buckley ware, brownwares, Staffordshire combware and North Devon wares were recovered. An estimated 17clay pipes bowls and stems were found.

An estimated 24 metal finds included nails/rivets, pot handles, a spoon, knife, toasting fork and some unidentified objects.

3:5 Modern Finds

An estimated 20 sherds of early modern pottery that included whites–glazed crockery and China and 1 leather buttons were found.

4. Archaeological Samples

A total of 143 samples were retained during the course of the excavation (Appendix 2). These comprise: 98 animal bone samples, 5 soil samples, 21 shells, 1 charcoal, 3 slag, 1 seed, 1 human remains.

4:1 Animal Bone

A total of 98 animal bone samples were taken. These are being examined by Fiona Beglane, Sligo I.T. A large quantity of the animal bones have come from stratified medieval deposits. A preliminary examination has identified cows, sheep, boar and horse.The articulated remains of a cat were found in the medieval drain (F9).

4:2 Soil Samples

A total of 5 soil samples were taken for environmental analysis. These are being examined for environmental evidence by Sarah Cobane.

4:3 Other samples

A large number of slates were found during the excavation, many perforated. A total of 12 samples were retained as a representative samples. Some were of stone. These were roof tiles. They provide a significant insight into the roofing methods of buildings formerly on the site. On earlier roofs slates were fixed with wooden pegs and later they were fixed onto the roof with 2 iron nails at the top corners of the slate.

5 1. Discussion and conclusions

The focus of the 2009 excavations was a rectilinear enclosure in the south precinct of Bective abbey. The excavation revealed that this enclosure is a post-medieval creation resulting from the juxtaposition of a disused trackway and a seventeenth century property boundary. The area enclosed was artificially raised when the debris resulting from the demolition of masonry buildings was spread across the site. Demolition debris filled the ditch exposed in Cutting E that produced late seventeenth-century earthenwares in its basal fill. The finds from the pit containing the human remains (F11), which cut into this demolition layer, further supports this date. Therefore, these works must have taken place sometime in the seventeenth century probably when the Taylour’s were in residence in Bective abbey as leaseholders of the Bolton family (see above). Certainly, drawings and paintings of Bective abbey from the late eighteenth-twentieth-century show scant evidence for major structural changes to the abbey during that later period, which would warrant the level of stone debris revealed during the 2009 excavations.

However, what was most significant about this demolition layer is that it sealed valuable archaeological deposits and structural features, which provide tangible evidence for medieval occupation of the precinct during the lifetime of Bective abbey. It further substantiates the evidence for medieval activity identified in the 2006 test excavations. Beneath the demolition debris in Square B, excavations exposed the south-western corner of a building with an external drain and enclosed by a medieval ditch. Although only a small portion of the building has been exposed, the size of the post-pads, indicate a sizeable timber super structure. A drain, which runs along the outside of its south wall, produced an array of medieval pottery, oyster shells and animal bones.

A preliminary examination of the animal bones from this external drain has identified the remains of cows, sheep, boar and horse. Such meats would not have been usually allowed in the fare of a medieval Cistercian monk, not even to seculars in the monastic guesthouse. It would only have been offered to patients in the infirmary where they could alter their diet to include meat and other delicacies (O’Dwyer, 1982, 169). Such animal remains provide an important clue as to the probable function of this building as the monastic infirmary. The Rule of St Benedict dictated that ‘Before all things and above all things care must be taken of the sick’.

The monastic infirmary was usually sited to the south-east of the cloister and at a little distance away (Willliams, 1998, 250). This may have been dictated by the practical consideration of water supply, which was generally to the south of the site (Bell 1998, 211–38). It has been argued that the Cistercians became more interested in medicine during the 13th century evident in the expansion of Cistercian infirmaries (Cassidy-Welch 2001, 143). The letters of Stephen of Lexington 1228–9 give an indication of a series of separate infirmaries for monks, for laybrothers and for the poor with their own courtyard and in the charge of the infirmarian (O’Dwyer 1982, 157–171). Tangible evidence for infirmaries within the precincts of Irish abbeys is rare; two possible examples have been identified in county Tipperary at Holy Cross and Kilcooly (Stalley1987, 175). This highlights the significance of the Bective findings and the necessity to fully investigate this structure in a future programme of excavation.

The letters and instructions of Stephen of Lexington indicate a whole range of outbuildings that once existed beyond the cloister of Irish Cistercian abbeys that have largely vanished from the landscape. Stalley (1987) highlighted the need for a meticulous investigation of the precinct of an Irish Cistercian abbey to identify this great gap in Irish Cistercian research. A combination of remote and topographical survey with archaeological excavation is finally producing results at Bective abbey. The gradiometer and resistance survey in 2007 in the north-east precinct recorded significant anomalies thought to represent structural remains and a curving stone-wall beyond the present boundary wall. Geophysical survey in 2009 identified the missing south wall of the medieval South Range and two possible buildings and internal divisions within an enclosure identified by the topographical survey in the south precinct. In the western precinct the resistance survey identified the probable remains of a wall, running on a north–south axis and a silted up pond east of it.

The excavation has provided structural and material evidence for medieval occupation within the precinct of the abbey, which is contemporary with the lifetime of the abbey. It further substantiates the results of the 2006 excavations that revealed medieval activity at the abbey. Results of the remote survey and topographical survey at Bective have identified numerous areas of archaeological potential where the remains of medieval outbuildings may still exist and have been pinpointed for further investigation.


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