Since IAFS have been conducting archaeological excavations at the Black Friary we have welcomed over 400 students to site from America, Australia, Canada and Europe, as well as of course from Ireland. Over 170 students visited in 2014 alone; a lot of work was achieved, and due to the area of focus, increasingly high numbers of archaeological finds uncovered.
Throughout the course of all these excavations, literally 1000’s of archaeological artefacts have been recovered, dating primarily to the medieval and post-medieval periods (although we have had an occasional car, plastic bag or concrete block!). Among the most common finds from the site are sherds of medieval pottery (such as locally manufactured 13th century ‘Trim Ware’), post-medieval pottery and building materials (including decorated plaster, stained glass, floor tiles, and numerous stone architectural fragments). However, we have also been lucky enough to find beautiful medieval and later coins, as well as various other metal artefacts (even including a small piece of chain mail)!
As with any excavation though, some finds intrigue the excavator more than others as they seem to have a story to tell. Such is the case for a ‘Longford Militia’ button (Plate 1). This was found during excavations of 18-19th century rubble layers covering the eastern range of buildings on the site (Cutting 6). The button, presumably from the coat of one of the militia men, has a loop on the back to fasten through a button hole. The beauty of finds such as these is the potential to study their provenance in historical records, allowing a compelling story to be told that combines both archaeology and history. For example we know that the Longford Militia, as with all the militias, was founded in 1793 amid concerns for the security of the Irish colony (both internally and externally), when many of the regular Crown forces were engaged in the war with France. Historical sources can also trace the movements of the Longford Militia who, prior to 1857, were dispatched to regional headquarters nationwide (as well as occasionally to England) before being based permanently in County Longford. So might the button pre-date 1857?
Plate 1: The Black Friary Button (photograph by Bairbre Mullee)
The distinctive style of the button helps answer that question; the button 2.1cm in diameter, made of copper, and is stamped with the Prince of Wales’ crest – consisting of three feathers rising through a gold coronet positioned – atop the motto ‘Ich Dien’ (I serve), with the words ‘Longford’ and ‘Militia’ written above and below this crest respectively. The button is identifiable as part of the first series issued by the Longford Militia that dates from 1793, when the militia was originally raised, to 1829 (Glenn Thompson pers. comm. 2014).
However, knowing the age of the button does not tell us how it came to be on the Black Friary site, which could have happened in any number of ways. Nonetheless digging a little deeper into the historical records can lead to unexpected results, and might even tell us how the button ended up at a medieval friary!
In order to explore the movements of the Militia, we have trawled through the holdings of the National Archives of Ireland. The fantastic resource holds a collection of letters detailing the movements of the Longford Militia, who were almost certainly in Trim in 1794. From this, we can form hypotheses as to how the button might have arrived on the site. Such further research is being used to build a more complete picture and will be published in the Meath archaeological and historical journal, Ríocht na Midhe (Shine, O’Carroll, et al. In press).
Many thanks to student archaeologist Aaron McCanty for finding the button, and to and Noel French, Cynthia Simonet and in particular Glenn Thompson for engaging discussions on its antiquity.
Dr. Denis Shine, Co-Director, Blackfriary Archaeology Project.