Written by archaeologist & Clone archaeology supervisor 2019/21, Dr Denis Shine
Clone is a beautiful medieval church located approximately 2.25km south of Ferns town, in the ancient territory of Uí Chennsalaig (townland of Clone; Barony of Scarawalsh). According to tradition, the church was dedicated to St Aidan (Aedan), also known as St Máedhóg who is also associated with the larger nearby ecclesiastical site at Ferns.
The church at Clone is situated on a slightly east facing slope, overlooking a small well-defined valley to the north-east and east. This valley contains a small stream that is a tributary of the River Bann (itself a tributary of the River Slaney), which forms the western boundary of the present townland of Clone.
The remains of ‘Clone Church’ consist of a church (WX015–023001–) and graveyard (WX015–023001–), as well as three cross slabs, a sun dial, two bullaun stones and a recently discovered piece of passage tomb rock art.
The church itself is poorly preserved, but still retains a beautiful example of a Romanesque doorway (and a series of carved stone heads) at the west end, dating from approximately the twelfth century.
Aerial photo of crop marks at Clone Church. Note the two concentric curved linear features (backfilled ditches) around the church, joining the curved field boundary. These features represent a monastic enclosure. Figure courtesy of Barry Lacey and previously published in Archaeology Ireland 34(4).
Recent geophysical surveys and excavations at the site by the Irish Archaeology Field School (IAFS) and Clone Church Conservation Project (CCCP, an initiative of the Ferns Heritage Archive Group) have revealed several features that confirm this ecclesiastical site significantly pre-dates the twelfth century, as indicated by the early medieval monuments it contains.
This research was prompted by a request by the CCCP to the IAFS to conduct research at the site after a drone survey during a drought in 2018 identified a probable monastic enclosure (WX015–023013–) surrounding the church and graveyard.
Geophysical surveys at the site, by Ian Elliott of Irish Geophysical and Archaeological Services (IGAS), were initially completed in August and October 2019 (License no. 19R0238) followed by more extensive surveys undertaken in October and December 2021 (License 21R0219).
Two seasons of community focused archaeological excavation were also undertaken at the site in December 2019 and August 2021. These excavations broadly matched the results of the geophysics revealing three sets of enclosing ditches on site, as well as ‘lesser’ features, such as furrows, postholes, hearths, pits etc.
Community volunteers and IAFS staff at the archaeology site of Clone in 2021, Cutting 3. Excavated across the outermost monastic enclosure.
The monastic ditches are undoubtedly the features of greatest archaeological interest with three enclosing elements now confirmed at the site, including an outer bivallate enclosure and an inner enclosure (which is also potentially bivallate), which surround a small oval shaped ditch at the site; these enclosures measure respectively c.200m, 130m and >45m in diameter from outer to inner circuit.
At least one of these features, the outermost ditch, continued in use from the early to later medieval periods with the available dating evidence (from both pottery and radiocarbon dating) indicating it was finally backfilled in c. the twelfth century.
This differs to dates returned from both the inner ditch of the outer enclosure and the inner enclosure itself, which were backfilled much earlier, sometime between the seventh to ninth centuries.
The smallest oval enclosure appears to be earlier yet, having been backfilled in the fifth to sixth century. An intriguing Neolithic date was also obtained on the inner ditch of the outer monastic enclosure and, while proven erroneous for the ditch, it is tempting to link this date to a razed Neolithic monument on the site, possibly related to Clone’s known passage tomb art.
Possibly the feature of greatest intrigue was a drystone wall, built into the outermost ditch of the outer enclosure. This feature was constructed in the partially backfilled outermost monastic enclosure only 2.4m east of a terminus in this ditch and may be related to a wider re-purposing of the monastic space, which included the construction of the upstanding medieval church.
Whilst the exact foundation date for Clones archaeology is unknown, it appears (based on the smaller oval enclosure) to date to the very beginning of Christianity in Ireland sometime between the fifth and sixth centuries.
This date raises intriguing questions about both Clone’s antiquity and its relationship with St Aidan’s primary monastery in Ferns, which is known to have been founded by St Aidan sometime around the turn of the seventh century. The relationships between these monasteries requires further investigation, but is described in some more detail in the upcoming ‘Discovering Medieval Ferns Volume’.
Acknowledgment of Support: This blog is number two of a ten-part series entitled Discovering Medieval Ferns which has been funded by the Rediscovering Ancient Connections – The Saints (Ancient Connections) Project.
Ancient Connections is an ‘inter-reg’ cross-border arts and heritage project linking Pembrokeshire and north Wexford, which strives to revive the ancient links between these communities, allowing them to rediscover their shared heritage and trade knowledge, experience, and skills.
Ancient Connections have also funded a major academic volume, also entitled Discovering Medieval Ferns, upon which this blog series is based.
This volume, which includes fifteen papers from an interdisciplinary team of twenty+ scholars, aims to highlight the remarkable history and archaeology of medieval Ferns, focusing on intriguing discoveries from recent excavations and research programmes. The volume, which is the most complete picture to date of the origins and evolution of medieval Ferns, will be published by Four Courts Press later in 2023.