Discovering St Aidan’s Monastery Blog Series – Research at Clone

By December 5, 2019 Blog
Ferns: Discovering St Aidan’s Monastery – Research at Clone

In October we were delighted to receive Ministerial Consent to conduct archaeological excavations at the site of St Aidan’s monastery in Ferns, Co Wexford from summer 2020. Now that our consent is in place, we will be detailing the background to this new exciting project (a culmination of several months’ work) in a short blog series.

The archaeological excavations – under the title ‘Discovering St Aidan’s Monastery’ – will focus on the environs of Marys Abbey. However, a lot of other archaeological work is being conducted by the IAFS and their partners at other locations throughout Ferns, including: 3D scanning at Ferns Castle and through the town; geophysical surveys at several greenfield locations in Ferns; a smaller research project at Clone Church including both geophysical survey and a community-focused excavation. Details on some of this work can be found in previous blogs here and here.

Clone church and the field containing the monastic enclosure, as taken in June 2019

It is not in the remit of this short blog to discuss the archaeological or historical record of Clone Church. However, by way of a brief summary the site, now consisting of a ruined church, lies approximately 2.5km from Ferns Village. The medieval church ruins include remains of the south and north walls, as well as the western gable, which contains fine Romanesque features, such as a doorway with external jambs and chevron carving. A series of carved heads are also positioned directly above the doorway. Architecturally the ruins date from c. the 12th century with the building functioning as the parish church from the early 13th century. It has been suggested for a considerable time that Clone Church may significantly pre-date the 12th century, with the site regularly associated with St Aidan. Archaeological evidence for an early monastic association was found in 2018 when crop marks, some of which appeared to form a monastic enclosure, were recorded and identified by local archaeologist Barry Lacey during a drone flyover. This would suggest a date for the site of c. the sixth to eight centuries, which may explain other early features on the site such as cross slabs and bullaun stones.

Aerial photograph, of cropmarks revealed during the 2018 drought, courtesy of Barry Lacey

In October 2019 a targeted geophysical survey was undertaken on the site, at the request of the IAFS and Clone Church Conservation Project (CCCP – an initiative of the ‘Ferns Heritage Archive Group). During the survey a program of magnetic gradiometry was undertaken by Ian Elliott of Irish Geophysical & Archaeological Survey (detection licence 19R0238). The survey revealed a density of archaeological features, which are likely to span several centuries of activity at Clone. Analysis of the data is at a preliminary stage, and further processing is in progress. However, an initial summary provided by Ian Elliott (pers. comm.) states:

[T]he survey revealed a pair of broadly concentric enclosures. The outer enclosure is bi-vallate, with a pair of broad fosses (c. 3.0m width) separated by what was presumably once a bank (c. 6.0m width). Approximately 25m inside the outer enclosure is an inner enclosure (partially bi-vallate to the west of the Clone Church), which is characterised by quite a sharp angle at its southwestern extremity. The inner ditch is c. 1.0-1.5m in width, and sharply cut. The outer element is broader, but also sharply cut. A further fosse projecting directly from the western end of the present-day church enclosure was also recorded. Further analyses continue on a number of broadly radial enclosure elements throughout the area.

Geophysical survey, on modern Archaeological Survey of Ireland aerial background, courtesy of Ian Elliott

In December 2019 the IAFS, in partnership with CCCP, aim to excavate two small cuttings to investigate the trends identified in the geophysical surveys, as part of a targeted test excavation with the local community. The results of this excavation will be reported in a future blog. However, people interested in attending this event are encouraged to contact Barry Lacey as soon as possible on laceybferns@yahoo.ie.