Written by the sites senior archaeologist for excavation at St Mary’s Abbey, Dr Denis Shine.
In summer 2021 and 2022 the Irish Archaeology Field School (IAFS) undertook two seasons of excavations at Ferns Demesne townland in Ferns, Co. Wexford. The site of excavation is located adjacent to St Mary’s Abbey, a recorded monument which forms part of a significant multi-period complex (WX015-003004-, WX015-003031-, WX015-003032-, WX015-003033- etc).
The site was founded by St Aidan around the turn of the seventh-century and also contains early medieval crosses and cross slabs, a twelfth-century Augustinian Abbey (St Mary’s Abbey) and a thirteenth-century medieval cathedral (St Edan’s Cathedral) within its wider confines. The excavations were conducted under Ministerial Consent (C000967; excavation and detection references E005108 and R000521) as part of a three-year research excavation running from 2021 to 2023.
In 2021 two cuttings, Cuttings 1 and 2, were opened, followed by Cuttings 3 and 4 in 2022, which further investigated findings from the 2021 season. The cuttings, especially in the case of Cuttings 1 and 2 in 2021, were also positioned to investigate geophysical trends identified in surveys of the site by Ger Dowling in 2015; these surveys were undertaken with the Discovery Programme as part of the Monastic Ireland project*.
St Mary’s Abbey, aerial photo taken in 2022 at outset of excavations that Summer
Cuttings 1 and 3 were excavated across the possible claustral range south of St Mary’s Abbey (WX015-003004), with the Abbey having been confirmed as claustral in the 2021 excavations. Specifically Cutting 1 confirmed the likely existence of a northern range, as well as a single wall in the position where a western range ‘should’ stand.
The walls in Cutting 1 were constructed over a curvilinear feature representing an enclosing ditch that appears to be the inner enclosure of St Aidan’s Monastery; this enclosure was most likely constructed in the early medieval period but was not backfilled until around the time St Mary’s Augustinian Abbey was built (c. 1160s), probably to accommodate it.
Cutting 3 further confirmed the sub-surface presence of ranges, specifically the eastern range, with both seasons indicating these ranges date to the twelfth to fourteenth centuries.
The eastern range in Cutting 3 was confirmed as being c.5m wide, defined by two large 1.25m wide walls (a width consistent with the walls observed in Cutting 1) and containing several internal features, including a rough floor surface, burnt deposits and a fire-pit. The fire pit is particularly instructive as it may indicate that Cutting 3 was positioned across the calefactory of the monastery.
The east range was laid out after a period of burial in this area of the site, with one of the range walls cutting through a confirmed burial and possibly cutting two more unexcavated graves; this confirmed archaeological sequence raises intriguing questions as to the phasing of the church, burials and the claustral court on site. To date a cloistral arcade or ambulatory were not definitively confirmed on site but these features will be further explored in 2023.
Photo of Cutting 3 (East-facing) at St Marys Abbey in the Summer of 2022
Cutting 4 was excavated to further assess a possible double-aisled structure (WX015-003033-), which was initially assessed in 2021 in Cutting 2; these excavations in 2021 confirmed the presence of a building of uncertain function that seemingly dates to the twelfth to fourteenth century based on the recovery of both pottery and a thirteenth-century coin.
Excavations in 2021 in Cutting 2 confirmed that this structure was built over the backfilled remains of a large enclosing ditch, which represents the outer enclosure of St Aidan’s monastery; radiocarbon dating suggest a seventh to eight century date for the backfilling of this feature.
Excavations in both seasons confirmed the structure was extensively disturbed and quarried, with its western limits (as assessed in Cutting 4) particularly poorly preserved. Of note, a well-constructed keyhole kiln in Cutting 4 was confirmed as being bonded into the central wall of the building and may be crucial to the overall interpretation of the structure’s function.
However, analyses of this enigmatic structure remain ongoing and will hopefully be further clarified after the final excavation season in June 2023, which hopefully will further clarify outstanding research questions. After these excavations a final report and publication of the site will be produced.
* For more information of these geophysical surveys see Breathnach, E. and Dowling, G. 2021 ‘Forming an episcopal see and an Augustinian foundation in medieval Ireland: the case of Ferns, Co. Wexford’. Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy 121C, 191–226.
Acknowledgment of Support
This blog is number four 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.