Exciting archaeological finds on Lismore

14 April 2024
Six years of community archaeology on the Hebridean Isle of Lismore organised by the Lismore Historical Society, have uncovered a stone building of the 7th-10thC AD monastic site founded by St Moluag, and a workshop where craftworkers manufactured jewellery from precious metals.  

These activities confirm that the site ranks in importance with other prominent ecclesiastical and monastic early medieval establishments in Scotland such as Iona, Portmahomack, and Inchmartin, with the metal working evidence also showing parallels with secular power centres such as at Dunadd, a royal centre of Dàl Riatan Argyll.  
There is a long-standing tradition that St Moluag arrived on Lismore from Ireland around 560AD on a mission to bring Christianity to the Picts, and his death is confirmed by an obituary notice in 592 in the Irish Annals, but where was his monastery?  

It has long been assumed that it was near the later medieval Cathedral of Argyll on Lismore, dedicated to St Moluag in the 13thC, but no visible signs had survived.

After unsuccessful investigations in various areas, the volunteer team, led by Dr Clare Ellis of Argyll Archaeology, turned their attention to a very unpromising wet rushy field below the parish church (the surviving choir of the cathedral).
The uncovering of an 8th century burial in 2019 showed that this was the right decision, but the Covid pandemic intervened and field work did not resume until 2022.  Excavation of structures revealed by geophysics, included the foundations and floor paving of an oval building around 9m in diameter.  

Dating was uncertain and, as well as a range of early medieval finds, Bronze Age arrowheads were also found.  However, radiocarbon dating has now placed the building in the 7th-10th century AD, the era of the early monastery.
An area adjacent to the oval building was the focus of high-status and highly skilled metal working, with finds including around 120 fragments of crucibles.  

XRF analysis of the surfaces of these crucibles at the National Museum of Scotland has revealed that they were used for melting copper-alloys, silver and gold.  

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Broken ceramic moulds for making penannular brooches and other items were recovered from the same area.  

Meanwhile, a search for artefacts from Lismore in the National Museum has uncovered a rare “touchstone” used to assay the purity of samples of gold.  This fine craft activity, based on long-distance trade, generating prestigious objects for the church and wealthy patrons, is evidence of a sophisticated and influential monastic centre.
This community project so far has been made possible by a range of generous donations.  Work continues to analyse and conserve the 1500 significant finds from the site, which are helping to illuminate life in early medieval Scotland.

You can support the project at: www.justgiving.com/page/robert-hay-1704551128616
Acknowledgements:  Professor Gordon Noble, University of Aberdeen, for the radiocarbon dating; and Dr Gemma Cruickshanks, National Museum of Scotland, for the metallurgical analyses.  Dr Clare Ellis, Argyll Archaeology, the lead archaeologist for the project. [email protected]

1. Site of the monastic oval building and the craft area, the parish church (choir of the medieval cathedral) in the background to the west.
2. The entrance to the monastic oval building
3. An almost intact crucible.