Living with the church in early medieval Ireland, AD 400-1100: archaeological perspectives on the sacred and profane

PhD Candidate: Lorcan Harney
Supervisors: Professor Aidan O'Sullivan
Funded By: Irish Research Council Government of Ireland Postgraduate Scholarship

Abstract

How did the earliest Christian communities live, work and worship together on church-related settlements in Ireland during the early medieval period, AD 400–1100? Using archaeological and historical evidence, can we reconstruct not only how people organised and understood sacred spaces in religious terms; but also how they lived within them on a daily basis, worked on crafts and industry and created new agricultural practices and economies that ultimately placed the Irish church at the centre of power and society?

This project will utilise newly discovered Irish archaeological evidence and some of the richest historical evidence (e.g. early medieval Irish hagiographies) known from Europe to explore these questions. It will focus on Ireland, but will also examine case-studies in the Britain to help create an understanding of the development of religious communities both in the ‘Celtic west’ and in northwest Europe. This project will combine a range of multidisciplinary (archaeological, historical, palaeoecological) evidence within a landscape and material culture perspective, to answer these two key research questions:  

  1. How were early medieval church settlements organised in terms of clerical and religious practice but also in terms of dwelling spaces, crafts, agriculture and economy?
  2. What does the organisation, layout and inhabitation of church sites across time tell us about the changing ways that people lived together as religious communities in the landscape across the early medieval period?

To realise these aims, this project will focus on approximately 50 Irish church settlements as dwelling places and areas of industry, craftwork, agriculture and burial;  comparing and contrasting the marine and arable / pastoral economies of coastal (e.g. Illaunloughan) and inland sites (e.g. Clonmacnoise); and the complex range of industrial and craft activities uncovered at ecclesiastical sites of different status (e.g. ‘Monastic towns’, dependent daughter foundations, family established churches, hermitages and other places associated with Christian communities). It will investigate what types of communities (local populations or ecclesiastical communities) were being buried at different churches and how different groups (e.g. clerics and secular adults and children) were being interred in different ways through this period. It will closely investigate a number of well excavated ecclesiastical sites (e.g. Armagh, Clonmacnoise, Reask, Clonfad and Inishmurray amongst several others) but also examine case-studies in Britain (Iona, Inchmarnock, Whithorn, Hoddom and Portmahomack in Scotland, Capel Maelog, Powys, in Wales and Wearmouth-Jarrow, England), providing a wider context in which to understand how people lived and used ecclesiastical settlements in the ‘Celtic west’. Comparisons and contrasts will also be briefly made with Pictish and Anglo-Saxon church settlements and monasteries including Portmahomack and Wearmouth-Jarrow.

This project will develop a database which will gather information about early medieval ecclesiastical sites; their form, layout and chronology, archaeological features, structures, material-culture and site activities and will combine this empirical analysis of the evidence for settlement, economy, burial and ritual within current theoretical archaeological approaches to social identity and material-culture. The key aspect will be investigating the lived experiences and daily lives of communities at ecclesiastical settlements and how early medieval ideologies (Christianity and ritual) and perceptions of self (status, gender, ethnic, clerical and secular identities) were expressed through material-culture. Building on the anthropological concept of places and objects having ‘cultural biographies’ or life-cycles, this project will also explore how ecclesiastical settlements were used, organised, topographically developed and evolved through the early medieval period.

This significance of this project is that it will be the first comprehensive archaeological study to closely investigate how early medieval Irish communities lived within cclesiastical settlements (of different size and status) and organised these places in various ways not just in terms of sacred monuments but also as cemeteries, enclosures, dwelling spaces and zones of craftworking and agriculture during this formative period in Irish history.