Discoveries on Iona rewrite history of sacred isle

A series of discoveries on Iona show the sacred isle was not abandoned following the brutal Viking raids of the early 9th Century with monastery life instead continuing and a centre for metalwork established.

New details of life and culture on Iona have emerged after a series of archaeological discoveries were made. PIC: Jan Smith/Creative Commons.

The history of the island, where St Columba arrived in the late 6th Century to spread Christianity throughout the land, is now being rewritten given the finds of mainly copper and gold.

A number of copper alloy pins of Hiberno-Norse origin, made by those of mixed Scandinavian and Irish ancestry, have been retrieved with the items likely used to fasten clothing, such as tunics and cloaks.

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The pins date from the 10th and 11th Century with at least two found close to Martyrs Bay, on the east coast of the island.

One of the HIberno - Norse copper alloy pins, which was used to fasten clothing, that has helped to revise the history of Iona. PIC: Dr Ewan Campbell.

It was on this beach that the bodies of 68 monks were left after the Viking raids of 806AD with it traditionally believed the island was then abandoned for hundreds of years until the Benedictine abbey was constructed in the 12th Century.

Now, following the discoveries, it is believed that monastery life continued following the massacre with a centre for metalwork then established by the community.

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Dr Ewan Campbell, senior lecturer in early medieval archaeology at Glasgow University, said: “The nicest pin is a copy of one that was made in Viking Dublin but it looks to me that it was made on Iona given the differences in manufacturing.

An archaeologist at work in the shadows of Iona Abbey. PIC: National Trust for Scotland.

"This adds to a lot of evidence that the monastery continued after the Viking raids. The traditional story is that the island was abadoned but it would seem to be the case that if it was abandoned , it was only temporary.”

Dr Campbell said that a number of gravestones and at least one large cross on Iona is also now known to date from the 10th and 11th Century.

He added : “There was a living community there around that time."

It is also known that a former Norse King of Dublin, Amlaıb Cuaran (Olaf Sihtricsson), who promoted the Columban cult, retired to the monastery on Iona as a penitent, and was buried there in 980.

Dr Campbell added: “Iona was important as one of the places where the Norse were coming into contact with Christianity and converted to Christianity.”

Further artefacts of the period recovered over recent years include a late 10th-century hoard of coins and bullion from the abbey as well as gold and silver artefacts, including a Hiberno-Norse coin and a gold ring, from St Ronan’s Church.

Dr Campbell’s work brings together unpublished reports of excavations led by various archaeologists over a number of decades with analysis only now just published.

Two of the Hiberno-Norse pins were recently disovered by archaeologists and volunteers from National Trust for Scotland.

The trust has also made a series of finds that push back the timeline of human activity on Iona to thousands of years before St Columba arrived with his 12 supporters.

A concentration of flints discovered to the south of the village show that the island was occupied around 7,000 years ago with the fertile lands of Iona probably provided sustenance for Mesolithic nomads.

Derek Alexander, head of archaeological services at National Trust for Scotland, said: "When examined, these flints showed at least two phases of activity: the first in the late Mesolithic around 7,000 years ago, and the second in the Early Neolithic from 5–6,000 years ago.

"The former is the earliest evidence for human activity on Iona and the flints would have been used by mobile hunter-gatherer groups, perhaps making seasonal use of the island’s varied resources.

"I think it really just emphasises what a good place Iona was to settle and we know now that is has been consistently settled over time.

“The earliest date we had for Iona was around the Bronze Age so these finds have pushed that back significantly.”

Meanwhile, radiocarbon dating of a layer of hazel charcoal taken from a trench dug near Martyrs Bay show the area was in use around AD428 – 600, which covers the period that St Columba came to the island.

Mr Alexander said it was one of the few dates that illusrate activity beyond the monastic complex with the land likely to have been cultivated by monks.

He added: “What we already knew about Iona was dominated around the work of the abbey and our findings emphasis there was activity in other parts of the island.

"The charcoal gives us just a glimpse of what was going on there and there has got to be more to discover. We hope to get the chance to go back and excavate further.”

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