Archaeologists have located one of the most important buildings in the history of Western European Christianity – but it’s not a vast cathedral or an impressive tomb, but merely a humble wattle and daub hut on a remote windswept island.
Using radiocarbon dating techniques and other evidence, the scholars – from the University of Glasgow – believe they have demonstrated that the tiny five-metre square building was almost certainly the daytime home of early medieval Scotland’s most important saint, St Columba.
Located on the island of Iona, off the west coast of Scotland, the unprepossessing hut was probably the first administrative hub of the monastic community he founded – and whose monks, over succeeding centuries, went on to establish similar monasteries in mainland Scotland, in north-east England, in Belgium, in France and in Switzerland.
During much of the Dark Ages, Iona was of critical importance in spreading knowledge, literacy, philosophical ideas and artistic skills throughout large areas of western Europe.
It was probably at Iona that the world’s most famous early illuminated manuscript, the Book of Kells, was produced – and it was from here that the epicentre of early northern English Christianity, the monastery of Lindisfarne was founded.
The story of the discovery of St Columba’s hut is a long but significant one.
For centuries, local Gaelic folk tradition seems to have held that a natural grass-covered rock outcrop (known as the Tòrr an Aba) was specifically associated with an important abbot. What’s more that rocky knoll fitted a late 7th century account describing the location of St Columba’s hut.
Then in the 1950s, a British archaeologist called Charles Thomas excavated the outcrop and found the burned remains of a wattle and daub hut under a layer of earth and pebbles. He was convinced that it was Iona’s great founding abbot, Columba’s writing cell.
But most scholars did not believe him. It was felt that the evidence was not strong enough and that the hut probably dated from many centuries after St Columba’s time. In 1957, when Thomas found the hut’s burned wood remains, radiocarbon dating had only just been developed the previous year and was in its infancy and very expensive.
The crucial charcoal was therefore not dated and remained for the next 55 years in a series of matchboxes, first in a succession of storerooms and finally in his garage – but in 2012, he donated them to Historic Scotland (now Historic Environment Scotland).
Then earlier this year two Glasgow University archaeologists – Dr Adrián Maldonado and Dr Ewan Campbell – arranged to have them radiocarbon dated at the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre .
The results were extraordinary. They demonstrated that the hut was not a later structure – but did indeed date, in line with Thomas’ theory, to somewhere between 540 and 650 AD. St Columba was Abbot of Iona from the date of the monastery’s foundation (563 AD) till his death (597 AD).
Additional new evidence shows that, at some stage after his death, a monument (a large cross) was erected on the site of the hut, presumably to commemorate the life and work of the monastery’s famous first abbot.
SOURCE: David Keys