Saturday, November 8, 2014

Nendrum Monastic Site | The Stone Carving Collection & Visitor Centre

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Nendrum was an early Christian monastery on Mahee Island in Strangford Lough, just outside the village of Comber [map]. It is Northern Ireland’s best surviving example on a pre-Norman monastery. Mahee Island is named for the traditional founder of the site, St Mochaoi, a disciple of St Patrick, who is believed to have established a monastery here in the 5th century. However, no excavated finds suggest that there was a monastery here any earlier than the 7th century. From historical sources, the monastery is believed to have continued in operation until sometime between 974 and 1178. Sometime after 1177, John de Courcy established a Benedictine monastery here as a daughter house of St Bees in Cumbria, though this does not appear to have endured and prospered. The church on the site continued to function as the local parish church until its final abandonment in the 15th century. The site was effectively lost until 1844, when it was rediscovered by the bishop and antiquarian William Reeves. He set about finding the physical locations of all the ecclesiastical foundations listed in the 1306 taxation. At Nendrum he was shown what was described to him as a ‘lime kiln’, but recognised it as the remains of the Round Tower. At this time the site was heavily overgrown and it was not possible to gain an appreciation of its full extent. Nendrum remained in pretty much this condition until H. C. Lawlor, in partnership with the Belfast Natural History and Philosophical Society, directed large-scale excavations and restoration of the site from 1922 to 1924. Unfortunately, both the excavations and the restorations were poorly conducted and recorded, and it remains difficult to disentangle the story of the site from the available records.


The exterior face of the (heavily restored) middle enclosure
The church and the Round Tower
The (reconstructed) sundial
Chapple Minor attempts to fly off the Round Tower
The site as it stands today is composed of three concentric dry stone enclosures, though the outermost is difficult to follow in parts. The innermost enclosure contains the remains of a small church, a decorated sundial, the stump of a round tower, and a ‘monk’s graveyard.’ The middle enclosure contains a number of platforms for huts and workshops, and the outermost enclosure contain a large cereal-drying kiln. Lawlor’s excavations showed that at least one of the huts in the middle enclosure was used as a bronze smithy during the life of the monastery. Close by these workshops is a structure interpreted by Lawlor as a school, based on the recovery of iron styli (or styluses, if you prefer) and trial pieces. Excavation demonstrated that it had a wood and thatch roof and had been burnt down. The small church was constructed in two periods. The western portion of the structure with projecting antae may be of 10th to 11th century date, while the eastern extension and a small annexe to the north are related to the later Benedictine presence here. Near the church, to the south-east, is an area where Lawlor discovered a number of what appeared to be hastily-buried bodies, presumably the human cost of some catastrophe. The sundial dates to the beginning of the 10th century and was among the collection of carved and decorated stone recovered during Lawlor’s excavation. In the late 1990s excavations by Tom McErlean and Norman Crothers adjacent to the monastic site found remarkably well preserved remains of an Early Christian tidal mill [see ‘Suggested Reading’ below and a synopsis: here].

The cereal drying kiln inside the outer enclosure
The excavated foundation platforms for the school, workshop, etc.
Original western entrance to the inner enclosure
Finds from the site included the styli and trial pieces mentioned above. The excavation also recovered a remarkably wide variety of finds from the site, including metal knives and nails, along with pottery and other domestic artefacts. Metal working crucibles and moulds were recovered from the workshops area, along with items of personal ornamentation, including brooches and pins. However, the most important single find from the excavations is the bronze-coated iron bell discovered near the outer enclosure wall. Such an item would have had the practical use of calling the faithful to prayer, but was also a potent symbol of the Abbot's power and authority. The artefacts from Lawlor’s series of excavations are held by the Ulster Museum [Website | Facebook | Twitter], though not all are on display.

Overview of the 'monk's graveyard' to the west of the church
Detail of one of the stone-built, lintelled graves
The excavation also produced a corpus of 15 cross-inscribed stones. To secure them against theft, Lawlor had them built into the west wall of the church. However, by the mid-1980s they appeared to be deteriorating, due to the effects of weathering and were moved indoors to the adjacent Visitor Centre. Of the various forms of cross represented within the collection, none are of the 'classic' ringed or 'Celtic' cross type. This has led researchers to argue that they date to the 7th and 8th centuries, before the adoption of the ringed form. Not only is this the largest group of monastic crosses from Northern Ireland, it also represents some of the earliest carved crosses in Ireland. In terms of function, they are thought to have been used as simple grave markers for deceased monks. Within this group are eight examples of what is known as 'The Nendrum Cross'. This is an outline Latin cross with hollows at the intersections between the arms and the shaft (or 'armpits'). Cross-slabs of this type are known from other ecclesiastical sites in Co. Down, but they are all thought to have been manufactured at Nendrum.

Panoramic overview across the inner enclosure, showing the church and the round tower
It is this collection of carved stones, now in the Visitor Centre, that I first want to bring to the reader’s attention. For all their apparent simplicity, they are extraordinarily beautiful and of the highest importance for our understanding of both the development of both burial markers and the monastic cross forms. I have included a set of annotated photographs at the end of this post that include the crosses and other stone artefacts on display.

View of the Early Christian tidal mills from the monastic site
The second thing I’d like to highlight is the little Visitor Centre itself. It’s off to the left of the monastery as one enters from the car park, and is discreetly screened from the majority of the site. So much so that it may easily be missed by the casual visitor. The central section of the main room is dominated by a model, under a Perspex dome, of how the site may have looked in its heyday. The walls have some nice boards with illustrations and short texts on the history, chronology, and context of the site. An adjacent room has a focus on water milling and the tidal mill. It’s all lovely and grand, but hardly anything to get too excited over. What is worthy of mention though is the attention to detail and just sheer inventiveness that has been lavished on the children’s play portion of the exhibit. It’s completely tied to the Nendrum site, so it’s relevant to all they’ve seen about them outside. The little model of how a water-powered mill grinds corn is simply exceptional and as intriguing to a small child as this adult! Other child interactive playthings included a soft-play build-it-yourself monastery, and a more complex 3D jigsaw in wood. If the NIEA were to make copies of the latter for sale, I’d happily join the queue to have one!

Overview of central space in Visitor Centre
with model of the monastery under the dome
Portion of the Visitor Centre explaining
the tidal mill mechanisms
Beautifully detailed model of the monastery
Overview of the stone carving collection
As I always say in these ‘Discover Northern Ireland’-style posts – I hope you enjoy the photos, but if you’re planning a holiday/vacation, please consider coming to Northern Ireland and seeing these places for yourself!

'The Marigold Stone' is a fragment of an 8th century pillar stone. It is formed of multiple intersecting arcs to form a complex 'marigold' symbol. The symbol is a relatively rare find, but does appear to have definite Christian associations and is known from other ecclesiastical sites.
Incised cross with forked terminals
A very simple, incised cross
Outline Latin cross with hollows at the
intersections of the cross-bar and the shaft, known
as 'The Nendrum cross form
'
Stone mould, possibly for a lamp
Example of 'The Nendrum Cross' form
Example of 'The Nendrum Cross' form
Example of 'The Nendrum Cross' form
Example of 'The Nendrum Cross' form
Upper millstone (made of Mourn granite) from Mill 2, dated to 789AD
Fantastic model of the milling process
Nendrum 3D jigsaw! I want one!
Nendrum soft-play monastery ...
absolutely brilliant!


Notes
Gail Matthews' 1995 undergraduate dissertation Nendrum Rediscovered is available as part of the publicly accessible SM7 file from the NIEA: here.

Virtual Tour of the site available: here.

The NIEA guide card for the site is available as a PDF: here.


Suggested Reading
Anon. 1856 ‘The round towers of Ulster’, Ulster Journal of Archaeology 4, 1st Series, 128-139.

Anon. 1999 ‘News: Nendrum tidal millArchaeology Ireland 13.2, 6.

Crothers, N. 2000 ‘News: further excavations at Nendrum’, Archaeology Ireland 14.3, 4.

Lawlor, H. C. 1925 The monastery of Saint Mochaoi of Nendrum. Belfast.

McErlean, T. 2010 ‘Technology and industry: the monastic tide mills of Nendrum’ in Murray, E. & Logue, P. (eds.) Battles, boats & bones: archaeological discoveries in Northern Ireland 1987-2008. Belfast, 65-68.

McErlean, T. & Crothers, N. 2001 ‘Tidal power in the seventh and eighth centuries ADArchaeology Ireland 15.2, 10-14.

McErlean, T. & Crothers, N. 2007 Harnessing the tides: the Early Medieval tide mills at Nendrum Monastery, Strangford Lough. Northern Ireland Archaeological Monographs No 7. Belfast.

O Cuisin, S. H. 1904 ‘The legend of Saint Mochaoi of NendrumUlster Journal of Archaeology 10, 2nd Series, 100-103.


Reeves, W. 1902 ‘A description of Nendrum, commonly called Mahee Island, embracing its present condition and past historyUlster Journal of Archaeology 8, 2nd Series, 13-22.

Reeves, W. 1902 ‘A description of Nendrum, commonly called Mahee Island, embracing its present condition and past history’ [and: here] Ulster Journal of Archaeology 8, 2nd Series, 58-68.

Scott, C. 1902 ‘Miscellanea: Annals of NendrumUlster Journal of Archaeology 8, 2nd Series, 201.

Towill, E. S. 1964 ‘Saint Mochaoi and NendrumUlster Journal of Archaeology 27, 3rd Series, 103-120.

Waterman, D. M. 1958 ‘A note on Medieval pottery from Nendrum and Grey Abbeys, Co. Down Ulster Journal of Archaeology 21, 3rd Series, 67-73.