In January 2024 we are excited to continue our research project studying the Monastic Midlands in County Offaly. This field school takes a truly landscape scale approach to archaeological research. The program will examine the geological and glacial processes that shaped the landscape in which the early saints founded their monasteries. It will then apply a range of archaeological survey techniques to interpret the sites they left behind, recording the earthworks, structures, architectural fragments and grave slabs that continue to survive at these monasteries. The program will also provide osteoarchaeological training, through simulated excavations, and a basic introduction to archaeological laboratory techniques.
Overall, the course is especially suited to students interested in medieval or ecclesiastical history or those hoping to pursue a career in Cultural Resource Management (CRM), teaching as it does several core CRM survey and analytical skills. Equally the program is excellently suited to students with an interest in public archaeology, as it is run specifically to assist local communities in County Offaly better understand and protect their local sites. As the project responds to community requests content varies a little seasonally but typically includes total station and/or GPS survey, graveyard recording, architectural survey and site analyses, photogrammetry, geophysical survey and excavation skills (note the winter program does not include live excavation, unlike most summer seasons).
Previously referred to as a ‘flowering garden of monasteries’, County Offaly is best known archaeologically for the number and scale of the early medieval monasteries, which to this day continue to dominate the landscape – several of which, such as Seir Kieran, Lemanaghan and St Brendan’s, are assessed as part of this program. Between the fifth and seventh centuries AD evangelist monks arrived in what is now County Offaly, attracted by the region’s centrality and its proximity to four of the five medieval provincial boundaries. Of course, people had lived in the midlands for millennia before these missionaries arrived, so the archaeological landscape the missionaries entered is also of critical importance to understanding their placement. Equally, the early medieval monasteries were frequently surpassed by, or added to, by Anglo-Norman foundations, adding new chapters to the monasteries’ histories in the later medieval period. Indeed, whilst many of the monasteries fell out of use, several continue as places of veneration and worship into the present day. As such, this field school offers a holistic approach to investigating the Monastic Midlands of Ireland through time studying the landscape, earthworks, buildings, folklore, spirituality, artefacts and the buried human remains of these spectacular sites.
The field school is based in the heritage town of Birr, a handsome and charming town, which was the location at which St Brendan founded his c. sixth century monastery. Our campus in Birr serves as a base for all our course teaching and lab-work, but also acts as a launching pad to investigate several regional monastic and later medieval sites.
Staying with local families in homestay accommodation in Birr, this program also offers a deeply enriching cultural immersion, guaranteeing students a truly memorable experience.