1987:12 - CATHEDRAL HILL, Downpatrick, Demesne of Down, Down

NMI Burial Excavation Records

County: Down Site name: CATHEDRAL HILL, Downpatrick, Demesne of Down

Sites and Monuments Record No.: N/A Licence number:

Author: N.F. Brannon, Historic Monuments and Buildings Branch, DOE(NI)

Site type: Early Christian and medieval ecclesiastical site


ITM: E 748220m, N 844402m

Latitude, Longitude (decimal degrees): 54.326785, -5.721239

A third and final season of excavations took place in 1987 on the south-west slope of Cathedral Hill, Downpatrick. To complete the excavation of the area designated for a graveyard extension, the 1987 work further expanded the trench opened in 1985 and '86. Results may be summarized as follows:

(a) The large ditch was fully excavated, involving the removal of the primary Early Christian period deposits. The stratigraphy was complex, and varied considerably through the 7m exposed. Finds were few (some environmental samples were taken), but there is no possibility that the ditch pre-dates the Early Christian period. It may, therefore, be interpreted as a monastic boundary or defensive earthwork. Less than 1 % of the ditch has been examined, assuming that it encircles the hilltop.

(b) Excavations were extended to cross the projected line of the 'hillfort' bank. These confirmed the theory that this is not a prehistoric feature, rather that the soils forming the earthwork are an accumulation of deposits of the Early Christian and medieval periods. Notable features exposed included an area of stone paving, large stone-packed post-holes indicative of Early Christian period timber buildings, and medieval cobbled pathways, possibly edging the medieval cemetery discovered in 1986.

(c) Continued excavation of the large east-west stone building, robbed in the 18th century, revealed the line of an internal north-south wall and a probable buttress on the downslope side of the south wall. For the first time, construction debris could be isolated from demolition debris with some certainty, and the discovery in the former of an Edward III penny, probably deposited in the late 14th or early 15th century, suggests a construction date somewhat later than had been expected. Further discoveries of dressed sandstone architectural fragments, window leading, hand-painted window glass, and on-site industrial activity point to the important status of the building. While its function remains uncertain, it was exciting to discover within the structure what appears to be a bell-mould of fired clay.

(d) Beneath the building, further inhumations from the late Early Christian period/early medieval cemetery were found. Skeletons of adults of both sexes, children and infants were removed for analysis.

(e) Pre-dating the cemetery there was at least one circular timber building dating from the Early Christian period. A large right-angled void (not fully excavated) has been interpreted as a timber souterrain associated with the building. The void had been infilled by the mid 12th century, dating being provided by two Hiberno-Norse coins and a fragment of decorated gold foil.

The excavation was accompanied by the publicity of earlier seasons and guided tours were given to almost 1000 visitors.

The site was removed revealing an upright stone which was considered to be perhaps part of the original structure. A small excavation was undertaken by Historic Monuments and Buildings Branch on 17-18 September 1987. Excavation showed that the stone was set in modern topsoil and no sockets or other evidence was found to indicate prehistoric activity. An area of cobbling on the east side and parallel with the removed boundary was overlain and underlain by modern pottery. The cobbling was almost certainly the surface of an abandoned lane.