1989:051 - 'St Brendan's Cathedral,' Ardfert, Kerry

NMI Burial Excavation Records

County: Kerry Site name: 'St Brendan's Cathedral,' Ardfert

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

Author: Fionnbarr Moore, Office of Public Works, Dublin.

Site type: Medieval cathedral

ITM: E 478576m, N 621452m

Latitude, Longitude (decimal degrees): 52.331231, -9.781581

Between July 10th and August 18th 1989 an excavation was carried out at Ardfert Cathedral. It marked the commencement of a programme of conservation for the site, which is being funded by the O.P.W.This year excavation was concentrated at the west end of the cathedral. The areas investigated included the Romanesque west doorway, a section of the north wall which incorporates Early Christian masonry, and a stairway inside the west gable. Because the cathedral has been used extensively for burial up to the present, a number of reinterments had to take place both before and during the course of the excavation. Limestone bedrock occurs close to the surface on the site with the result that remains were placed in shallow graves. Disturbance caused by these burials has meant that only at a level close to or on bedrock do some undisturbed archaeological features survive.The blank arcading to the north of the Romanesque door extends beyond the north wall of the cathedral implying that the 12th-century side wall was further to the north also. One of the aims of the excavation was to try and establish the line of this earlier wall and to examine the relationship between it and the early masonry in the north wall. To date, however, the excavation has produced no trace of the north wall of the 12th-century church outside the north-west corner of the cathedral. it seems likely that this was removed in antiquity.The foundations and the lower courses of the north wall of the cathedral were exposed outside the north-west end. The lower wall courses thus revealed seemed to suggest that the Early Christian style of masonry extended as far as the north door, but on closer examination this was found to represent a re-usage of the larger blocks of stone here in the 13th century. A definite change in the nature of the foundations between this re-use of the early masonry and what is original and early would support the above interpretation. Also, a long flat stone forming part of the lower course above foundation level at the point of division between the two sections may be the corner of the preRomanesque church. This would subsequently have formed a natural division between nave and chancel in the 12th-century structure. In exposing these foundations a stony layer with charcoal was encountered at a depth of 0.6m below modem ground level, broken by later interments. This layer may reflect the final burning and abandonment of the cathedral in the 16th century.Inside the north and west doorways a dense concentration of post-medieval interments was uncovered, which has completely removed any trace of the original floor in that area. However, a line of mortar which runs along the north wall may represent the 13th-century floor level.At the west end of the cathedral, on the inside, a stone stairway runs up the west wall terminating in a narrow platform about halfway up the gable. This stairway had been partly obscured at a lower level by modern interments and excavation showed that it came straight down the gable wall, ending at the level of the medieval floor.In general, the foundations revealed during excavation were not very substantial. The west doorway and blank arcading to the north and south of it rested on the natural subsoil while the 13th-century north wall of the cathedral was built on a layer of loosely packed stones. The early masonry on the north wall rests on very tightly packed stones – the most substantial foundations revealed so far.Natural boulder clay was first encountered at a depth of 0.5m below the basal course of the cathedral wall on the outside, at the north-west end. Only at a level close to or on natural was it possible to recognise early graves. One grave was found under a layer of densely packed stones outside the north-west corner of the cathedral. Two stone-lined graves were discovered outside the cathedral, by the northwest wall and to the east of the north door. The first was lined with two slabs on the south side and the floor was paved. No end stones or lintels survived. This grave contained the remains of two individuals, one placed directly on top of and partly disturbing the other. The second grave was defined by limestone slabs. The remains of one individual lay diagonally across the grave in a west-south-west-east-north-east direction, with the upper portion of the skeleton resting against the south-west side-stone. Two human skulls and the scattered remains of at least one other individual rested on top of the skeleton, while another skull was found beneath its toe bones. A small green glass bead was found to the south of the remains and close to the most easterly side-stone of the grave. Eight quartz pebbles were recovered from this burial. Inside the north door of the cathedral and below medieval floor level a stone-lined grave extending under the east baulk contained the remains of at least four individuals. These remains and some of the other skeletons uncovered within the church just above natural and lying east-west do not observe the orientation of the cathedral.Other finds from the excavation were a Romanesque sandstone voussoir decorated with chevrons, a floral design and beading, a limestone corbel decorated with two crouched figures, post-medieval ridge-tile fragments and roof slates. Small finds included a sherd of French green-glazed pottery, iron fragments, a bronze buckle and clay pipes. An English penny of Henry III was found in modem burials outside the north wall and a bronze stick pin came from a similarly disturbed context.