1991:062 - 'St Brendan's Cathedral', Ardfert, Kerry

NMI Burial Excavation Records

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

Sites and Monuments Record No.: SMR 20:46 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

Excavations in advance of conservation continued this year over the five-month period May-October. The nave, choir, south aisle and an area outside the east and south-east end of the cathedral were fully excavated. Also the site of the ‘sacristy’, which adjoined the cathedral on the north-east, was partially excavated and this area will be completed in 1992.

The interior of the cathedral contained a large number of modern tombs and graves and the remains from these were re-interred in the adjoining cemetery to the east. Beneath these tombs and the modern burial layer generally a large number of l7th/l8th-century remains survived, identifiable as such by the typical shroud pins of the period. These remains overlay and cut through medieval burials which were contained in tightly packed layers in the 0.3m-04.m of soil below floor level, continuing down to and, in a lot of cases, cutting into the underlying natural boulder clay. Pillow stone burials occurred throughout the medieval layers and a number of these pre-dated the 13th-century phase of the cathedral. Coffin nails were found in association with some of burials of 13th-century date and earlier. Sword and other injuries were noted and some punishment burials may also be represented.

The south, east and west wall foundations of the damhliag or pre-Romanesque church were uncovered within the cathedral and from these and the surviving north wall from that phase we can estimate its internal dimensions as follows:1 8m east-west x 6m north-south. The damhliag was found to extend further east than expected, as far as the opposing north and south doorways at the east end of the cathedral.

A low cross wall uncovered 2.4m from the east end of the cathedral at the same height as a raised foundation plinth along the north and south walls, also confined to the east end, seems to have acted as a retaining wall for a raised area under the east window.

A coin of Edward I, found in the foundations of the south wall of the cathedral, under the recess for the sedilia, may provide a terminus post quem for the construction of the cathedral, i.e. after 1279 AD. No evidence for a tiled or stone floor was found within the building.

A wide shallow fosse with possible entrance causeway was found outside the east end of the cathedral, curving around it in an arc which was sufficiently wide to suggest that it extended outside the area of the modern graveyard to north and south. The causeway which measured 1m in width may have been wider originally but was disturbed when two large pits were cut into it. The larger of these pits measured 1.2m in depth x 1.9m in width. Fragments of bronze, animal bone and an iron chain with spike were found in the lower fill and green-glazed Saintonge pottery and two pillow stone burials at the top. Two post holes, one at the northern terminal of the fosse and another between the two pits, suggest a structural feature connected with the entrance causeway.

Within the ‘sacristy’ area by the north-east end of the cathedral, a cobbled surface was found at the same level as an early threshold, also uncovered during the excavation, a metre below the level of the ogee-headed north door. The foundations of the west and north walls of the ‘sacristy’ building were also found and a large pit under the west foundations containing a large deposit of disarticulated human and animal remains suggests a clearance of human remains and occupation material prior to building. Unglazed post-medieval ridge tiles were found in large quantities in this area.

A James II halfpenny of 1685 found under the late blocking wall near the central pillar of the south transept gives a terminus post quem for this wall.

In the south aisle area the line of the south wall of the aisle survived as a stone spread to the west of the more substantial remains found last year. A ditch running north-south was found extending across the south aisle and the west end of the nave, to the west of the damhliag foundations. It predated the 13th-century cathedral and measured 14.5m in length x 1.3m-1.6m in width and up to 0.55m in depth. It was flat bottomed with gradual sloping sides and filled with numerous layers of clay and silt, some with animal bone. No evidence was found for this feature in the excavations outside the north wall.

Finds from the excavation included a Roman intaglio mounted in a silver finger or thumb ring found among the finger bones on the left side of the pelvis of a pillow stone burial, at the east end of the cathedral. This skeleton, orientated north-west/south-cast, probably just pre-dated the 13th-century phase of the building. While the intaglio is of antique Roman origin, the ring is of l2th/l3th-century date. Three oval glass mounts were found in association with the head of this skeleton. A medieval pilgrim’s badge from Santiago de Compostella was found in the wall of a modern tomb at the west end of the nave. Other finds included a crutch-headed stirrup ringed pin of 11th-century date, a bone comb with lattice decoration found behind the head of a skeleton, two 17th-century Cork City of Refuge tokens on the left and right shoulders of a skeleton, a bronze ear scoop from beneath the cross wall at the east end of the cathedral and medieval English, French, German and Dutch pottery. The stone record grew with the discovery of a further fragment of a medieval font with orans figures, medieval grave slabs, fragments of the arch of the 13th-century sedilia and miscellaneous architectural fragments of 12th- and 13th-century date. A large pre-12th-century cross slab, with ringed cross, was found covering a burial inside the east end of the cathedral.

Trial trenching in the fair green to the south of the cathedral in advance of a proposed visitor facility there produced evidence of two possible medieval house floors and pits.