2001:1126 - Staad Abbey, Agharrow, Sligo

NMI Burial Excavation Records

County: Sligo Site name: Staad Abbey, Agharrow

Sites and Monuments Record No.: SMR 5:22 Licence number: 00E0235 ext.

Author: Finbar McCormick, Jerry O’Sullivan and Cathy Dunne, c/o School of Archaeology and Palaeoecology, Queen’s University, Belfast.

Site type: Medieval church, souterrain, middens, early field wall

ITM: E 562854m, N 849305m

Latitude, Longitude (decimal degrees): 54.391005, -8.571945

This was the second and last of two seasons of investigation at Staad, where a ruined medieval church stands by a low sea cliff. The aims of the work were to make a general record of features actively eroding in the cliff face, and to characterise the site in all periods. Inishmurray is clearly visible some four miles out to sea and a possible association between Staad and that island was considered of special interest.

A previous investigation in 1994, by Finbar McCormick and Brian Bentley of Queen’s University, Belfast, had sampled midden materials from the cliff face by the church. Further fieldwork by the writers in 2000 included topographic and geophysical surveys (by GeoArc Ltd), a measured survey of the church, detailed sampling and recording of the cliff face, and partial excavation of an eroding souterrain (Excavations 2000, No. 866). In 2001 work continued with the excavation of several trenches in the pasture field surrounding the church.

The main trench was a cutting of c. 25m2 in the narrow space remaining between the church and the sea cliff. Here the foundations of the church were cut through a deep accumulation of midden material. This in turn sealed an early medieval house floor represented by paving remnants and two ash spreads or simple hearths. (The house floor may have been associated with the souterrain but no further trace of this was found; evidently what survived in the adjacent cliff face had been the last remnant.) The house floor was laid on deep natural sand. Beneath the sand a field wall built of beach cobbles extended across the site and beneath the ruined church. Although blown sand can accumulate quickly, the wall probably pre-dated all the other features by a long interval and may have been a prehistoric field boundary.

Elsewhere, long, machine-cut trenches were cut in radial lines, extending from the church across the pasture to west and south. Some large drainage ditches were recorded but there was no evidence whatever for the great ditch of an early monastic enclosure. (Geophysical survey results had already indicated that no such ditch would be found.)

Artefacts included a spearhead, pin fragments, an iron blade, quern fragments, a 16th-century coin and a few chipped stone pieces (flint or chert). Cattle, sheep/goat, pig, horse and seal were all represented among the butchered animal bones. The fish species suggest inshore or rock fishing, and molluscs were also gathered in quantities. Carbonised plant remains were recovered from pits, hearths and the souterrain. They include cereal grains (oats, hulled barley and bread/club wheat), weed seeds and flax seeds. Some of the cereal and weed seeds derived from a large pit interpreted as a kiln remnant or cereal-processing pit.

Horse bone recovered from a midden in 1994 yielded a date of AD 1447–1632 (UB-3771). Cattle bone recovered in 2000 from the backfilled souterrain yielded a date of AD 1010–1155 (UB-4575), and charcoal from the base of the large ‘kiln’ pit gave a date of AD 1462–1641 (UB-4575). (All dates are expressed at one standard deviation.)

Analyses of soil samples, plant remains, animal and fish bones, and marine molluscs is ongoing at the time of writing, and further radiocarbon dates are expected.

Despite its name, there is no evidence that Staad Abbey was ever a house of cloistered monks. Furthermore, limited excavations have yielded no evidence for either an early church or monastic enclosure pre-dating the ruined later medieval church. There was, however, certainly some form of settlement here in the early medieval period. Perhaps what was once merely a hostel for travellers to Inishmurray was formally consecrated in the later medieval period by the establishment of a pilgrims’ church.

Access to the site was generously permitted by the landowner, Mr Thady Moffat. Practical support was supplied by the School of Archaeology and Palaeoecology, Queen’s University, Belfast. Excavation in 2001 was funded by Dúchas, via a research grant from the National Committee for Archaeology of the Royal Irish Academy.