1 - Old Mellifont Abbey, Mellifont, Louth

NMI Burial Excavation Records

County: Louth Site name: Old Mellifont Abbey, Mellifont

Sites and Monuments Record No.: LH023-007 Licence number: C623, E4519

Author: Donald Murphy and Jon Stirland

Site type: Medieval

ITM: E 701194m, N 778096m

Latitude, Longitude (decimal degrees): 53.742233, -6.466388

Monitoring took place of ground works associated with the re-landscaping of the site of Old Mellifont Abbey, carried out to improve visitor access to the National Monument, between 22 April and 26 May 2014. Two human burials were identified during the monitoring.

The cloister

The cloister’s modern-day ground level (post Liam de Paor’s excavations of the 1950s) were reduced by approximately 0.11-0.15m around all four ambulatories within the confines of the arcade walls and the internal walls of the north, south, east and west ranges. This was carried out to facilitate the construction of a new hard standing footpath around the cloister.

The north range of the cloister appears to have been fully excavated by de Paor with no evidence of any archaeological features or deposits. Natural yellowish-red boulder clay was identified along the full length of the north range. Within the north-west corner of the northern range three previously excavated feature were identified: a post-hole, an irregular shaped pit and an excavation trench along the south wall of the church within the cloister. All three features had been loosely backfill with a mix of stone rubble and lime plaster.

Monitoring of the works along the west range identified a layer of broken roof slate and lime mortar located along much of the range at a depth of approximately 0.1-0.15m below the current ground level. A trench was hand dug across this deposit. This deposit may represent material associated with the demolition of the cloister during the dissolution. Such similar deposits were identified during excavations carried out by Ann Lynch at Tintern Abbey in Co. Wexford (pp. 77-78). This material was covered by a compact layer of re-deposited material.

Monitoring of the east range identified two east-west aligned human burials located outside the main Chapter House door within the east ambulatory, a single post-hole, and a network of interconnecting stone-lined drains were also identified. The drains ran under the walls of the east range and along the length of the cloister. Like the west range, a layer of broken roof slate and lime mortar was located along much of the east range at a depth of approximately 0.1-0.15m below the current ground level. This deposit appeared to cape the burials and the stone drains suggesting that the burials and drains were in place before the demolition of the cloister.

The two burials located within the east ambulatory were also located underneath the layer of material rich in roof slate and lime plaster, suggesting that these burials pre-dated the demolition of the cloister. The burials were aligned east-west, were in a prone position with their arms flexed across the pelvis and were found within the cloister directly in front of the Chapter House door. Burial 1 was radiocarbon dated to 1210-1275 and Burial 2 to 1150-1250.

The burials were of adult males. Burial 1 was aged between 25-39 and Burial 2 between 36-45. Both showed signs of instances of childhood stress. However they appear to have both developed into robust adults. Burial 2 in particular has physiological evidence that would suggest a moderately active lifestyle and there was evidence of healed fractured ribs and a degree of degenerative joint disease.

As in the east and west ranges, much of the south range contained a layer rich in  broken roof slate and wall plaster located at a depth of  0.11-0.15m below the current ground level. The network of stone drains continued from the eastern range along into the southern range. However the majority of these drains had been disturbed and at some point a modern elastic land drain pipe was installed and the drains were filled with pea gravel and the capstones replaced. After removing a section of undisturbed capstone at the request of the OPW it appears that these drains originally would have been located under the layer of broken roof tile and plaster.

Monitoring of the lower half of the new access path and picnic area identified no archaeological features or deposits, with the exception of a fragment of medieval floor tiles within the topsoil. As the ground works for the path headed north towards the church, two walls were recorded, both of which appeared to be associated with the now-demolished mills that had occupied the site. Within the area of the mill the topsoil contained numerous fragments of human bone suggesting that the construction of the mill and previous ground works on the site had disturbed human burials located to the north and west of the abbey church.

No archaeological features were noted during the monitoring of ground works associated with the refurbishment of the car park. The majority of the excavations here where shallow and clearly showed that the area has been greatly disturbed and the ground level raised with the introduction of hard-core associated with the development of the original visitors’ car park.

References:

de Paor, Liam (1969), ‘Excavations at Mellifont Abbey, Co. Louth’ PRIA Vol. 68 Section C, No. 2.

Lynch, Ann (2010), Tintern Abbey, Co. Wexford: Cistercians and Colcloughs. Excavations 1982-2007, The Stationery Office, Dublin.

Archaeological Consultancy Services Unit, Unit 21, Boyne Business Park, Greenhills, Drogheda, Co Louth.