Early burial site backs proof Lismore monastery came before Iona

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A community dig on Lismore has uncovered evidence there could have been a monastery on the island before St Columba founded his on Iona.

Archaeologists and community historians say the discovery of part of an enclosed, early medieval cemetery is a breakthrough.

Tradition has it that St Moluag came from Ireland in AD562 to found a monastery on Lismore, a year before his more famous contemporary, St Columba, founded his on Iona.

Until the cemetery was found, the only concrete evidence was a broken 8th century cross.

Radiocarbon dating places one of the burials in the 7th century AD and another in the late 10th century AD.

Archaeologist Clare Ellis said: ‘This early burial brings us to within 100 years of St Moluag’s founding of his monastery, and probably even earlier, as the enclosing cemetery wall is likely to pre-date the burial. Enclosed early medieval cemeteries in Scotland are extremely rare and, where they have been identified, they are associated with churches.’

Robert Hay of Lismore Historical Society added: ‘I believe we have found the cemetery of the early Christian monastery.  This is extremely exciting, not only because well-preserved burials of this date are rare in Scotland but also because it helps to explain why Lismore was chosen for the site of the first Bishopric of Argyll. The team of community volunteers can’t wait to get back to digging on the site’.

The dig also showed that in the 13th century, around the time a cathedral on Lismore was being built, the part of the cemetery recently uncovered was no longer used for burial. Volunteers found a metalworking site and a slightly later cooking hearth dug down into the burials on which oats and barley had been accidental burnt. Livestock and deer bones from the same period showing signs of butchery were also found nearby.

‘We can imagine craftsmen involved in the construction of the cathedral making tools and nails, later resting and enjoying a well-earned meaty meal. The fact the burial immediately next to the hearth had had its thigh bone disturbed and replaced upside down suggests the cook had come across more than he or she bargained for when digging the hearth pit.’

The archaeological excavation was led by Argyll Archaeology on behalf of the Kirk Session and Lismore Historical Society and was funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

The community dig will re-start in 2020 if it gets more funding.