Dig deep to help explore Lismore’s sacred past

Community archaeology on Lismore: recording the cathedral nave, July 2017

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A crowdfunding bid to explore St Moluag’s Early Monastery on Lismore could dig up treasure.

Fundraising is already three quarters of the way towards the remaining £2,500 needed to help with a three-week archaeological dig this September to finish off exploring the cemetery site.

Archaeologist Clare Ellis of Argyll Archaeology showing the burials to Brendan O’Hara MP in July 2018
Eight medieval grave slabs were raised, repaired and displayed in 2015
The Sanctuary Stone on Lismore

Leading bone specialist Dr Angela Boyle and Dr Clare Ellis from Argyll Archaeology will be supervising the taking of samples of  burials, to find out genetic information revealing ages, genders, health and where they might have come from.

The greatest respect will be shown and guidelines from Historic Environment Scotland will be followed, said island archivist Robert Hay.

Samples from bones will  be sent off to the Crick Institute in London for DNA analysis as part of the 1000 Ancient British Genomes Project.

The Crick Institute has offered £10,000-worth of analyses free of charge but the dig will still be expensive.

A large part of the funding will be met by the generous bequest of the late Hugh MacPherson and a grant from the Society of Antiquarians of Scotland. The MacDougall McCallum Foundation (USA) has also pledged to match fund what the Crowdfunder brings in up to £2,500.  To make a donation, go to www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/robert-hay-2

As well as looking for donations, enthusiastic volunteers are also needed to get hands-on with the dig, which aims to find out more about Lismore and its people at the time of the early church. Full training will be given.

Since 2015 Lismore Historical Society (Comann Eachdraidh Lios Mor) and Lismore Parish Church have been working in partnership on community archaeological projects.

It started in 2015 with them raising eight Medieval grave slabs, repairing them and  displaying them in a shelter. Focus later turned to the cathedral nave. Last year there was no dig.

Tradition has it that Moluag brought Christianity from Ireland to the Isle of Lismore in the middle of the 6th century, as Columba was establishing his monastery on Iona.

The island had been a centre of power and ritual, stretching back into prehistoric times.

Signs of Moluag’s presence were confirmed in 2018 when a community archaeological dig next revealed a 7th century Christian burial within an older cemetery enclosure.

Dig organisers say the enthusiastic response and generosity of donations so far has been overwhelming.

Part of the next dig will concentrate on the area of the cemetery next to the Sanctuary Stone.

According to the experts, sanctuary areas could be a safe place to keep valuables, so eyes will be kept open for treasure.

‘Who knows what we will find,’ said Mr Hay.

You can watch A Sacred Island, a film about Lismore here: