I attended a wonderful lecture this week by Dr. Stephen Mandal of the Irish Archaeology Field School about their work on the Black Friary in Trim, County Meath, just north of Dublin. He covered not only the history of the site and the excavation, but what they call community archaeology – making it relevant to the local public.
The Black Friary was founded in 1263 by Geoffrey de Geneville and occupied by French Dominicans who wore black robes, leading to them being known as the black friars. At the time, Trim was a strategically important town to England for their on again off again wars with the French, and the influx of soldiers needing people who were praying for them led to friaries popping up all over the place. After Henry VIII declared himself the head of the Church in the 1530s so he could take all their stuff, the Black Friary was abandoned. A building boom in the 18th century led to the friary being dismantled down to its foundations for material and the site was left as a field where locals walked their dogs.
The importance of the site was only realized when 12 skeletons showed up in a drainage digging project. The archaeologists have found a wide variety of artifacts that show us many different layers of culture and history. Bits of decorative stonework shipped in from England and delicate shards of stained glass show that these people had a ton of money. A uniform button from a militia based in another town was confusing until they found historical records of the group spending the night in the field on their way to a battle in Dublin. Based on what they haven’t found in the dig, they think the friars took the floor tiles and whatever other valuables they could carry with them when they left. In six seasons of digging they’ve found one hundred unmarked graves scattered around the site, from ancient burials of soldiers killed in battle to unbaptized infants secretly interred within the last century. One man’s teeth show wear patterns of having a pipe clamped between them for years. Local people living around the site regularly find human bones in their backyards! In fact the graves are the reason there’s anything left there at all; the people taking the stone for their own projects dug down only until they found a skeleton – anything at or below that level was reburied.
The Black Friary is just one of several standing Medieval ruins in Trim, and they’ve worked really hard to get the community on board with the dig. Every year they have tours, mock excavations for children, and classroom outreach. Their field school students stay in the homes of local families and bring their enthusiasm back with them at the end of the day. I don’t know if I could afford their field school, but I desperately want to visit this town, it sounds incredible.