Thursday 24 March 2011

An echo from the past - archaeology field trip to Ireland

Yesterday I had a meeting at the Big House where I volunteer, and I needed a notebook. I grabbed one from the top of some of my archaeology books in my office, but it wasn't until I opened it later that I found it contained notes I had made during an Archaeology Field Trip to Ireland some 14 years or so ago. After visiting the wonderful Rock of Cashel, we were taken to Holycross Abbey. Here are some notes I took, which I feel express one archaeologist's view of religion and place:

HOLYCROSS ABBEY - now Cistercian - was Benedictine? Built 11/12th C. but remains mostly gone - 14/15th C. what we see, imposed in late Medieval. Relic - fragment of the TRUE CROSS. Nave, chancel and two transepts. medieval wall paintings - one of few to survive here.

Consider how space is used. Atmosphere. Inspiration etc. Areas which can be used, others which are approached with respect, awe etc.

Dolmens and wedge tombs (which we had been seeing) about BELONGING to the landscape, being PART OF IT - as the stone is.

Use of stained glass to create beauty and atmosphere. Candles lit for departed souls, so focusing attention and thought on death and respect. The scarlet of the glass is reflected in the red of the candle holders. The Gothic arched window leads the eyes, pointing up.

Through the clear glass window at the back is the shape of the High Cross. Tremendous sense of peace, aided by the low religious chant in the background. The modernity of the patchwork stained glass linking past with present. Secular subject of hunting scene as a wall painting - yet past-time of holy men too. Showed status and elitism, but this is a monastery . . .

V. steep incline downhill towards the alter. Echoes of shapes - as frameworks within frameworks, centering on the side chapels with lit candles and windows. Intensifying and focusing.

Isn't this just one vast megalithic monument? It is an ossuary for bones - a giant container - a focus in the landscape. Sacred space is divided up inside it - some parts are sacred and may not be accessed by the people not participating in the ritual (the people wielding the power, the manipulators of religion).

Yet plain glass in the big window behind the alter. Allowing more light to focus on the principal area of ritual. Outside - the cloisters - an area of contemplation and quiet thought.

Are approaches guided? Yes - the rear of the church is in line with the alter and the PROCESSIONAL line. Ritual participants have a different entrance/exit. Wonderful atmosphere of peace and tranquility. PROCESSIONAL door.

Relics as icons. Not just one - several - as focus/backdrop for candles.

I think that this offers an interesting perspective how human attitudes to death, religious beliefs and religious ceremony have altered little from the Neolithic to the present-day. I was aware of the layout when we later visited Newgrange, with its central passageway, control of movement, side "chapels", focus of veneration . . . Or is that what our lecturer intended us to consider after visiting Holycross?


  1. I do so enjoy your postings even though I am in the USA. My ancestors are from your area ( I think) Farley Hungerford Castle. Someday I hope to visit and your blog has been an excellent advert. for the area. I love beautiful. I also have connections to Ireland.

  2. Carol - well blow me down, we visited Farleigh Hungerford a couple of years back - i did a blog post on it. I will have to try and find it for you. A lovely villae - with a castle!

    MorningAJ - well, I have a DEGREE in Archaeology, which is something else, as I have never been gainfully employed as an Archaeologist . . .

  3. Carol - sorry - you'd already said about the castle! Doh!

  4. Thats funny, my Husband is off to Ireland this afternoon to visit his folks. They live twixt Cork and Limerick. We lived out there for a year when he was working in Dublin and were lucky enough to visit the burial chambers at New Grange.