Saturday, October 22, 2011

Review: Tintern Abbey, Co. Wexford: Cistercians and Colcloughs. Excavations 1982-2007.

Ann Lynch. Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Dublin, 2010. xvi + 245pp. Colour and black & white illustrations and plates throughout. ISBN 978-1-4064-2532-1. €30.

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The publication of Tintern Abbey, Co. Wexford: Cistercians and Colcloughs. Excavations 1982-2007 is the fifth instalment in the Department of Heritage and Local Government’s internationally peer reviewed Archaeological Monograph Series. The abbey was founded in 1200 by William Marshall, Earl of Pembroke, and quickly became one of the most important Cistercian foundations on the island. After its dissolution the abbey, and the majority of its lands, passed to Sir Anthony Colclough (pronounced Cokelee). The site remained in the family until 1959, and was vested in the Commissioners of Public Works in 1963.

In Section 1, Lynch places the abbey within its physical and historical setting. While the introduction to the Cistercians is excellent, the portion dealing with the tenure of the Colclough family superb and is very much brought to life with reproductions of paintings and photographs from the early 17th century to the beginning of the 20th century. Section 2 begins with a description of the state of the medieval buildings at the time of its transfer to the Commissioners of Public Works. Further subsections examine the building history of the abbey church and the cloister gateway, including various additions and modifications carried out by the Colclough family. Of particular interest are detailed examinations of sections of surviving Elizabethan panelling in the crossing tower. The portion dealing with the history of the conservation works on the site is particularly fascinating. The works here were carried out in three major phases over approximately 40 years. Each phase of conservation represents different approaches to the problems at hand and illustrates the changing nature of ‘best practice’ over several decades. The archaeological excavations (Section 3) were primarily intended to facilitate the conservation of the site. These were carried out in various phases from the early 1980s, the early to mid 1990s and in 2006-7. This section is profusely illustrated with colour and monochrome photographs and detailed site excavation plans and section drawings. In particular, the use of shading to differentiate between Cistercian and Colclough phases of construction is very useful and adds to the general clarity of the information being presented. While I have a personal penchant for archaeological illustration, I would single out examples of the two-light lancet window in the chancel (Fig. 9) and the reconstructed elevation of the cloister arcade (Fig. 33) (both by R. Stapleton) as items of art in their own right. The excavations revealed numerous details of the structural development and alterations to the structures, during the tenures of both the Cistercians and the Colcloughs. This significant body of data is placed within the twin contexts of other excavated Cistercian monasteries and the post-dissolution history of the site.

The excavated burials are examined in Section 4. While there appears to have been no burials to the north of the church, human remains appear to have been interred almost everywhere else. In the absence of grave goods or reliable stratigraphy, six skeletons were radiocarbon dated. One burial, an adolescent from the Lady Chapel, dated to the late 13th to 14th centuries. The dated burials from the west ambulatory occurred during the 14th and 15th centuries, while those from the nave, chancel, and south transept dated to the late 15th to early 16th centuries. While four of these determinations are investigated further by Gault in Appendix III, the raw dates are not provided for the remaining two. In all, the associated meta data for this body of dates is, to my mind, incomplete and prevents its incorporation into future research projects. I realise that I am quite pedantic on this point [see also here], but I firmly believe that archaeological dates have a viability outside the particular research project that they were created for, but only if the fullest amount of information possible is provided with them in print. Between all phases of excavation, some 106 whole or partial skeletons were recovered. Burials in the nave and chancel were dominated by adult males, though adult females were more frequent in the transept and ambulatory. However, in the chapel, only non-adults were recovered. Examination of the non-adults (below 18 years) indicated that 48.5% did not survive beyond their 5th year. Of the adults, 52 of the 65 sexed skeletons could be given a determination of age. It appears that, for both sexes, the majority of deaths were in the ‘younger adults’ category, with relatively few individuals surviving into advanced old age. Interrogation of the data by age and burial location suggests deliberate segregation. While males were buried in practically every part of the church, the chancel was the preferred location for younger males. Similarly, adult females were buried in most parts of the church, but a distinct preference is shown for younger females to be buried in the nave. An examination of the surviving teeth indicates that ante-mortem tooth loss accounted for nearly 17% of all recovered teeth. Dental caries were observed in 69% of the population, a particularly high figure for any society living before the introduction of refined sugars. There is also evidence for the presence of calculus, abscesses, periodontal disease, and enamel hypoplasia. Degenerative joint disease was also common among the recovered skeletal remains, but with females slightly less affected than males. While these are indicators that the individuals led quite harsh lives, full of physical activity, analysis of the women suggested that they frequently carried loads on their heads. A number of skeletons exhibited evidence for healed fractures, and three males carried evidence of sharp-force trauma, suggesting that at least two of them came to violent ends. Overall, the general health of this population was poor and the people buried here may have suffered periodic episodes of biological stress, especially the females. The higher prevalence of enamel hypoplasia among females is taken to suggest that, from an early age, females were less well fed than males. This situation may also have persisted throughout their adult lives. Excluding fragments of architectural stone, some 1900 artefacts were recovered during the excavations (Section 5). While I do not intend to list even all the categories of finds, a number do stand out. While various Cistercian rules forbade the use of wall paintings, quite a substantial corpus of painted plaster fragments were recovered, though it is difficult to visualise the original design. A number of fragments of medieval stained glass were recovered, all the more beautiful for their rarity. As one would imagine with a site of this type, the pottery remains take up a sizeable portion of the text. The types recovered include Leinster Cooking Ware, various Wexford-type wares, along with Saintonge and transitional types. The entire corpus spans the period from the late 12th to the 16th centuries. Among the recovered metalwork, the stand-out piece is a silver ring brooch of 13th to 14th century date. This entire section dealing with the finds is well presented, logically laid out and well illustrated. Not only does it present the recovered artefacts in a well-researched and attractive format, but it will easily become a ready reference for future excavations and for excavators seeking comparanda. Many of the illustrations in this section were prepared by Patricia Johnson and are among the finest examples of archaeological illustration in print. Section 6 presents the final discussions and conclusions, and attempts to draw together all the strands of the previous sections. The text is embellished with a number of reconstructions of what the abbey must have looked like in its heyday. Various discussions of the surrounding farmland of the abbey, and the lifestyle and economy of the people are also presented. The evolution of the abbey is charted through the centuries until its dissolution and granting to the Colcloughs and eventually into state care. In the final portion of this section Lynch assesses the unresolved questions raised by the excavations, and lists further profitable avenues of exploration and research.

In Section 7 Tietzsch-Tyler, the artist responsible for the wonderful reconstruction drawings, details the research that went into creating these fantastic images. While this is an important aspect of all reconstructions, it is rarely explicitly stated and dissected in this way. My only quibble would be that this deserved to be treated as an appendix, rather than a fully-fledged section, as it (to my mind, at least) breaks up the flow of the narrative. Nonetheless, this form of examination of the evidence and sources that make up the reconstruction drawings is important, and I would encourage its use in future projects. The volume also presents a number of appendices. Gault’s interrogation of some of the radiocarbon dates in a Bayesian framework, utilising the OxCal program, has been mentioned above. McCormick analysis of the small corpus of faunal remains identified sheep/goats, pigs, cow, horse, cat, dog, ox and a number of wild animal types. The assemblage is dominated by sheep/goats, and is taken to indicate evidence for the traditional Cistercian practice of sheep rearing. Although not ruling out the possibility that the representatives of cat, dog, otter, and fox were food items (especially in times of scarcity), it seems more likely that they were exploited for their pelts. Brown and Baillie report on the dendrochronological dating of a number of the recovered timbers. Samples from a number of large beams from the tower last grew in 1569, being felled either in the winter of that year, or the following spring. Portions of the panels were more difficult to date, but are estimated to have been felled around 1610.

Despite my objections to the presentation of the radiocarbon data and the placement of Section 7, I find little else to criticise. The text and illustrations combine to present a logical and well-balanced report on the excavations, firmly placed in the changing contexts of the Cistercians and the Colcloughs. It is a beautifully produced book that deserves its place in the distinguished Archaeological Monograph Series. I can only look forward to further high quality publications in the series.


Note: Robert M Chapple wishes to acknowledge the financial assistance provided under the Built Heritage element of the Environment fund by the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht towards the Irish Radiocarbon & Dendrochronological Dates project [IR&DD Facebook Page].


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