8.6 Recommendations for future work

Some of the recommendations here are not specific to the early medieval period – as should be clear from the above document, the Iron Age and later medieval periods cannot be separated from the early medieval period in many cases. A number of specific research programmes can be suggested.

1) The creation of an investigation policy for Iona

Iona was one of the most significant places in the intellectual and artistic life of North-west Europe in the 7/8th centuries. Apart from the artistic achievements of the High Crosses and llustrated manuscripts such as the Book of Kells, and literary works such as the Life of Columba, Adomnán’s On the Holy Places, and the Corpus Canonnum Hiberernensis were produced, it was one of the key places where the idea of the earthly monastery as a metaphor of Heavenly Jerusalem was developed (O’Loughlin 2007; Jenkins 2010). Understanding the expression of these ideas in the physical reality of monuments, buildings and artefacts is a key research theme in early medieval studies.

An attempt has been made to develop a coherent policy for investigation of Iona, with a major AHRC application from the multi-disciplinary Iona Research Group based at the University of Glasgow, however this was unsuccessful. Other means of carrying out this work is essential, given the prime place of Iona in the cultural development of early medieval Europe. Some of this work is already taking place (Campbell and Maldonado forthcoming; Campbell et al. forthcoming), but further survey and selected excavation of archaeological features – such as ditches – would enable a much more coherent picture of the site to be revealed. The nature of the Viking presence on the island is a most significant adjunct to the earlier activities, and in combination with ongoing rescue excavations on the island this would be a very fruitful way to proceed as an additional strand to this work.

2) Further research and investigation of other monastic centres

Other monastic centres, such as St Molaug’s (CANMORE ID 23090) on Lismore and St Blane’s on Bute (CANMORE ID 40292) also deserve further study, some of which is in progress (eg Duffy 2012). The burial site of Cladh a’Bhile(CANMORE ID 39051) is a very early site for which we have no documentary evidence, but the quantity of sculpture indicates an important regional centre, possibly with pre-Christian origins (Gondek 2006a). On Tiree there are sites potentially linked to Iona, at Kirkipol and Ceann a’ Mhara (CANMORE ID 21477) (for carved stones see RCAHMS 1980, site 325, figs 195-6). At Kirkipol, geophysical survey by Darko Maricevic from University of Reading potentially indicates the location of an early Christian chapel/graveyard.

3) Further coastal survey to identify inter-tidal and maritime sites

There is scope for further survey work by community groups, particularly ongoing monitoring of eroding coastlines, searching for tidal mills, harbours and fish traps in the inter-tidal zone, and searching for horizontal mills. Aerial reconnaissance and LIDAR should be extended to this area to search for unenclosed and lowland sites – Dave Cowley’s recent work shows the value of this in western areas (Cowley 2009).

4) Multi-disciplinary approaches to field survey

Integrating field survey, aerial survey, remote sensing, toponymics and antiquarian accounts provides a route into wider landscape studies. A combination of specialisms provides a much fuller view of landscape presence in the Norse period. For example, the inclusion of Norse place name studies by Johnston (1995) for Coll and Tiree (with commentary of Islay, Mull and Lismore) forms a framework for naming the landscape by a Norse-speaking population (see also Holliday 2016).

5) Re-examination of artefacts from previous excavations originally classified as Iron Age/Early Medieval

Re-assessment of older collections in museums and older excavations can bring new material to light, as at Iona. A comprehensive list of museum and other holdings relevant to the area would be a first step here.

There would be a useful project to locate and undertake examination of local collections held within Argyll. For example, study of the multi-period pottery collections from Tiree in Glasgow museums enabled Alan Lane to identify Norse platters (Lane 1990), and other potential types remain to be discovered from eroding sand-blow sites.

There are many major houses in the region, landowners will have material in their attics and this needs to be brought together gradually. The loss of papers for the Luss Estate for example, which included detail and probably also the original finds from the Boiden burial has been unfortunate and probably not unique. New work can build on this rather than discount it.

Additionally, as a desk based/museum based activity initially, the reviewing of excavation collections for material which was not published earlier, or which could have been mis-identified is a way forward, especially if it can highlight areas of under representation.

Radiocarbon dating of older material may also yield surprising results, as with the Sanaigmhor cremated material. Dating the Lismore crozier would be a good example.

6) Excavation

As far as excavation is concerned almost any new site will produce worthwhile data given our poor state of knowledge. The recent Dun Mhuirich (CANMORE ID 39122) (see Dun Mhuirich Excavation: Case Study) excavations have highlighted the often very long sequences of occupation of defended sites in the region and the difficulty of separating out an early medieval component in the landscape. However, as documented royal sites, Tarbert (CANMORE ID 39316) and Dunaverty (CANMORE ID 38302) would repay small-scale excavation to compare with Dunadd (CANMORE ID 38564) and Dunollie. The main trench (Site 3) at Dunadd was never bottomed in 1981, due to funding policy changes, and could fruitfully be finished. Marshall’s trenches at Little Dunagoil are a priority to be re-opened to assess the stratigraphic interpretation of the site. Eilean Davin, Crinan, has been proposed as a trading site and has produced an Irish type of cable bead. James’s work at Glenan needs to be extended to other sites to search for early buildings beneath later settlements. Some the putative early chapels on Islay should also be excavated. Any new cemetery sites of the period should have extensive radiocarbon and isotope studies. An ambitious plan for crannogs might be to core a large number to establish broad chronologies, which could be linked to pollen work in the lochs.

The search for comparable sites in larger scale surveys, followed up in selected cases by small scale excavation would enable new fieldwork to benefit from the pre-existing material culture data. It is clear that there is much reuse and continuity of function in the sites spanning the early medieval period represented in this review, in order to progress it is necessary to develop fieldwork strategies which can maximise this often remote landscape: can it really be so very different from elsewhere in Scotland? If it is, then how and why?

Palaeoenvironmental Priorities (see also Section 4.8)

  1. Careful reconstruction of later Holocene relative sea level fall is needed at Dunadd to fully understand the significance of the coastal setting of this fort.
  2. The pollen analyses of Miller and Ramsay (in Housley et al 2004) in the early historic period near Dunadd to be tested at a network of sites.
  3. An environmental history of monastic settings.



Read the related case studies:




Read the Case Study : Iona Abbey


Read the Case Study:  Dun Mhuirich Excavation