Thursday, April 16, 2009
A load of old rubbish
A load of old rubbish proves Iona flourished 200 years before birth of Rome
Published Date: 16 April 2009
By MARTYN McLAUGHLIN
THE chance discovery of an ancient rubbish tip on the small island from where Christianity flourished across Scotland has confirmed it was once home to a Pagan settlement.
Studies by archeologists from the National Trust for Scotland have unearthed the first traces of Bronze Age activity on Iona – dating from nearly 1,000 years before the birth of Christ.
The research was carried out on a small pit of domestic refuse which was discovered
only because of the erosion of a sandy bank of a burn on the west side of the island.
Described by the NTS as a "prehistoric midden pit" the pile was found to contain a large cobblestone tool, shards of pottery and flint, limpet and whelk shells, and bones from sheep, goats, and a grey seal, some of which had been burnt.
Since its discovery last September, specialist radiocarbon tests have been carried out at the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre in East Kilbride. The results now confirm a 95 per cent chance that the debris dates from between 930 and 810BC.
Derek Alexander, the NTS archeologist who made the find, said: "This is a very significant find for Iona. It is well known for its early Christian history, however, we now have the first evidence which shows that there was settlement even earlier.
"The midden contains lots of useful information that may help shed some light on what human life on prehistoric Iona was like."
Mr Alexander added: "However, we don't have all the answers – while it is quite clear that the remains are domestic rubbish, whether they relate to a settlement in the immediate vicinity is unknown."
Iona may already have been a sacred island in the pre-Christian traditions of the Iron Age inhabitants of the Hebrides.
Although there is no actual physical evidence for this, it would explain why St Columba settled on this particular island in 563, after he was exiled from his native Ireland.
Kirsty Owen, cultural resources adviser for Historic Scotland – which cares for Iona Abbey and nunnery – said: "While it was well known that the early Christian settlement was far from being the first on Iona, it is really good to see some new Bronze Age evidence emerging.
"We know very little about activity on Iona before Columba's time and this find provides a small but important insight into the lives of Iona's prehistoric occupants and suggests that there is more evidence still to be uncovered."
Columba founded a monastery on Iona and set about the conversion of pagan Scotland and much of northern England to Christianity. Iona's fame as a place of learning and Christian mission spread throughout Europe and it became a major site of pilgrimage where several kings of Scotland, Ireland and Norway came to be buried.
In 1938, George MacLeod founded the Iona Community, an ecumenical Christian community of men and women from different walks of life. The community is a leading force in the present Celtic Christianity revival, and attracts nearly 1,000 visitors a week in high season.
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