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


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  • 1. Review: Tintern Abbey, Co. Wexford: Cistercians and Colcloughs. Excavations 1982-2007. Originally posted online on 22 October 2011 at ( Lynch. Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Dublin,2010. xvi + 245pp. Colour and black & white illustrations and plates throughout. ISBN978-1-4064-2532-1. €30.The publication of Tintern Abbey, Co. Wexford: Cistercians and Colcloughs.Excavations 1982-2007 is the fifth instalment in the Department of Heritage and LocalGovernment’s internationally peer reviewed Archaeological Monograph Series. Theabbey was founded in 1200 by William Marshall, Earl of Pembroke, and quickly becameone of the most important Cistercian foundations on the island. After its dissolution theabbey, and the majority of its lands, passed to Sir Anthony Colclough (pronouncedCokelee). The site remained in the family until 1959, and was vested in theCommissioners of Public Works in 1963.In Section 1, Lynch places the abbey within its physical and historical setting. While theintroduction to the Cistercians is excellent, the portion dealing with the tenure of theColclough family superb and is very much brought to life with reproductions ofpaintings and photographs from the early 17th century to the beginning of the20th century. Section 2 begins with a description of the state of the medieval buildings atthe time of its transfer to the Commissioners of Public Works. Further subsectionsexamine the building history of the abbey church and the cloister gateway, includingvarious additions and modifications carried out by the Colclough family. Of particularinterest are detailed examinations of sections of surviving Elizabethan panelling in the
  • 2. crossing tower. The portion dealing with the history of the conservation works on thesite is particularly fascinating. The works here were carried out in three major phasesover approximately 40 years. Each phase of conservation represents differentapproaches to the problems at hand and illustrates the changing nature of ‘best practice’over several decades. The archaeological excavations (Section 3) were primarilyintended to facilitate the conservation of the site. These were carried out in variousphases from the early 1980s, the early to mid 1990s and in 2006-7. This section isprofusely illustrated with colour and monochrome photographs and detailed siteexcavation plans and section drawings. In particular, the use of shading to differentiatebetween Cistercian and Colclough phases of construction is very useful and adds to thegeneral clarity of the information being presented. While I have a personal penchant forarchaeological illustration, I would single out examples of the two-light lancet windowin 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 revealednumerous details of the structural development and alterations to the structures, duringthe tenures of both the Cistercians and the Colcloughs. This significant body of data isplaced 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 noburials to the north of the church, human remains appear to have been interred almosteverywhere else. In the absence of grave goods or reliable stratigraphy, six skeletonswere radiocarbon dated. One burial, an adolescent from the Lady Chapel, dated to thelate 13th to 14th centuries. The dated burials from the west ambulatory occurred duringthe 14th and 15th centuries, while those from the nave, chancel, and south transept datedto the late 15th to early 16th centuries. While four of these determinations areinvestigated further by Gault in Appendix III, the raw dates are not provided for theremaining 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 Iam quite pedantic on this point [see also here], but I firmly believe that archaeologicaldates 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 femaleswere 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 that48.5% did not survive beyond their 5th year. Of the adults, 52 of the 65 sexed skeletonscould be given a determination of age. It appears that, for both sexes, the majority ofdeaths were in the ‘younger adults’ category, with relatively few individuals survivinginto advanced old age. Interrogation of the data by age and burial location suggestsdeliberate segregation. While males were buried in practically every part of the church,the chancel was the preferred location for younger males. Similarly, adult females wereburied in most parts of the church, but a distinct preference is shown for youngerfemales to be buried in the nave. An examination of the surviving teeth indicates thatante-mortem tooth loss accounted for nearly 17% of all recovered teeth. Dental carieswere observed in 69% of the population, a particularly high figure for any society livingbefore the introduction of refined sugars. There is also evidence for the presence of
  • 3. calculus, abscesses, periodontal disease, and enamel hypoplasia. Degenerative jointdisease was also common among the recovered skeletal remains, but with femalesslightly less affected than males. While these are indicators that the individuals led quiteharsh lives, full of physical activity, analysis of the women suggested that they frequentlycarried loads on their heads. A number of skeletons exhibited evidence for healedfractures, and three males carried evidence of sharp-force trauma, suggesting that atleast two of them came to violent ends. Overall, the general health of this population waspoor and the people buried here may have suffered periodic episodes of biological stress,especially the females. The higher prevalence of enamel hypoplasia among females istaken to suggest that, from an early age, females were less well fed than males. Thissituation may also have persisted throughout their adult lives. Excluding fragments ofarchitectural stone, some 1900 artefacts were recovered during the excavations (Section5). 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 substantialcorpus of painted plaster fragments were recovered, though it is difficult to visualise theoriginal design. A number of fragments of medieval stained glass were recovered, all themore beautiful for their rarity. As one would imagine with a site of this type, the potteryremains take up a sizeable portion of the text. The types recovered include LeinsterCooking Ware, various Wexford-type wares, along with Saintonge and transitionaltypes. The entire corpus spans the period from the late 12 th to the 16th centuries. Amongthe recovered metalwork, the stand-out piece is a silver ring brooch of 13 th to14th century date. This entire section dealing with the finds is well presented, logicallylaid 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 futureexcavations and for excavators seeking comparanda. Many of the illustrations in thissection were prepared by Patricia Johnson and are among the finest examples ofarchaeological illustration in print. Section 6 presents the final discussions andconclusions, and attempts to draw together all the strands of the previous sections. Thetext is embellished with a number of reconstructions of what the abbey must havelooked 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 theabbey is charted through the centuries until its dissolution and granting to theColcloughs and eventually into state care. In the final portion of this section Lynchassesses the unresolved questions raised by the excavations, and lists further profitableavenues of exploration and research.In Section 7 Tietzsch-Tyler, the artist responsible for the wonderful reconstructiondrawings, details the research that went into creating these fantastic images. While thisis an important aspect of all reconstructions, it is rarely explicitly stated and dissected inthis 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 thenarrative. Nonetheless, this form of examination of the evidence and sources that makeup the reconstruction drawings is important, and I would encourage its use in futureprojects. The volume also presents a number of appendices. Gault’s interrogation ofsome of the radiocarbon dates in a Bayesian framework, utilising the OxCal program,has been mentioned above. McCormick analysis of the small corpus of faunal remainsidentified sheep/goats, pigs, cow, horse, cat, dog, ox and a number of wild animal types.
  • 4. The assemblage is dominated by sheep/goats, and is taken to indicate evidence for thetraditional Cistercian practice of sheep rearing. Although not ruling out the possibilitythat the representatives of cat, dog, otter, and fox were food items (especially in times ofscarcity), it seems more likely that they were exploited for their pelts. Brown and Bailliereport 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 felledeither in the winter of that year, or the following spring. Portions of the panels weremore 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 ofSection 7, I find little else to criticise. The text and illustrations combine to present alogical and well-balanced report on the excavations, firmly placed in the changingcontexts of the Cistercians and the Colcloughs. It is a beautifully produced book thatdeserves its place in the distinguished Archaeological Monograph Series. I can only lookforward to further high quality publications in the series.Note: Robert M Chapple wishes to acknowledge the financial assistance provided underthe Built Heritage element of the Environment fund by the Department of Arts, Heritageand the Gaeltacht towards the Irish Radiocarbon & Dendrochronological Dates project[IR&DD Facebook Page]