The Abbey: History


Alongside the upstanding remains at Iona, there are significant buried archaeological deposits. The whole area enclosed by the vallum – the ancient perimeter barrier – is protected as a Scheduled Ancient Monument. Since the 1950s, over 80 individual trenches have been excavated by archaeologists, either as part of research projects or in advance of building works.  

An archaeologist’s ranging rod on Tòrr an Aba
An archaeologist’s ranging rod
on Tòrr an Aba

   From 1956 to 1963 Professor Charles Thomas excavated a  number of small trenches within the abbey precinct, across the vallum, on Tòrr an Aba and on the Iron Age hillfort at Dùn Bhuirg. His work at the abbey produced artefacts which help us understand aspects of the early monastery, including window glass and evidence of fine metalworking. One tiny object is especially important – a 5cm-long cast bronze lion, which probably adorned a reliquary, and is identical to lions depicted in the Book of Kells. Further small excavations continued in the 1960s into the 1970s focused on the monastic guest house and the east side of the abbey.

In 1979, a large area was excavated when Reilig Odhrain burial ground was extended to the north. This was more the successful than previous investigations in revealing remains of the Columban monastery. A major early inner ditch was found beside the entrance, with well-preserved organic remains in the waterlogged fills. Parts of leather shoes were found along with evidence of other craft skills including metalworking, glassmaking, and wood-turning.

In the 1990s, a timber-built horizontal mill was discovered and excavated beside Burnside Cottage (now the Iona Gallery). Other work located the women’s cemetery beside St Ronan's, close to the nunnery.
The archaeological potential around Iona Abbey is very high. Whenever archaeologists dig another trench, more evidence is recovered. This reflects the site’s long history of use, dating back to early prehistory.