Sourdough Bread Oven, ‘Air Freshener’ Found at Medieval Irish Monastery

During the 13th century, French monks created a Cistercian community at Beamore in County Meath

Sourdough bread
Archaeologists unearthed shards of pottery, wine jugs, floor tiles and traces of crops, among other artifacts. Rene Johnston / Toronto Star via Getty Images

Archaeologists excavating a 13th-century Cistercian monastery in Ireland have found unique traces of its medieval inhabitants, reports Louise Walsh for the Irish Independent. Among the discoveries made at the site in Beamore, a suburb of the ancient town of Drogheda, are a sourdough bread bakery and a central latrine with what appears to be its very own air freshener.

Cistercians are a sect of Benedictine Catholic monks named for the order’s original 11th-century establishment at Citeaux (Cistercium in Latin) in the Burgundy region of France, according to Encyclopedia Britannica. Because the order placed great emphasis on manual labor and self-sufficiency, many Cistercian monks took up farming and other agrarian pursuits such as baking bread or brewing beer.

The researchers drew on their analysis of the group’s baking habits to estimate the monks’ numbers.

“One loaf equals one monk so the size of the oven might suggest how many came from France to live and work at the monastery,” Geraldine Stout, who led the dig alongside her husband, Matthew, tells the Irish Independent.

View of excavations at medieval monastery in England
This summer's dig pushed back the timeline of the site’s earliest known habitation. Beaubec Excavations

Based on the finds—including flat oats and cereal associated with sourdough bread baking—Geraldine suggests that the community housed between 30 and 50 monks.

As Alison Comyn reported for the Drogheda Independent in August, the monastic grange farm was likely associated with the French Cistercian foundation De Bello Becco, or Beaubec. So far, excavations have yielded shards of pottery; the remains of sheep, goats, pigs, cattle and poultry; a corn drying kiln; part of a butter dash churn; and traces of wheat, oats and rye.

Geraldine tells the Drogheda Independent that the Cistercians who worked at the monastery relocated from Normandy to Ireland in 1201. Upon arriving at their new home, the monks established a community based on a Cistercian “template” used across Europe. The design featured a central courtyard and farm buildings surrounded by water.

“We now know that the first thing they did when they came here in the 13th century was to connect up to the nearest river [and] form a sort of moat, and that served the whole community here, for milling et cetera, but also connected to latrines or toilets,” Geraldine says.

View of empty culvert
View of empty culvert Beaubec Excavations

Speaking with the Irish Independent, Matthew adds that a pot found in a cellar likely used as a latrine may have functioned as medieval air freshener.

This summer’s dig also unearthed prehistoric stone tools and a ceremonial pit circle that push back the timeline of the site’s earliest known habitation, according to a blog post summarizing the finds. Additional discoveries included medieval wine jugs and storage vessels, floor tiles, remnants of fruit gardens, and window glass.

“Structurally, we uncovered more of the medieval stone-built farm buildings that housed a cereal drying kiln and bread oven,” the team writes in the blog post. “In the main residential block, an impressive communal latrine was found with 13th-century detailing. Outside the main residential block, we found evidence for a water system that supplied the needs of this community for toilets, washing and food preparation.”

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