Sixty Years After Its Discovery, a Hut in Scotland Has Been Linked to St. Columba

Radiocarbon dating has proved that the site could have been built and used during the lifetime of the revered saint

Iona dig.jpg
University of Glasgow

In 1957, the British archaeologist Charles Thomas developed an unprovable hunch. He had excavated a wooden hut on the Scottish island of Iona, and came to believe that it had been used by Saint Columba, the sixth-century missionary who established a monastery on the island. But scientific dating techniques were crude in Thomas’ day, leaving him with little recourse to support his theory. So, as the Telegraph reports, he packed up the samples from the excavation and stored them in his garage, where they sat for decades.

Fast forward sixty years, and researchers now believe they have evidence to validate Thomas’ claims. A team of experts at the University of Glasgow, with support from Historic Environment Scotland, have performed radiocarbon dating on the samples from the 1957 excavation. They found that pieces of hazel charcoal from the site date to about 1,500 years ago—a time when Columba was fervently spreading the gospel of Christianity in Iona and beyond.

Columba, a revered figure who is credited with bringing Christianity to the Scots, arrived on the island in approximately 563 A.D. The charcoal fragments from the hut have been radiocarbon dated to between 540 and 650 A.D. It is possible, in other words, that the structure was built and used during the lifetime of St. Columba. According to a University of Glasgow press release, researchers believe that the hut may in fact “be the monk’s ‘cell’ where he prayed and studied in isolation.”

The cell is attested to in a biography of Columba, written 100 years after his death by his bio Adomnan. The text describes the saint writing in a little hut located atop a rocky hillock, which Adomnan calls “Tòrr an Aba” or “the mound of the abbot.”

When Thomas conducted his excavation, he and his team found the carbonized remains of a small hut buried beneath layers of beach pebbles, which led them to believe that the structure had been intentionally burned and filled over. A cross had later been driven into the rubble.

According to Ken Macdonald of the BBC, it was “impossible” for Thomas to establish a reliable link between the hut that he found and the one described in Columba’s biography. In the 1950s, radiocarbon dating was expensive and produced results with a wide margin of error. The process also destroyed a large portion of the samples submitted for testing. So Thomas opted to store the relics from his excavation instead.

In 2012, Historic Environment Scotland acquired Thomas’ archive, and passed the Iona samples on to the University of Glasgow. Archaeologist Adrián Maldonado, who led the initiative to date the charcoal fragments, describes his team’s findings as “massive” in the university’s press release.

St. Columba is a key figure in Western Christendom,” Maldonado explains. “He was the national patron saint of Scotland in the Middle Ages … This is as close as any archaeologist has come to excavating a structure built during the time of St. Columba.” 

Born in Ireland in approximately 521, Columba was ordained as a priest when he was about 30 years old, according to the  Encyclopedia Britannica. He founded several churches and monasteries in his native land, and around 563, set off for Scotland with 12 of his disciples.

Columba established an abbey on Iona and successfully spread the gospel to the Picts throughout Scotland. To give a sense of his importance, he and his associates were considered more prolific missionaries “than any other contemporary group of religious pioneers in Britain,” writes the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Thanks to the recent radiocarbon dating project, researchers have a viable location for Columba’s place of private reflection on Iona. Maldonado and archaeologist Ewan Campbell are presenting their findings at the 8th International Insular Art Conference, which is being held at the University of Glasgow this week. The researchers have also reopened some of the trenches dug by Thomas and his team, in the hopes of expanding upon a discovery 60 years in the making.

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