The Blackfriary Community Archaeological Project - Can You Dig It?

It was probably over a year ago, while doing research for this round-the-world trip, that I came across a mention of the Blackfriary Community Archaeological Project in Trim, Ireland. Trim is an important city in Irish history, and the Trim Castle is a popular tourist destination.

In 1263, the Lord of Trim founded a Dominican friary just outside the city wall. It was used for a couple hundred years, left vacant for a couple hundred more, and ultimately sold and quarried for stone in the 1700s. About six acres of the original site was never developed, and this is where the foundation of the friary buildings are located, as well as the cemetery.

About five years ago, the Irish Archaeology Field School began excavations on the site. The Blackfriars Community Archaeology Project formed in support of the site, with a goal to create a place that is an asset to the local community (being surrounded on three sides by townhouses) and to the larger town of Trim. Right now, sheep graze on about half of the land while the excavations continue on the other half, but eventually community gardens and orchards as well as educational programs could be hosted at the Blackfriary site.

Thinking back to my trip planning, I read mention of this site as a must-see, probably in National Geographic Traveler. The more I looked into it, the more I found about the programs for college students to basically study/intern there in the summer but not much about a family group visit. So while Trim Castle stayed on our itinerary, the Blackfriary did not. That is, until, while actually in Ireland I came across another website for Cultural Tourism Ireland and saw that they do offer programs for small groups and individuals. I wrote to them, and they were more than happy to work out a visit for us.

It was simply incredible. We saw the archaeologists and students doing their work, which that day included a dig of the friary’s cemetery. We saw a partially excavated skeleton, lying in repose. We learned that some of the people buried there had been buried in wooden coffins but that most people were likely shrouded. The team has found both coffin nails and shroud pins at the site. We learned that some people were interred in wall tombs of the friary, but since the building was broken down for stone those remains were off tossed aside along with the small stones that weren’t of value to the quarriers.

blueprint of abbey in foreground, excavation site in background

Our guide, Dr. Denis Shine, gave us a walk through the property to outline where the buildings had once stood. He explained the technologies used to survey the land, and he related the footprint of the Blackfriary to that of Sligo Abbey. With a blueprint in hand, I was able to see how similar the architecture of this church had been to the Barcelona Cathedral we visited in November. It was in that memory that the girls also seemed to get a picture to imagine while we walked through the former cloister site. What I didn’t remember at the time was that the Barcelona Cathedral and its cloister were built almost 200 years after this Blackfriary.

archaeological pit showing stone foundations

archaeological pit with tools

Dr. Shine then showed us the children’s demonstration pit where kids are allowed to dig for artifacts themselves. All three of the girls jumped at that chance. Gianna unearthed a wall, while Tori and Zoe found many animal bones.

girl digging with trowel

man showing a girl how to excavate an archaeological site

girl placing artifacts into tray

They stayed at their work for quite a while, which gave one of the IAFS students a chance to show us some of the artifacts the team has found and archived over the years. We saw pottery, a coin, a bead, a dress pin made of bone, a soldier’s button, and even some chainmail. (That chainmail was possibly worn in the Crusades, as it is from that time period and associated with a known participant of the Crusades.)

For me, this was an absolute high point of our stay in Ireland and a bit of a dream come true. I had never been too into archaeology before, but this visit really turned me on to it. Theo said he could see me glowing and practically levitating while Dr. Shine described the potential community uses of the site post-excavation, and that’s a good description of the excitement I felt. It was a reminder that every place has a story, some longer than others, but the process of revealing the story is now much more interesting to me.

And to Tori, too, who has decided to become an archaeologist when she grows up.

girl smiling with sister in background

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