Searching for the lost monastery of Deer

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A depiction of the site as it may have been during use. In particular, metalworking appears to have taken place there. (Image: Jan Dunbar)

Recent excavations in a field near the ruins of Deer Abbey in Aberdeenshire have provided the most compelling evidence so far for the remains of the monastery where the 10th-century Book of Deer may have been written and illuminated.

With parts written in Latin, Old Irish, and Scottish Gaelic, the Book of Deer contains the earliest surviving Gaelic writing and may be the oldest surviving manuscript produced in Scotland (a title that it contests with the Book of Kells). While the book is currently housed in the Cambridge University Library, the monastery from which it originated has been lost, and over the decades there have been many attempts to locate it, all without success. The most recent excavation has provided the biggest lead yet.

Landholdings scribbled in the margins of the book suggest that the monks were in the vicinity of Deer abbey – where they moved after the monastery where they composed the Book of Deer was abandoned – when they wrote it. Geophysical survey was therefore carried out by Rose Geophysics in a field near to Deer Abbey, revealing ‘interesting anomalies’ that warranted further investigation. Last summer, subsequent excavations unearthed a stone hearth, charcoal, and pottery fragments, as well as traces of a circular structure represented by a line of stake holes in a shallow ditch – possibly the remains of post-and-wattle windbreak. Fragments of slag suggest that this may have been a metalworking area.

While the handmade pottery was confirmed to be from the medieval period, radiocarbon dating was carried out on some of the charcoal to securely date the entire site. The results proved intriguing. Alison Cameron of Cameron Archaeology said: ‘The date for the charcoal is 1147 to 1260, which is extremely exciting because it is potentially the monastic period – it dates to the early medieval period when we know the monastery was in the area.’

Further exploration is expected to be carried out at the site in order to find more evidence of medieval activity. The 2018 dig is being crowdfunded:

This article appeared in CA 338.

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