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Rushen Abbey, Isle of Man: A hundred years of research and excavation

– Posted on Thursday 2nd May 2024

Manx National Heritage is delighted to announce the publication of ‘Rushen Abbey: 100 years of excavation’ by Dr Peter Davey.

Rushen Abbey is one of the Isle of Man’s most important Christian heritage sites and came into the ownership of Manx National Heritage in 1998.  There followed an intensive and extensive programme of archaeological excavations aimed at uncovering and interpreting the physical remains of the medieval monastic site.

Curator of Archaeology for MNH, Allison Fox said:

“We know a lot about the Cistercian order in general, but we needed the excavations to tell us more about Rushen Abbey specifically.  As is the nature of digging, we started at the most recent level and worked our way down, so artefacts that remind us of the much later social history, when the site of the abbey was a thriving centre of entertainment offering tea dancing and strawberries and cream!

But excavation is only one part of the archaeological process.  Following the final season of digging in 2008, work began on cataloguing, analysing and interpreting the layers uncovered and the 120,000 artefacts that had been found.  Dr Davey enlisted the help of specialists to study everything found and this publication presents the results of what the excavations and subsequent research can finally tell us about Rushen Abbey”.

Dr Peter Davey said:

The Centre for Manx Studies excavations between 1998 and 2008 involved hundreds of individuals including many undergraduate students from several universities and a core of sturdy Manx volunteers whose contribution was invaluable.   We discovered that although the church and precinct were the smallest in the Cistercian world, Rushen Abbey was actually one of the richer ones, and the extensive landholdings are still an integral part of the Manx landscape. 

We knew that the site had the site of burials in the medieval period, but scientific dating techniques have now shown that Rushen Abbey has been a place of Christian burials for 1,000 years from AD400 to 1400.

When it came to publishing our excavations, it was clear that we had to include the evidence from all the previous digs on the site, dating back to 1926.  The result of this could have been a report running into a thousand pages!  It was decided that a new and more practical approach would be for my overview of all the historical, archaeological and landscape evidence to be published in print form, and for the detailed, technical reports to be published online.  It is a great achievement to have the evidence for life at Rushen Abbey now accessible to anyone with an interest in Manx history and archaeology.”

Manx National Heritage would like to thank all of those involved with the Rushen Abbey project over the years.  The book can be purchased at the Manx Museum, Rushen Abbey, House of Manannan or online at:

https://manxnationalheritage.im/shop/product/rushen-abbey-isle-of-man-by-peter-davey/.

ENDS

 

Downloads available:

The specialist reports for the Rushen Abbey excavations can be found at: https://isleofmanher.im/report/96def684-fa00-4685-bc5f-b172cdcfe6ba

 

Editor’s Notes

Rushen Abbey, now owned and managed by Manx National Heritage, was a Cistercian monastery founded in 1134 and suppressed in 1540. It was the most important religious institution on the Isle of Man wielding significant secular power as well as ecclesiastical authority. Its location in the middle of the Irish Sea and its political connections made it one of the most influential houses in western Britain and Ireland.

The first known excavations were carried out in the late 1890s by Deemster Gill, one of the most senior law officers on the island. They were followed in 1912 and again in 1926 by more extensive investigations of parts of the east range the north transept of the church by William Cubbon then owner of the site. The modern study of the site began in 1978 and 1979 with excavations of the presbytery and both transepts by Dr Lawrence Butler, who followed them in 1988 and 1989 with a complete exploration of the east range. In between these two programmes of work Dr Larch Garrad of the Manx Museum carried out an important rescue excavation to the east of the church in 1984, locating a new chapel, part of the monastic cemetery and a charnel pit.

Under threat of development for a hotel complex the site was purchased by the Manx Government in 1998 and the Centre for Manx Studies, University of Liverpool was asked to carry out exploratory excavations in the first place, followed by more extensive investigations of a number of areas of the site. These were carried out each year from 1998 to 2008 and succeeded in defining the plan of the church and claustral buildings together with parts of the western courtyard. In addition, to the south of the Cistercian complex an already disturbed early medieval cemetery was investigated. Alongside the excavations, medieval documentary sources were reviewed, and extensive fieldwork was carried out on the abbey’s lands throughout the island.

This book aims to provide a synthesis of all the available evidence for Rushen Abbey under one cover. Given the numbers of excavations, their complexity and the richness of finds, the detailed evidence on which this overview text is based is provided by a set of 20 online reports.

About the author

Peter Davey is an archaeologist with a special interest in the medieval and early modern periods in north-western Europe and a 40-year involvement with the Isle of Man. As Director of the multi-disciplinary Centre for Manx Studies between 1992 and 2007 he led the excavation team at Rushen Abbey from 1998 to his retirement. He obtained his PhD from the University of Liverpool in 1990.

Image caption:

Rushen Abbey, Isle of Man: A hundred years of research and excavation

 

Manx National Heritage Media contact:

Lynsey Clague BA (Hons) MCIPR

Communications Manager – Manx National Heritage

T: 01624 648032

E: lynsey.clague@mnh.im

 

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