Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Saturday, May 18, 2024

The trove

If you ever think we've discovered just about everything there is out there to discover, consider the story I found out about from my eagle-eyed writer friend Gil Miller, about an excavation on the Isle of Man that has turned up over 120,000 medieval artifacts.

The Isle of Man, located in the middle of the Irish Sea between Scotland and Ireland, has such a strategic location that it has been contested for as long as we have records.  Not only did the Irish and the Scottish have settlements there, but so did the Norman English and the Norse; all of them have left their mark on the land and the people.  It's one of the places where the natives have tried like mad to hold onto their original language, a relative of Irish and Scottish Gaelic (although not mutually intelligible to either) called Manx, currently spoken as a first language by only twenty-three people (a bit over two thousand speak it as their second language, and there's currently a campaign on the island to teach it to Manx youngsters before it dies out completely).

The archaeological site Gil told me about is Rushen Abbey, a Cistercian monastery on the southeast coast of the island.  It has a very long history -- it was founded in  by Óláfr Guðrøðarson, the Norse (obviously) king of Man in the first half of the twelfth century.  By this time the erstwhile Vikings had become thoroughly Christianized, but this didn't mean peaceful; Óláfr's forty-year reign came to an abrupt end when he was assassinated by three of his nephews.  This started a war of succession, and eventually Óláfr's son Guðrøðr Óláfsson (whatever else you can say about them, they weren't very creative in the name-choosing department) triumphed, the three evil nephews got chopped into dog food, and Guðrøðr went on to rule the place (and a good chunk of the east coast of Ireland) for the next twenty years.

In any case, Óláfr and two of his sons are buried on the abbey grounds, and the place was considered a holy site from its founding until it was shut down in 1540 as part of English King Henry VIII's Dissolution of the Monasteries. This savage campaign ostensibly occurred because Henry didn't like the Catholics' theology (he'd appointed himself Supreme Head of the Church of England in 1534), but honestly had more to do with the fact that the abbeys and monasteries were filthy rich and Henry wanted to get his hands on their wealth.  At least Rushen wasn't completely demolished, as many were; it was repurposed several times, and in fact was purchased by the Manx government in 1853 with the intent of converting it to an insane asylum (the plans, fortunately, were never carried out).  Eventually its historical value was recognized and it became a Manx National Heritage Site, allowing for careful renovation -- and excavation of the grounds.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Dan Karran, Rushen Abbey, CC BY-SA 2.5]

The archaeological studies at Rushen have uncovered a treasure trove of artifacts, including medieval coins, metalware, glass, and ceramic -- the last-mentioned including some long-distance imports, indicating the wealth of the place at its heyday.  Some pieces long predate the founding of the abbey, including a pewter cross dating from the fifth century C. E., indicating that the Isle of Man had at least some permanent religious settlements at a time when neighboring England was still a chaotic mess recovering from the withdrawal of the Romans and girding its loins for the beginnings of the Anglo-Saxon invasions.

What the excavation of Rushen makes me wonder, though, is how much still is out there to find in other places -- what might be beneath our feet, unseen, as we walk over familiar ground each day.  It's staggering that 120,000 previously unknown artifacts could be turned up at a site that has been in continuous occupation (and a significant pilgrimage/tourist destination) for almost a thousand years, and indicates that we still have a great deal more to discover about our own past.  

I think we still have a bit more to learn, don't you?


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