Archaeologists discover long-lost Scottish monastery

Ancient Hnefatafl board game found at the newly identified site of the Cerf Monastery. Credit: Michael Sharpe

A team of archaeologists, co-led by a University of Southampton researcher, believe they have located the site of the lost monastery of Deer, in northeast Scotland.

The world’s first written Scottish Gaelic is believed to have been produced in the monastery in the late 11th and early 12th centuries. These texts, land grants in Gaelic, were placed in the margins of the Book of the Stag, a pocket gospel originally written between 850 and 1000 AD.

Scholars have long speculated that these entries, or “addenda,” were added while the book was at the monastery. Archaeologists believe they discovered the remains of the building just 80 meters from the ruins of Deer Abbey (founded 1219), near the village of Mintlaw in Aberdeenshire.

Alice Jaspars, PhD researcher from the Department of Archeology at the University of Southampton, led the archaeological investigations, working with site manager Ali Cameron of Cameron Archaeology. They will present their findings at a conference to members of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (November 23) and will also feature in a new documentary about the project for BBC Alba (November 20, 9 p.m.).

Alice Jaspars comments: “As the home of the first surviving Scottish Gaelic, the Book of the Stag is an essential manuscript in Scottish history. Although it is not known where the book itself was written, it is believed that the Gaelic in its margins was added at the once-lost Stag Monastery.

“These addenda include reference to the founding of the monastery, as well as other land grants in the north-east of Scotland. We now believe that during our 2022 excavations we have found the lost monastery where these documents have been written. This would not have been possible without the extensive work of our volunteers and the financial support of the National Lottery Heritage Fund.

The team dated materials associated with postholes discovered during excavations near the abbey, which correspond to the same period as the book’s addenda. They also meticulously recovered medieval pottery, glass fragments, a stylus (pointed writing instrument), and hnefatafl chessboards, a game similar to chess that was popular until the Middle Ages. These and other domestic objects recovered from the site all point to a monastic complex.

The investigations, supported by the Book of Deer project, have been ongoing since 2009, with several major excavations taking place over the past eight years. The last of these took place in 2022, concentrated near the ruins of the abbey, which Jaspars and Cameron co-investigated.

The 2022 surveys coincided with the return of the Book of the Stag to the north-east of Scotland for the first time in a thousand years. It was exhibited at the Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museums on a three-month loan from Cambridge University Library.

Alice Jaspars says: “The material records of monasteries from this period are so poor that such discoveries can really help to inform our overall academic understanding. This also adds to the ongoing discussion regarding where the Book of the Deer will be kept in the future. “.

The researchers plan to publish their results in an academic journal in the coming months.

Provided by the University of Southampton

Quote: Archaeologists discover long-lost Scottish monastery (November 20, 2023) retrieved November 20, 2023 from

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