School of History, Classics and Archaeology


Making Christian Landscapes: Settlement, Society and Regionality in Early Medieval Ireland

Recent pre-development excavations are destined to transform our understanding of early medieval Ireland. This project brings together archaeologists working in the commercial sector with archaeologists and historians in universities in Ireland and elsewhere.

Through meticulous, multi-layered research the excavated sites will first be placed in their landscape contexts. Subsequently these landscapes would be systematically compared. The outcome will be new, more nuanced understandings of early medieval settlement and landscape dynamics.

While this project is not concerned with ritual and religion per se, its title was chosen to reflect the fact that the physical and conceptual transformation of the landscape during this period was intimately bound up with the arrival and development of a new religion – Christianity – and its attendant power structures.

In the pre-Viking period, ecclesiastical sites sprang up as new nodal points and the landscape was re-ordered around them.

A wide range of new secular settlements and non-ecclesiastical cemeteries were established. Even groups who did not immediately subscribe to the new ideology had to negotiate a relationship with it.

By 800AD, Ireland was characterised by a remarkable density of ecclesiastical sites of varying functions, but the process of Making Christian Landscapes was by no means complete.

During the Viking Age (c.800-1100) there were major changes in the form and distribution of secular settlements and many non-ecclesiastical cemeteries and minor ecclesiastical sites seem to have been abandoned as a result of a shift from kin burial to community burial at relatively important church sites.

A similar shift is evident in parts of the European mainland where it has been interpreted as marking the origins of a parish consciousness.

One key aim of this project is to explore the extent to which the process of landscape change varied from region to region.

For example, were there variations in the nature and density of settlement and burial sites, and what does this say about local power structures?

To what extent does the present diversity within and between regions – especially between the east and west of the country – reflect early medieval regionality or simply differential visibility due to the presence or absence of stone buildings or pre-development archaeology?

Three principal study regions have been chosen with these issues in mind.

Each will be investigated using the same suite of techniques to bring together all relevant strands of evidence – including:

using GIS. This will enable us to make thorough comparisons of different regions for the first time.