15.09.22, Addyman, et al., eds., The Medieval Kirk, Cemetery and Hospice at Kirk Ness, North Berwick

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Jan Crenshaw

The Medieval Review 15.09.22

Addyman, Thomas, Tanja Romankiewicz, Kenneth Macfadyen, Alasdair Ross, and Nicholas Uglow, eds. The Medieval Kirk, Cemetery and Hospice at Kirk Ness, North Berwick: The Scottish Seabird Center Excavations 1999-2006. Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2013. pp. xvi, 180. ISBN: 9781842176634 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Jan Crenshaw
 Independent scholar
crenshawhous@aol.com

The site of Kirk Ness shows that the area was in human use from prehistoric times through the early part of the seventeenth century. As with other present day archeological sites, work at Kirk Ness was necessitated by plans for re-use of the area for modern development. More than many such sites, interpretation of Kirk Ness has been complicated by previous use and misuse over the last two centuries.

This report is an analysis of the dig's findings in minute detail. The church grounds fronted on the Firth of Forth and was vulnerable to coastal erosion throughout its history. The oldest finding was an Iron Age fire pit. Then there were two periods of medieval settlement during which time the harbor located there was used by pilgrims on their way to Saint Andrew's at Fife. The first medieval period of human habitation for which there is some evidence began as early as the fifth century and ended in the ninth century. The earliest church to have been built there appears to have collapsed in the seventh century. Its rubble was used to build a corn-drying kiln larger than needed for a single family. The church was rebuilt in the thirteenth century and remained a place of worship until its destruction in the early 1600s by a powerful wind storm.

Off and on during the time after the church's final destruction, the ruins were used for drying fish nets, storing coal, and as a trash dump. Parts of the building were removed and used to build a newer church and other structures. Locals continued to use the cemetery for burials thus disrupting the strata containing older burials. In the post-reformation period, the area became a popular tourist destination and remained so until World War I. In the nineteenth century, in an effort to stop the erosion, a sea wall was built which nearly cut the original footprint of the cruciform church in half. In the twentieth century, the Scottish Seabird Centre was built over part of the site.

The entire area, with the exception of the cemetery, yielded few artifacts. From the mid-nineteenth through the mid-twentieth centuries, the area attracted the attentions of antiquarian/archeologists who did not necessarily employ professional methods. What was dismissed as "spoil" was removed to the beach so that the site could be "tidied up for the benefit of summer visitors" (65). The spoil included shroud pins and coins. Human bones from the cemetery were bundled up and buried elsewhere to get them out of the way. Since the site produced (or retained) so few artifacts, the researchers employed a broad spectrum of data upon which to base their interpretations. This includes geological analyses of such things as the strata of wind-blown sand or ash and the various colors of the limestone used to build the church. They used osteological analyses of skeletal remains, carbon dating (qualified in percentages of probability) of debris in middens, botanical evidence such as heather stems and grains of barley and oats, taphonomic processes, and Bayesian modelling. They consulted Roman and medieval texts (thoughtfully translated), genealogies, maps, antiquarian sources and artwork, and drew conclusions from comparisons to contemporaneous sites in other parts of Scotland and England. For all this careful research, the book is shot through with qualifiers: "suggestive," "tentatively interpreted as," "little direct evidence," "simplest explanation may be," "possibly associated," "cannot be determined," "little can be seen to suggest with certainty," "cannot be confirmed," "relationship is unclear." In all, the authors/editors have been meticulously scrupulous in making sure that the reader understands that many of their interpretations are necessarily speculative.

While the site lacks a mass of artifacts, what little was found in the area is interesting and provocative. One is a wood button covered in silk. Studies in the bones in the cemetery provide forensic evidence that at least one person buried there was murdered. Earlier burials were without coffins while later interments had coffins. Three later graves had carved grave covers, one dating from the thirteenth century; another, a recumbent grave slab, from the fourteenth or fifteenth centuries; and an inscribed table grave from the seventeenth century.

This report of the excavations is a handsome, hardback volume printed on clay-based paper which supports the clear reproduction of the over 150 maps, plans, artists' renderings, photographs and tables that inform the printed text and its appendices. There are additional appendices, figures and tables located on the companion CD included in the back cover of the volume. In addition to the five main author/editors, twenty-two others contributed to the work. Occasional repetition of some information resulting from nearly thirty authors writing about the same site is understandable and not too distracting.

The publication of this book was made possible by the cooperation of local and regional individuals and organizations and several trusts. National organizations providing support included the National Library of Scotland, the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland, Historic Scotland, and the Scottish Seabird Centre.

This report could serve as a model for those hoping to gain insights and information from badly-used archeological sites. It must also be an extraordinary example of the cooperation of so many contributors, both individual and institutional, that is required for such an undertaking.

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