Interactive Digs

Blackfriary, Ireland

The Blackfriary Community Heritage and Archaeology Project (BCHAP), in the town of Trim, Co. Meath, Ireland, is the focal point of community based research and training excavations of the remains of this 13th century Dominican Friary. The excavations are bringing to light the friars and townspeople who lived, worked and were buried here and are helping the local community transform the site into a valued amenity for the town.

Sculpture gallery at the Capitoline Museums © Operator

Cutting 3 looking east, rubble fills overlying cloister garth and ambulatory

Cutting 3, south wall of the cloister F308 under excavation

Cutting 3 looking east, cloister wall to the left of the picture with the robbed out foundation trench for the north wall (F327) to the right

Cutting 6 from north looking at exposed section of cloister wall, F604

Cutting 6 looking east, the corner of the cloister F604 is shown with the remnant of the corner buttress F605, which includes fragments of columns and arch stones from the arcade

Cutting 7 from south showing the cloister wall, F704 with some in situ sill stone fragments, foreground, and column fragments behind buttress, F710

Cutting 1, from south, fragments of column found in the rubble fill

Underside of arch stone from cloister arcade, this would have been one stone from the arch which would have been composed of two of these, and possibly a third keystone

Cutting 3 looking south across the foundation plinth F331 with trench F327 to right, into the area of the nave of the church behind

Cutting 1 from east, looking down into the foundations of the north wall, F33

Cutting 1 from west looking at the foundations of the north wall, F30: plinth F31 and cut F33

Cutting 3, possible roodscreen, F328 in centre with foundation plinth F331 and cloister wall F308 behind

Cutting 3, roodscreen from east, note block exposed at right of picture

Excavations within Grid H

Wall tomb F327 from east with Burial OSB3: to the south is B5

Excavation of B12 from east

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The Blackfriary Community Heritage and Archaeology Project (BCHAP) is at the Black Friary, the site of a 13th century, late medieval, Dominican Friary in the town of Trim, Co. Meath. Trim is in the Boyne River valley; the valley is home to some of the most significant archaeological and cultural heritage sites in Ireland and Europe, including Brú na Boínne, the UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The site has been the focus of archaeological research excavations since 2010 by the Irish Archaeology Field School (IAFS), providing university accredited, site-based archaeological research and training within an established research framework led by a team of highly qualified and experienced archaeologists.

The IAFS carry out archaeological research excavation, with a strong teaching component, to allow students and visitors a first hand and unique experience of discovering the past. Students of the school undertake all aspects of an archaeological excavation and discovery at the site and contribute to the community project.

The project is a community based project, with a number of stakeholders and supporters, including the local authority, state bodies, and expert groups. The field school is closely tied to its sister companies CRDS Ltd. (CRM), and Cultural Tourism Ireland (cultural heritage experiences). The IAFS was founded by EurGeol Dr. Stephen Mandal MIAI PGeo and Finola O’Carroll MA MIAI MRPA. The teaching staff include Finola O’Carroll MRPA MIAI, Dr. Rachel Scott MAIA, Dr. Denis Shine, and EurGeol Dr. Stephen Mandal MIAI PGeo. The excavation directors are supported by a number of highly trained and enthusiastic supervisors and a team of specialists covering everything from human and animal osteoarchaeology, to geology and architectural heritage.

The project has received a great deal of support from a diverse group of institutions and individual, nationally and internationally, including:

  • Trim Town Council and Meath County Council
  • the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht towards (under the built heritage element of the Environmental Fund)
  • the National Monuments Service, Department of the Environment, Heritage & Local Government (the Irish government body responsible for the protection of our heritage, who issue the license to excavate the site)
  • The local community
  • Meath Tourism
  • The Heritage Council
  • The Archaeological Institute of America (through the Site Preservation Program)

The project has already received widespread recognition in Ireland and internationally, including:




One of the TOP TEN worldwide destinations to visit, as chosen by CNN Travel





Included in Keith Bellows (Editor of the National Geographic Magazine) book 100 Places That Can Change Your Child’s Life: From Your Backyard to the Ends of the Earth





Winner of the Small Business Marketing Award at the 2012 Meath Business and Tourism Awards





Receiving an Honourable Mention in the 2012 Education Travel Community Responsible Tourism Showcase Awards





Being showcased at the Archaeological Institute of America Gala in New York in April 2011 and being awarded funding under the Institute’s Site Preservation Program





Making it to the final 25 shortlist of over 9000 entries in Ireland’s 2010 Your Country Your Call competition.


Figure 1: Recorded monuments in the vicinity of the site

Recorded monuments in the vicinity of the site

Advance Investigations

A survey was carried out in June and July 1988 by Professor William J. Kennedy of Florida Atlantic University. Kennedy conducted a geophysical survey consisting of soil resistivity, proton magnetometry surveys, and low altitude, infra-red aerial photography. The survey results showed subsurface features, identified and outlined by Kennedy as foundations of the kitchen, cloisters, living quarters, refectory, tower, chancel and entrance. While excavations were proposed, they were not undertaken due to logistical reasons, and the site was left as it was.

As part of the current phase of research, two surveys were carried out prior to any excavations taking place. A geophysical survey of the site was undertaken in 2010. The results of this work were somewhat hampered by the amount of metalliferous debris scattered over the site as a result of periodic episodes of illegal dumping.

Topographical survey was carried out in 2010 and supplemented in 2013. This showed quite clearly that the remains of the Friary buildings can be discerned sub-surface and informed the placement of the cuttings. The 2013 survey included the remainder of the area presumed to be within the original friary precinct, now amounting to almost three acres (1.12 ha) and the area to the north and east of this which may have been cultivated to provide food for the community.

A LiDAR image of the site became available for assessment in 2013, showing a remarkable level of sub-surface preservation of the friary and associated structures.

Seasons 1 – 3 (2010 – 2012)

Two cuttings were opened during the first season in 2010. Both centred on visible pieces of collapsed masonry and were within what is believed to be the church. The remains of in situ walls were uncovered, believed to form part of a belfry tower adjoining the church on its north side. In 2011 Cutting 3 was opened to the west of Cutting 1, and north of Cutting 2. The south wall of the cloister with part of the cloister garth to the north and its ambulatory to the south, together with the remains of the north wall of the church and part of the nave were exposed. Two further cuttings, (4 and 5), were opened to follow the cloister wall and exposed a further part of the south wall and the south west corner of the cloister with its associated buttress.

In 2012 work continued in Cutting 3, focusing particularly on the excavation of human remains within the nave and cloister garth and ambulatory. Two more cuttings, 6 and 7 were opened to uncover the NE and NW corners of the cloister respectively.

Figure 2: Location of site showing previously uncovered burials to the west

Location of site showing previously uncovered burials to the west

Season 4 (2013)

In 2013 a further three cuttings, 8, 9 and 10 were opened, and Cuttings 2, 5 and 7 were extended. The south wall of the church was uncovered in Cuttings 2 and 10; the inner corner of the west and north ranges was located in Cutting 7 and the west wall of the cloister was exposed in Cuttings 5ext and 8. Cutting 9 contained what has been interpreted as the base of a column, and this may be part of an arcade separating the nave from a south aisle, a feature which may have been a later addition. Also in Cutting 9 a robbed out trench was excavated. This may have been a foundation trench for the west wall of the church, but if so, it poses some interpretative difficulties.

Figure 3: Overall site plan showing cuttings and main features

Overall site plan showing cuttings and main features

Discussion on the findings of Seasons 1 – 4 (2010 – 2013)

Four seasons of excavation have been completed to date at the Black Friary. The initial field season demonstrated that despite both the historical accounts and the current condition of the site there were some upstanding remains in situ. The three seasons since then have built on that information and added considerably to what is now known about the site. They have also, of course, raised a lot of questions. These can be stated simply as questions pertaining to the size of the buildings, especially the church, the phasing of the buildings, the use of different spaces for burial and the longevity of the burial tradition at Black Friary. Inevitably there are a range of detailed questions that arise out of this kind of research excavation, but I propose for now to simply clarify our findings to date and set out the issues that will guide our future excavations.

Historical sources state that the Dominican (Black) Friary was founded in 1263 under the probable patronage of Geoffrey de Geneville (Potterton 2005, 320). These sources indicate that a considerable amount of money may have been expended on this foundation and the preliminary evidence from the topographical survey indicates that the church and cloister were larger in size when compared to the Dominican Friaries at Sligo and Carlingford (Kevin O’Brien, pers comm.), suggesting that the endowment allowed a degree of grandeur in building the complex. Excavation has confirmed the locations of the church and the north and west range, but the remaining buildings are still conjectural (see figure below); the location of the cemetery has been deduced by previous work in the area (Seaver et al 2009) and we have confirmed the extensive use of the church and cloister area for burial for several hundred years.

Figure 4: Topographical survey of the site with the features excavated to date superimposed on the survey

Topographical survey of the site superimposed with the features excavated to date

It has been argued by Roger Stalley amongst others (Stalley 1990) that friaries were laid out according to a specific set of proportional measurements, based on the size of the cloister multiplied by the square root of two. He has demonstrated that this rule holds reasonably well and it is logical to think that such an ordered set of buildings would have had a guiding principal in their construction. As we have seen the size of the cloister has been confirmed as almost a 20m x 20m square, which is on the large side. To date the north wall of the church has been located in the area of the crossing and the nave. A south wall has been found and the width of the nave as deduced from the positions of these two walls, at just over 12m internally, indicates that a south aisle must have been present. The column base as found in Cutting 9 supports this, and where it is located would give a width of approximately 4m to the side aisle. Given the width of the nave at 8m it would seem logical that the overall length of the nave would be in proportion. The friary in Sligo is 6.55m wide and the nave is 22.75m long. At 8m in width it would seem logical that the nave in Black Friary would be proportionately longer than in Sligo. However, if the robbed out trench in Cutting 9 is in fact the foundation trench for the west wall, then the nave, from west wall to chancel arch is no more than 22m. The current indications from the topographical survey are that the chancel is over 25m in length, and this would not accord with a shorter nave either. It is possible that the church was fore-shortened, and an attempt to resolve this issue is one I hope to make this coming season.

The foundations for the north wall have been explored in both Cuttings 1 and 3, and it has been found that the depth of the trench dug for them is at minimum 40cms deeper than that in Cutting 3. It is possible that in anticipation of building a bell tower the foundations in the chancel, or at least at the crossing, were deliberately deepened and strengthened; likewise it could be suggested that the chancel was built at an earlier stage than the nave. Further excavations in the chancel area will at least broaden the basis for enquiry.

The condition of the collapsed bell tower has been noted before. The very large chunks of masonry still survive as coherent large remnants of walls. The quality of the mortar must have something to do with this. Similarly, the buttresses for the south wall have resisted attempts to entirely demolish them and it is one reason for suggesting that these two elements are of similar date and workmanship. The fact that the widths of the wall as suggested by the foundations for both makes the north wall wider and seemingly without buttresses supports the idea that they belong to different stages of building. The very odd buttress at the south-west corner seems to suggest some radical modification, perhaps tying in with some re-modelling of the west wall.

Figure 5: Cutting 2 - South wall and Buttress, and portion of stone flagged floor

Cutting 2 – South wall and Buttress, and portion of stone flagged floor

The small amount of the north and west range excavated to date also seems, at first sight, to suggest some re-modelling at some point in time. Taken with the apparent alterations to the cloister wall itself it may be that that corner was re-worked at some point.

The initial difficulty in establishing a floor level within the church has now been resolved. It is clear that the floor must have had some sort of stone flagging all over the nave, which was probably repeatedly disturbed by burials from the 1400’s onwards. The depth of natural within the church is in and around 62.00m OD. The surface of the surviving flagstones is at 62.26m OD. The slate and rubble layers stop at approximately 62.10-15m OD, suggesting that the flagstones had been removed prior to the main demolition getting underway. Whether or not tiles were ever used in the chancel area is not yet known, but this was against the rule of St. Dominic, who stressed simplicity in all things.

It is remarkable that the purbeck marble cloister arcade, of itself a very expensive installation, should have been so little valued when the friary was being knocked down. As we have seen, the arches and column fragments were simply cast down and used to edge a trackway, probably put in place to facilitate hauling away the stone. It is recorded that deGeneville, the patron (or at least the first patron) of the friary retired there, and it is presumed that many of the nods to grandeur, the size of the cloister and the design of the arcade, were carried out, if not under his instruction, at least at his charge. The requirement for simplicity was, it would appear, loosely interpreted by the community.

The presence of painted plaster and stained glass confirms that the church was well appointed. Ó Clabaigh notes that there appears to have been considerable unease in the hierarchy of both Dominicans and Franciscans at the readiness with which their respective founders’ injunctions to maintain simplicity and poverty in their daily lives appears to have been flouted, and this was an issue frequently addressed by both orders’ general chapters in the thirteenth century, (Ó Clabaigh 2012, 212). Stained glass and painted plaster fragments have been found in the Cistercian foundation at Tintern Abbey (Lynch 2010) and the Augustinian Friary at Kells (Clyne 2007) and provide useful comparative material.

Figure 6: Location of all burials uncovered to date, 2011 - 2013

Location of all burials uncovered to date, 2011 – 2013

A lot of the focus of the excavations has been on the burials uncovered to date. These, as seen, appear to fall into three broad groups: those of medieval date, buried within the church either beneath the floor or in tombs set into or against the walls; those of post-medieval date, people who continued to be buried in the general area after the friary had been dissolved; infants and young children, presumed buried here because they were unbaptised. An aim for this project is to be able to delimit the medieval usage of the site for burial, the post-medieval usage and the more modern. It is clear that they occupy slightly different spaces from our understanding to date, and we hope to refine this.

Figure 7: Burials of presumed medieval date

Burials of presumed medieval date

Figure 8: Medieval burials within cutting 3

Medieval burials within cutting 3

Originally, the Dominican General Chapter of 1250 in London made the decision that their churches were not to be used for burials, but this restriction was short lived and certainly by the fourteenth century burials within the church was something that the ordinary laity, not just patrons, could aspire to, as long as they could afford it. The friars for their part derived much of their income from the fees paid for masses to be said and thus a need was created, and a demand met.

Figure 9: Burials of presumed post-medieval date

Burials of presumed post-medieval date

It is unclear what the position of the cemetery at Blackfriary was after the reformation. As one of three religious houses in the town it obviously had its share of townspeople who traditionally buried their dead there. Both of the other houses were taken over for other purposes, post-dissolution, and thus the cemeteries and churches would no longer have been available for burial. It may be that the sporadic use of the Black Friary site as a farm, and bearing in mind that the friars did return there, albeit for a short while, may have encouraged its continued use as a burial site, which in turn led to its use as a Cillín. A central aim of this project is to be able to accurately profile the populations buried here and to understand why they were buried here.

Figure 10: Burials of modern date, possible Cillin

Burials of modern date, possible Cillín

The Season 5 (2014) objectives are to continue to excavate within the already opened cuttings; to place a new cutting to attempt to find the intersection of the north and west walls of the church and to open some cuttings in the garden areas and across the ditch which is believed to mark the precinct boundary to the east.

A final area of immediate enquiry is the exact location of the town wall relative to the site. It is clear that the line indicated on the 1st edition OS map suggests that it lies along what is still its southern boundary. It is notable that the ground level drops sharply here, and as it is unlikely that a defensive wall would have been sited at the base of a slope, I hope to find some trace of the wall in the coming seasons.

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