Nevermind a city – was Kilkenny even a town?

“Was KILKENNY an actual town?”

“Was KILKENNY an actual town?”

That’s the question that local archaeologist Coilin O’ Drisceoil was puzzling over last week, during public tours of an excavation near the Bishop’s Palace on St Canice’s Hill. It’s a question he has been trying to solve since digging work began on the site in June last year.

The archaeology teams have determined that the Bishop’s Palace and its environs were built on the site of a thriving monastic settlement, part of which, they say, was craft shops, including a combmaker’s workshop. This is where it all began – but what historians don’t know is when it actually became a town.

“This low hill overlooking the river is where Kilkenny really started,” says Mary Teehan of the Heritage Council.

“From the sixth to the fourteenth Century, it thrived as a marketing and trading centre.”

The main excavation pit is located immediately outside the robing room building. To look into the pit is to glimpse into history. Coilin O’ Drisceoil runs his hand up the clay wall:

“This is the year 1000, this is 1200, here’s 1600, and just inches from the top – here’s 1700,” he says.

“You’ve got 1000 years of history in a metre.”

Last week, there were two teams of people at work on the site: The team from Kilkenny Archaeology, and a 20-strong team of students from NUI Maynooth, who are completing a BA in Local Studies.

They were backed up by Zana Rama, who is on an exchange from Kosovo between NUI Galway and the Heritage Council. Next year, the team is hoping to publish a book on their findings at the site, with the working title ‘The Early Medieval Monastery of Cill Chainnigh’.

The archaeologists found several fragments of ‘composite antler combs’, which are made from the antlers of the indigenous red deer species that would have inhabited the surrounding ancient forests, long since cut down. The combs – pieces of which have been on display in the robing room – were beautifully decorated, with intricate artistic lines and circles cut into them.

Earlier this year, the oldest known human remains in the area were discovered, during the course of the construction of the new Church of Ireland diocesan centre. The bones – those of three adults – date to the 7th Century, according to radio carbon dating.

The manner of their burial lends credence to the theory that an early church was on the site around this time, but owing to its timber construction, no trace of it remains. Mr O’ Drisceoil estimates that there could have been as many as 100,000 burials in St Canice’s Graveyard over the centuries.

More recently, a pit dug in the graveyard resulted in the somewhat controversial exhumation of human remains. The small trench contained evidence of at least eight burials; remains included human skulls, limbs, an intact sacrum. These were on public display in the robing room last week.

Also on display in the room was an array of fascinating looking items with names such as a ‘late Medieval silver pin’, ‘12-14th Century Leinster cooking ware’, and (now I’ve seen everything) ‘early Medieval dog coprolite’. A wild boar tusk was found on Wednesday afternoon – the native species was originally hunted to extinction (although is apparently making a comeback).

The pit excavated by the team was also found to be full of food waste – animal bones, grains, flowers – providing some insight as to the diet of the early monks.

“This tells us, for the first time, what exactly was being eaten here,” says Mr O’ Drisceoil.

“They were living the high life: Roast pig, roast fowl, t-bone steaks, high-quality bread made from expensive wheat. We also know that they were drinking wine, because we have found a single grape pip.”

The pit also contains a distinctive orange-hued clay in parts, which is thought to be the remains of a large earthen embankment that the monks erected to divide their settlement into two parts – the sanctus and the sanctissimus. The sanctus was for houses, the craft workers, the industries and gardens, while the sanctissimus was the inner circle – an area for the holiest.

The adjacent gardens of the Bishop’s Palace have now been restored to their 18th Century glory. Archaeologists were able to determine what plants and flowers were grown there durng that time, and replicate the look.