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Sourdough bakery and toilet air freshener found in medieval monk settlement in Meath

It seems the Cistercian monks made sourdough a trend long before lockdown

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Sourdough bread

Sourdough bread

Sourdough bread

A sourdough bread bakery and air freshener were among the findings on a medieval monk settlement in Meath during a recent archaeological dig.

It seems the Cistercian monks made sourdough a trend long before lockdown and, remarkably, the bread could hold the key in revealing how large the unique settlement was.

The new findings were discovered by a team of archaeologists, led by experts Matthew and Geraldine Stout at Beamore in East Month during a four week Covid-19 dig.

Armed with two meter Covid Sticks to ensure social distancing and colour co-ordinated equipment to avoid cross-contamination, the team tried to decipher the size of the monastery by the number of sourdough loaves made each day.

"One loaf equals one monk so the size of the oven might suggest how many came from France to live and work at the monastery," said Geraldine.

"We had to think long and hard if we were even going to do a dig this year in the times that were in it."

"Everyone was divided into pods for cuttings (sections of excavation) and they stayed with that group for the month. Each cutting had colour coded equipment which was not to be passed around to other groups to minimise the risk of cross-contamination.

"I gave everyone what I called the 'covid stick' which was a two meter yellow painted stick so they had an idea of the distance they had to stay away from another person.

"We also got a special wash portacabin which I never saw before which enabled us with hot water to wash our hands and there were sanitising stations everywhere.

"But as much as we had reservations at the start, the measures worked and the excavations have given us more questions to come back and answer next year."

And if the Cistercians ever had to practice social distancing, it wasn't obvious in their findings which included evidence to suggest a communal toilet and bakery at the self-sufficient site.

Last year, the excavation team discovered 'significant' finds of a rare French building and medieval pottery which supported a long-held belief that the site was once home to a unique Cistercian monk community from Normandy.

13th century French jugs, ceramic roof tiles and even a corn drying kiln and dried peas which proved crop rotation was ongoing in the 13th century was found on the lands outside Drogheda, owned by local historian and author John McCullen.

Unusual features of an existing gate house in a field, suggesting a diagonal French buttress were described as 'very rare, if not unique in Ireland' according to two of Ireland's foremost medieval building archaeologists David Sweetman and Con Manning.

It is believed that the site was the home of a 13th Century medieval monastic farm associated with the French Cistercian foundation of De Bello Becco (Beaubec)

The excavations which ended in early August were the second of a €50,000 three-year project, funded by FBD Trust and administered through the Kilsharvan Community Council.

Author and archaeologist Geraldine Stout has a particular interest in the Cistercians, having worked on a similar site in Bective in Meath and says they were great innovators and farmers.

"We know that Walter de Lacey gave lands to this Abbey in Beaubec before Normandy in 1201, so there would have been about 100 monks living here up until the 16th century," she said

"De Bello Becco was flourishing in Ireland in 1302 when it had to pay a tithe of 29s 4d to the Diocese of Meath, which placed it in a group of the highest valued churches in Meath

This year, the jackpot continued and finds included a medieval key, animal bones of cows, sheep, cats and dog as well as mixed farming produce of peas, beans, oats, wheat and rye.

Fruits including grapes and figs which, the Stouts say, had to have been imported from France and were further evidence of mixed farming

"We also pushed back the dating of human settlement at Beamore with the discovery of a prehistoric ceremonial pit circle and stone tools beneath the medieval monastic farm"

Remnants of a medieval timber dash urn with paddle which was used to church butter was also found to prove a long-held belief that the Monks were a self-sufficient community.

"In the main residential block, an impressive, communal latrine was found with thirteenth century detailing and outside the main residential block we found evidence of a water system that supplied the needs of this community for toilets, washing and food preparation..

"We found a cellar in the ruins which suggest it could possibly have been used for toilet facilities as well as a pot that worked like a medieval air freshener," says Matthew.

Geraldine believes: "There were between 30 and 50 monks living here. The smallest Cistercian settlement had 12 monks minimum and this is a more sizable community, looking at the scale of the building here.

"We know that each monk was given a loaf of bread for his day's work so if we work out mathematically the size of the oven and how many loaves it could hold, it would suggest how many monks lived here.

"We were lucky to find waterlogged deposits which preserved a lot of timber and seeds for us so we can tell by the flat oats and cereal that the Monks made and ate sourdough bread - so I guess history and trends can repeat themselves," she laughed.

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