ADCO is delighted to see one of its finds, known as the ‘Monk’s stone’, from the underwater excavations at John’s Bridge, now on display in Kilkenny’s new Medieval Mile Museum.

The excavation was commissioned as part of the OPW and Kilkenny Corporation’s River Nore Flood Alleviation Scheme, and was undertaken between 2000 and 2002. The underwater work focused on the identification and excavation of the remains of medieval and later bridge foundations that were present within the riverbed underneath the existing John’s Bridge. The excavation revealed multiple bridge phases and provided an extensive assemblage of artefacts for the most part dating from the sixteenth-century onward.

The Monk’s stone is one of a series of earlier grave stones recovered from the riverbed between the remains of two sixteenth-century bridge piers. The presence of these grave stones, approximately 2.5m below the existing bed-level of the river, was a significant and unexpected find.

The Monk’s stone is an incised effigial slab, made from Kilkenny Limestone, and is the best preserved of the grave stones recovered from the River Nore. The tombstone depicts an ecclesiastic with his hand in the orant (praying) position. The figure is tonsured (where his hair is shaved in a particular manner) and wears an amice and chasuble (outer vestment). His head is depicted as resting on a pillow with chevron decoration, framed by a cusped archway behind.

Effigial slabs of this type belong to the fourteenth-century and the Monk’s stone is a particularly fine example. The polished surface has provided a beautiful medium for the stonemason’s work; highlighting the marble-like quality of Kilkenny Limestone. It is stylistically similar to one of four pieces that are set into the floor of St. Canice’s Cathedral, Kilkenny, no doubt emanating from the same work-shop. The Monk’s stone, however, is far better preserved, as it hasn’t suffered from six centuries of people walking over it and wearing down its detail.

Monk's Stone
Monk’s Stone: image taken by Rex Bangerter, ADCO

The original contexts of the gravestones recovered from the River Nore at John’s Bridge remains unknown. Their discovery under the bridge begs the question of how they got there and whether their presence reflects a particular purpose. One argument suggests they were placed there as part of works to stabilise the eroding bridge piers. However, their disposition on the riverbed appeared to be rather random. Another possibility is that the gravestones were dumped there, being cast into the river from the bridge. There is some merit in this possibility; the grave stones date from a range of different time-periods before the 1540s and, where protruding distinguishing features were once evident these have been systematically knocked off. The pattern of visual destruction that the stones record is in keeping with the zeal of iconoclasts, where the passion of Reformers found an outlet in removing the graven images of an elitist Christianity they found to be offensive. Records of the Reformation in Ireland during the 1540s are poor, many having been lost, perhaps purposefully, but it was the case that Bishop Baal, one of the great reformers, was based in Kilkenny for a period of time. While there is no written testimony, the presence of the River Nore grave stones in this watery context suggests a narrative whereby they might represent a moment of Protestant-led Reformation zeal, unleashed rather publicly in the centre of this great medieval town against the supposed idolatry of the old Catholic Church.

For further information, see 01E0036, Archaeological investigation and excavation, John’s Bridge, Kilkenny. River Nore Flood Alleviation Scheme, final report. Unpublished report by Niall Brady for the Archaeological Diving Company Ltd, 2004, submitted to the National Monuments Service at the DAHRRGA.
Illustration of Monk's Stone
Monk’s Stone: Illustration by Rex Bangerter, ADCO

#5daycountdown Today we would like to introduce Rex who was one of the underwater archaeologists that recovered the Monk Stone from the River Nore.

Posted by Medieval Mile Museum on Thursday, February 23, 2017