The Drumadoon Bell shrine, County Antrim

21 September 2011

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The Drumadoon Bell ShrineThe Drumadoon Bell Shrine

During the summer of 2002 the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) funded an archaeological excavation at a mound in the townland of Drumadoon, near the village of Ballyvoy in north County Antrim. The mound was believed to be a Norman motte and was gradually collapsing down slope into the valley of the River Carey.

The excavation discovered that the original settlement at the site was a farmstead dated to around 800-900AD and consisting of a house and farmyard surrounded by an earthen bank. The farmyard also contained a wooden grain store that had burnt down and an underground chamber known as a souterrain, used for storage and hiding from slave raids. Bones found show that the farms inhabitants ate cattle, sheep, pigs and sea fish.

The farm had been abandoned for some reason around 900AD and the site was not reoccupied until about 1250AD when it was raised and turned into a defensive mound known as a motte, on top of which a knight would have lived. The mottes inhabitants ate a very similar diet to the earlier farmers. Horse bones were also found as one might expect at a site built by a Norman knight.

It was during the excavation of the motte that the most spectacular find was uncovered. It was a bell shrine made in the late 1100s but modified in the 1200s. Bell shrines were used to hold small hand bells that would have belonged to or been associated with a saint.

The major feature added to the bell shrine in the 1200s was a figure of Christ on the cross, which was made in Limoges in southern France. How this little figure was brought hundreds of miles across land and sea to the north of Ireland we may never know. But we do suspect that it became buried at the site because its Norman keepers probably died in battle elsewhere and never made it back to their home. The little bell shrine then became lost to memory for hundreds of years until NIEA’s archaeologists uncovered it again in 2002.

To hear the story of the bell shrine’s rediscovery and final journey to the Ulster Museum please click on the link below.

Posted by Clare Oliver, Doeni

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