The Book of Deer Project continues to investigate the possible location of the early monastery of St.Drostan mentioned in the Gaelic notes of the Book of Deer – referred to as The Monastery of Deer.

This is being done my means of both desk-based research and archaeological excavations and has involved partnership working over the last 14 years with GUARD, Heritage Lottery Fund, Aberdeenshire Council Archaeological Services, Cameron Archaeology Ltd, Murray Archaeology and the support of very many volunteers, schools and Young Archaeology groups.

Photograph from the 2022 dig with kind permission of Cameron Archaeology Ltd.

Summary of Excavations

 Some of these excavations have been filmed and broadcast on TV. The search continues…

There were a series of excavations (May – September), located close to the current Deer Abbey ruins (NJ966481) conducted by Cameron Archaeology Ltd. and involving a variety of volunteers of all ages, funded largely by a National Lottery Heritage Fund grant. It formed part of the events relating to the temporary loan of the Book of Deer from Cambridge University Library, which was on display in Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museums in Aberdeen.

The excavation site was a field to the west of Deer Abbey (NJ966481). Six trenches were excavated from 24th June -8th July by Cameron Archaeology Ltd and involved over 80 volunteers, school pupils and Young Archaeology Club members. Archaeological remains were found in 5 of the trenches, comprising of structures with post holes (one dating to 669-777 AD from charcoal evidence), stake hole alignments, a section of stone wall and associated rubble. Evidence of a path dated to 1041-1211 AD was discovered which may be related to the hearth excavated in 2017 and dated late 12th – early 13th C. Evidence for 2 watercourses was found in association with stake holes (1130-1155 AD) which may indicate presence of fish traps. A rounded flat stone was found with part of an inscribed Solomon’s Knot design (atropropaic graffiti) and what appears to be markings for a game such as hnefatafl (Norse). This stone appears to have been re-purposed as a pot lid. A small selection of handmade medieval pottery sherds were found along with sherds from local and imported continental stoneware (Rhenish/Cologne, & Beauvais Double Sgraffito).

The excavation site was in the Abbey field west of the current ruins of Deer Abbey following a geophysical survey. It was funded by The Book of Deer Project and directed by Cameron Archaeology & Aberdeenshire Archaeological Services & involved 33 volunteers, local schools & Aberdeen Young Archaeology Club members. Between 24th June and 2ndJuly a total of 4 trenches were opened but earlier ploughing in the area had produced a variety of mixed post-medieval and 19th C. finds in the upper layers of some trenches. The geophysical anomaly in Trench 4 proved to be a natural sandy loam and stone subsoil deposit. Trench 1 revealed evidence of stone and post hole structures with handmade pottery sherds dated to 1276-1395 AD. Trench 2 revealed a stone hearth with stake holes for a possible windbreak structure. Charcoal evidence indicated dates of 1147-1260 AD. Possibly relating to usage in the late monastery /early abbey period. Trench 3 proved to be a large deposit of mixed pottery sherds (medieval-modern),tile, slate, human & animal bone which may be associated with raising the level of the field in the west adjacent to a watercourse running down to the river. It could also be associated with a possible well to the NW of the current garden area.

This was conducted by Cameron Archaeology and The Book of Deer Project members. A total of 16 trenches/1m.test pits were excavated in gardens of Abbey Street in the village of Old Deer and also to the rear of the Episcopal Church and Parish Church building.  Scheduled Monument Consent restrictions meant that only areas outside the designated area could be investigated.  Trenches in the village revealed the remains of cottages with a cobbled yard & probable track & roadways, finds were mainly 19th-20th C.  The area to the rear of the Episcopal Church appears to have been raised with demolition rubble & clay after the construction of the 1780’s church.  Previous investigations in 2015 & 2011 within the permitted area of the graveyard only produced post-medieval deposits along with human remains so had been abandoned.  Areas were investigated around the edge of the graveyard where the 1870 lair plan indicated no burials and although a few fragments of human bone suggested that the trenches may be inside the medieval graveyard, most of the finds were deposits of domestic rubbish dating to 19th & 20thC  although there were finds of clay pipes, lead and an early 17th C. coin.  Evidence of building rubble & painted plaster was found in the NE corner of the graveyard suggesting this was the result of demolition debris from the medieval church building.  The N-S anomaly identified by ground penetrating radar produced no evidence of a structure. It was concluded that future investigations of the site of the early monastery should be concentrated closer to the Deer Abbey site itself.

Excavations took place 2nd -8th September in 2 locations: Aden Country Park (AB425FQ) & Old Deer Parish Church (AB425LJ), funded by The Book of Deer Project & Aberdeenshire Council, directed by Cameron Archaeology, 29 archaeologists, Book of Deer Project members, volunteers, local primary schools & Aberdeen Foyer Reach Project. Following geophysical surveys of the areas, 2 trenches were excavated in Aden Country Park, where a ‘T’ shaped structure was found with stones forming what appears to be an ad hoc seating area as well as a large stone platform. Canmore suggests this was an Episcopalian Meeting House (NJ94 NE70). Finds were: early 17th C. ’bawbee’ coin, slate spindle whorl/weight, flints, post-medieval & modern pottery & glass sherds & base of a green 18thC. bottle. Four trenches were excavated around the exterior of Old Deer Parish Church to identify anomalies on the survey. Investigations were limited by SMC delays and the presence of graves & burials. No archaeological deposits were recorded. Some areas were identified for future excavation within the Scheduled Monument areas.

The Book of Deer Project commissioned Murray Archaeological Services to assess the nature of a series of circular enclosures in woodland within the vicinity of the former Aden House (now North East Scotland Agricultural Heritage Museum), some 40m north of the former stables. This took place 2nd -8th October and involved volunteers & Book of Deer Project members. Field walking in a selected area of woodland resulted in sections and a small sondage being excavated to determine the nature of the features. These appeared to be circular & semi-circular hut/ animal corrals with probable clay walls & clay raised banks. Recent drainage channels had cut through some of the features & a large deposit of 19th -20thC rubbish (glass bottles, pottery sherds, nails & military buttons) was revealed. The latter may be related to military use of Aden Park as a training ground & tented camp for 3rd Battalion (Buchan) Rifle Volunteers 1871-73 and later military purposes in WW2. Similarities were noted, however, with late prehistoric (Bronze Age – 1stC) house sites &un-roofed animal shelters in New & Old Kinnord, Dinnet. A section through a path within the site revealed stones but these were not thought to be part of a wall structure. Field walking had revealed more such circular features in the vicinity of the caravan park but these were not investigated.

Murray Archaeological Services were commissioned to undertake excavations throughout the village of Old Deer & within the ruined church. There was no evidence of the early monastery within the village. The trench inside the old church ruins, following a geophysical survey in 2010 which had identified an anomaly, proved to be a wall dated to 13thc or earlier. The trench could not be fully excavated due to the presence of articulated burials.

In 2009 The Book of Deer Project commissioned a desk based & fieldwalking evaluation of the lower ground area to the east of the old kirk in the village of Deer, Aberdeenshire by GUARD which indicated that it could be the possible site of the medieval monastery of Deer. Evidence of archaeological remains to the east & south of the churchyard consisted of a small fire pit, scatters of charcoal, a possible ard mark, a slight stone wall associated with a stake hole & a substantial mortared wall of post-medieval date. Exploratory trenches encountered deep waterborne & hill washed deposits & much waterlogged soil in the vicinity of Grian’s Well, which indicated it was unlikely that any substantial built settlement would be discovered in this immediate area.

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