Discoveries at a Templar abbey in Ireland

Ireland, Mourne Abbey
Mourne Abbey in County Cork, Ireland, has been the focus of an archaeological excavation to discover more about the history of this medieval religious center.

The abbey was built around 1199 by the Knights Templar. After the rulers of Europe turned on the Templars and destroyed the order in 1307, resulting in 700 years of conspiracy theories, the abbey was handed over to the Knights Hospitaller. This knightly order got its name because its original purpose was to care for sick pilgrims in Jerusalem after the First Crusade, but soon they acquired more land and more power to become one of the leading forces in the Holy Land and Europe. They owned some of the toughest castles in the world.

Their power waned after the Muslims reconquered the Holy Land but the order still exists today. The abbey was abandoned when Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries as part of his break from Rome in 1541. It has since fallen into picturesque ruin.

Now a team of archaeologists has excavated the site and discovered remains from the Hospitaller’s stay in the abbey. The team uncovered the foundations of a 13th century preceptory, the local headquarters for the knights. Very few remains of the Knights Hospitaller have ever been found in Ireland. The archaeologists discovered decorated floor tiles, the tomb of a 16th century knight, and several artifacts.

The abbey is open to the public and there’s a medieval castle and town an easy walk away. For more images of this historic abbey, click here.

[Photo courtesy John Armagh]

Volunteers needed to excavate Lawrence of Arabia’s battles

Lawrence of ArabiaA team of British archaeologists working in Jordan is tracing the military campaign of Lawrence of Arabia, and they need your help.

T.E. Lawrence was an English archaeologist turned soldier who capture the public imagination during World War One when he helped the Arabs rebel against the Ottoman Empire. After its disastrous defeat at Gallipoli at the hands of the Ottomans, the British Empire needed some good news from the Middle Eastern front.

The ten-year project started in 2006 and has already studied Ottoman fortifications, the Hijaz Railway (a favorite target of the Arab rebels), and an Arab army base. Besides traditional archaeology, the team is also recording oral histories of communities living near the battlefields. While all veterans of the campaign are dead, Arab culture is very much an oral one and many war stories have been passed down.

The project, run by the University of Bristol, is looking for volunteers for this year. Volunteers will work from November 14-28 in southern Jordan. The cost for participating is a hefty £2,450 ($4,017) but that includes airfare, food, and a three-star hotel.

For more information, check out the project’s website and blog.

[Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

Bamburgh Castle excavation reveals Anglo-Saxon building

castle, castles
An excavation in the courtyard of Bamburgh Castle has uncovered an Anglo-Saxon hall, the BBC reports.

It was already known that there was a castle here from the 6th century AD, when England was a patchwork of small Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. The kingdom of Northumbria was the largest and one of the most powerful. Little was known about the Anglo-Saxon period at Bamburgh, however, because of the massive later castle built atop it.

Now archaeologists have discovered a hall, perhaps a grand building used by the local ruler. The excavation will be featured on the next episode of Time Team, aired in the UK on Channel 4 this Sunday, April 24, at 5:30 PM. The Bamburgh Research Project has an interesting blog to keep you up to date about the excavation. They also offer a Dig for a Day program where you can learn what it’s like to be an archaeologist and maybe make a major discovery of your own.

A couple of years ago we chose Bamburgh Castle as one of the ten toughest castles in the world because of its amazing military history. Check out the link for more information.

[Photo courtesy George Ford]

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Harla: Ethiopia’s lost civilization

Harla, harla, Ethiopia, archaeology, Harar
Eastern Ethiopia’s history is shrouded in mystery. Most archaeologists investigate early hominids like Lucy, the famous Australopithecus afarensis, or study the great civilizations of the north like Gondar and Axum. The east, though, is virtually unknown, and only enigmatic ruins and strange legends remain.

Scattered around eastern Ethiopia all the way to Somaliland and the Red Sea are the ruins of towns with large stone buildings unlike anything made by the modern Oromo and Somali peoples. These are the remnants of the little-known Harla civilization. Wanting to learn more, I contacted archaeologist, author, and Harar tour guide Muhammed Jami Guleid (guleidhr @yahoo.com). “Dake”, as everybody here calls him, helped me travel to Somaliland last year and is an invaluable resource for local culture and history. He knows everybody and he’s excavated Harla graves in Ethiopia’s Somali region and in Somaliland.

They were a race of giants, people say, and immensely strong. They’d perform amazing feats of strength like playing with balls made from the entire hide of a goat. A schoolkid we gave a lift to told us the Harla were three meters tall! This rumor probably came about because of their unusual graves. They’re long and thin, sometimes three or four meters long, although the skeletons in them aren’t unusually tall. The graves are usually covered with a layer of ash (probably from burnt offerings), the skeleton of a sacrificed cow, and below that a stone slab sealing the tomb.

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Harla skeletons are often buried with pots resting above their head. Inside the pots are black sand (why? nobody knows), necklaces of gemstones, and silver coins that are slightly smaller than a dime. There seems to be writing or designs on the coins but they’re old and poorly minted, and if they ever once said anything, they’re unreadable now. The necklaces are usually agate, but also ruby and amber. The style of the pots, coins, and jewelry are the same both in the mountains around Harar and in the Somali lowlands all the way to the Red Sea. This has convinced Muhammed Dake that the sites all belong to the same culture.

Legends say the center of this civilization was around Harar, which makes sense since it has the best land in the region. The kings of Harla were wizards who boasted about their powers. One said he’d make a river of milk between two mountains; another bragged he could make a sorghum plant that could be laid down and be used as a highway all the way to the Awash River, 150 miles away. Allah got angry at all this and destroyed them. A few Harla survived and fled to Kush in the Sudan, the site of another great civilization.

The Hararis are believed to be descended from the Harla. The closest Harla site to Harar is at the Oromo village of Harla, from which the civilization gets its name. We have no idea what the Harla called themselves. When Allah destroyed the civilization and the survivors fled to Kush, one woman stayed behind to found the modern town of Harla. With a population of about 2800, it’s a half-hour drive from Harar on a winding mountain road that offers sweeping views of the lowlands to the north.

When we arrived at the modern Harla I saw the Oromo there looked and dressed a bit different than other Oromo I’d met. The women didn’t wear the usual Western-style striped shirt that’s almost a uniform for Oromo women in this region. Was this a remnant of their different origins? It’s hard to say, but the modern residents of Harla say they’re of different origins than the rest of the Oromo. Over the years they’ve taken on Oromo customs and the Oromo language, but still consider themselves a distinct people.

Like everywhere else, Muhammed Dake seems to know everyone in Harla. Some of the villagers showed us the ruins. There are thick walls of stone cemented together with a type of plaster that’s still strong after centuries of weathering. Some remain standing above the height of a man, and one field is filled with a network of walls, showing the ancient town was a cluster of closely built structures. In one spot, a tree has grown up through a wall. Plants may be slow, but are almost unstoppable. This tree cracked through the tough Harla plaster and grew around the ancient stones, lifting them into the air as the tree grew. Now the building looks like it’s frozen in the middle of an explosion, its stones suspended several feet above the ground. The local kids love to climb this tree, using the Harla stones embedded in the wood as footholds.

Muhammed Dake believes the Harla people were pagan, judging from how they built their graves. They don’t look either Muslim or Christian. But the Harla village presents another mystery. At one ruin that looks constructed in the Harla style, a villager pulls away some bushes along one wall to reveal a niche. To confirm my suspicions he raises his hands and says “Allahu akbar” (God is Great). It’s a miqrab, the niche in a mosque that points the way to Mecca. And it does point the right direction. Is this mosque from the Harla times? If so, the Harla were the first Muslims in the region, predating the Harari people who can trace their roots back to the tenth century.

Or perhaps it’s a later ruin. So little is known about the Harla, and so little archaeological research has been done here, that for the time being all we have are legends of a race of giants who once ruled the land.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Harar, Ethiopia: two months in Africa’s City of Saints

Coming up next: Exploring Ethiopia’s Somali region!