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10.9 Archaeological work

From the point of view of the archaeological record, the coincidence of building developments in the Green area of Aberdeen in the 1980s and 1990s has been a very fortunate one, providing opportunities both large and small to identify, examine and detail very well-preserved evidence of the Carmelite Friary and its environs. It is interesting to recall that before the close of 1980, even the precise location, let alone the nature of the friary church and precincts, was unknown, although their general area could be deduced from historical and cartographic information.

Despite the success of the various pieces of archaeological work which have taken place so far, ranging from watching briefs over sewer renewal trenches to full-scale excavations, there is inevitably more to be learned about the layout, form and function of the friary complex. Some aspects, such as the full structure of the east end of the church, for example, may have been lost through 18th- and 19th-century building developments, but every occasion must be grasped to ensure further recording, particularly in this area where so much is known and even piecemeal evidence can tell us much.

Among the gaps in our knowledge is the lack of physical evidence for the way in which the friary site was separated from the Green and the outside world, despite the sturdy gatehouse and wall that are depicted in the 3D reconstruction. Nor do we really know the size of the precinct and how it related on the ground to the Carmelites' near neighbours, the Trinitarians. It is to be hoped that there may be chances in future to explore anything that may remain below ground of that other religious house, not to mention the places of the other orders of friars which were active in Aberdeen in the medieval period. It is interesting that the limited excavations in 2008-9 at the site of the 15th-century and later Franciscan house, and in 2009, 2015-16 at the Dominican site (Cameron forthcoming c; Cook forthcoming) produced signs of structures and building materials very reminiscent of the discoveries reported in these pages.

There have been an increasing number of archaeological interventions at medieval friary sites in Scotland and the UK since the 1980s and there remains a need for more synthetic study of the evidence, both historical and archaeological, setting these highly significant features of our urban past into a national and international context.

In the final analysis, what has been learned from the research? On the one hand we can ask: are we really any closer to an understanding of the friars themselves? The nature of the documentary evidence dictates the sort of history which we can write. However, perhaps, we are closer to an understanding of the role of the friars in the general ups and downs of the life of the burgh for some three hundred years. They grew and developed, and indeed prospered, as the burgh did. They would have weathered many of the same storms. Foggie notes, of the Dominicans, that through the impact of plague and the Rough Wooing of the 1540s, the friars would have fallen on hard times (although she qualifies this by noting that the burghs as corporate institutions were hit more heavily than the friaries which they contained) (Foggie 2003, 142). The earlier possible role of the friars in the Wars of Independence, if true, may show how far things had changed between the 13th and 16th centuries. In the 13th century the friars were still part of an English administration, while by the 16th century they were part of a Scottish province. In the 13th century many of them may have still been incomers to the burgh, men drawn from Berwick, possibly some even from England. By the 16th century they would probably all have been Scottish and Aberdonian at that. They would have had close ties, familial and financial with many in the Burgh. The needs of the friars themselves, as well as those of their friary, would have made them as good a set of producers and consumers within the burgh as any other, whilst their religious function would have made them an indispensable part of the social fabric and support networks within the burgh at the time. Their post-Reformation history reflects the fact that many, including the Menzies family, sought to stand against the tide of history and the great changes of the 16th century, as well as reflecting the place that these friars held in the hearts of many Aberdonians.

This project has gone some way towards researching and drawing together elements of research on medieval Aberdeen. The research on the history of the Green has helped to place the Carmelites in their physical setting and understand how their land-owning interests in the area grew and how they themselves influenced the history, development and growth of the area as a whole. The later history of the Green — its development and use from the time of the Reformation up until the later 20th century-has been teased out from the historical sources and can now be narrated.

Moreover the mixture of a series of archaeological excavations with the rich historical sources, have in this case combined to produce a vivid and varied understanding of the heritage of the Carmelites' experience in Aberdeen. At times the results of the history and archaeology have been contradictory whilst at others they have complemented each other very well. At a basic level the robbing of the stone work in the early part of the 1560s with references from a century later indicating that perhaps the outline of the friary was still traceable in the ground accorded very well with what was found in the ground itself. At another level, the large quantity of skeletons recovered here is elegant testimony to the special place that the friary held in the hearts of many generations of medieval Aberdonians. Phrases such as 'conventional piety' may well be true, but they go some way to obscuring the depth of feeling that people had for institutions (and the individuals they contained). The connections with families can be seen very clearly in the historical sources but are revealed in a very final and mortal manner through the excavated evidence.


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