Circular huts and lonely hermits? Here’s why (almost) everything we thought we knew about Skellig Michael could be wrong.
As DigVentures gets ready to invite our crowdfunders to join us for a second round of excavation on Lindisfarne – the location of a renowned early Anglo-Saxon monastery raided by the Vikings in AD 793 – we decided to look into another of its famously isolated contemporaries: Skellig Michael.
Instantly recogniseable as the filming location for that final climactic scene in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, its distinctive, circular beehive huts have their own near-mythical reputation. These are the real archaeological remains of a Celtic Christian monastery founded on the island sometime between AD500-700, and this is where the first Irish monks were to experience sublime solitude as they sought out salvation at the edge of the world. Or is it? After a little digging, it turns out that nothing – from the very roundness of the huts, to the exalted isolation of its monks – is quite as it seems…
Remote islands were becoming a ‘thing’
By the 6th century AD, retreating onto windswept islands was becoming as much of a tradition for Celtic Christian monks as heading out into the desert had been for their religious predecessors in Syria and the Middle East, and it wasn’t long until monasteries and hermitages were also being established on Iona in Scotland, and Lindisfarne (nudge nudge, wink wink) on the coast of Northumberland.
Skellig would have been the perfect place for any monk who wanted to push their religious self to the limit. Located 7 miles off the southwest coast of Ireland, the jagged rocks of this formidable-looking island rise from the sea like the teeth of some monstrous shark.
Today, all that remains of Skellig’s monastery is perched on the island’s summit 200m above sea level. You can still climb the steep, winding stairway of over 600 steps to reach an artificial terrace (probably built over many decades) with a cluster of six circular stone huts, two boat-shaped oratories, a church and a cemetery.
Round on the outside, square on the inside
It’s the huts, which are so iconic of Irish monasticism, are the first revelation. Famously circular on the outside, once you step inside, you’ll find that they are actually square on the inside.
This was no accident. In fact, these huts are based on a building tradition known as ‘corbelling’ that was already thousands of years old, in which circles of stone were laid down in ever-decreasing circles until the top could be sealed with a single stone, leaving them watertight – not a draft nor drop of water would have got in.
And they were more accommodating than you might think. They had inbuilt cupboards, and protruding stone pegs – possibly for hanging things, possibly for an internal upper floor. Built on the south and southwest of the island they got maximum sunlight, with terracing to support gardens for growing vegetables. There were also a series of interconnecting cisterns for collecting and purifying rainwater through filtration. As remote and unforgiving as the monastery’s location appears, the monks who lived there did a remarkable job at making the island habitable.
Remoteness doesn’t bring you peace
Being so far from anywhere did not, however, mean the early monks could live in peace. It is no secret that early Christian monasteries were repeatedly attacked by the Vikings, and Skellig’s isolated position left it exposed. Like so many other island monasteries (Lindisfarne included), it was repeatedly plundered by the Vikings, who brought death and slavery to its inhabitants, and even kidnapped the Abbot in one particular raid in AD 823.
And yet Skellig was lucky enough to receive a near miraculous change of fortune; rare as it was, there was one instance of friendship between Ireland’s monks and its marauders; in AD 993 Olav Trygvasson (who would later become the King of Norway) was baptised on the island by the in-house hermit.
Let’s all live alone, together!
Viking attacks aside, the round stone huts still leave many people with the impression that the monks spent their time holed up alone. In fact, their lives would have required extensive co-operation; in construction, in farming and in fishing together. In fact, this very contradiction of living alone together seems to be embodied in the monastery’s layout.
While the layout of later medieval monasteries reflected the discipline of communal life, with their stereotyped arrangements of buildings, the layout of earlier monasteries like Skellig, with their haphazard arrangements of communal living and isolated spaces, seems to reflect the monks’ ongoing conflict between their devotion to both eremitism and coenobitism.
But the biggest challenge to the image of Skellig’s isolated hermit comes later. As more and more pilgrims wanted to experience this sublime solitude for themselves, the island would have become an increasingly busy place.
An ancient tourist destination
In fact, Irish archaeologist Terry O’Hagan says that famous beehive huts were not the products of isolated hermits withdrawing from the world, but were actually built (or, perhaps reconstructed) during the 11th and 12th centuries, when pilgrimage to Skellig was at its height.
By then, he says, the growing demand for dramatic and theatrical pilgrimage meant Skellig had become the medieval equivalent of a theme park. In a time when the popular power – and profits – offered by saints’ tombs and relics echoed throughout Europe, Skellig offered a unique religious experience that traded on a re-constructed portrayal of a past, early Medieval golden age.
The same even applies to the name. In what O’Hagan calls ‘an apparent reboot of the island’s brand and identity’, the island’s church was re-dedicated to Saint Michael the Archangel in the 11th century in a bid to appeal to an even wider audience.
Climatic deterioration, resulting in colder weather and increased storms, along with changes in the structure of the Irish Church, led to the end of the eremitical community on the island by the 13th century. The last monks left their island retreat, only for it to be re-colonised at a much later date by a knight from a distant galaxy far, far away…
Always wanted to try archaeology?
DigVentures crowdfunds archaeological projects that everyone can be part of, in the UK and overseas. With help from people all over the world, we investigate the past and publish our discoveries online for free. Support one of our digs and you can choose to watch our discoveries as they happen, or roll up your sleeves and excavate alongside our team!