Northern Ireland

Dramatic new photos show bones of close to 150 bodies found following complex dig at site of medieval abbey in Carrickfergus

Most of the bodies were male, a number female and infants, likely some denied Christian burial as executed criminals

Archaeologist carefully works on the site where the bones of close to 150 people were discovered in Carrickfergus
Carefully working on the site where the bones of close to 150 people were discovered in Carrickfergus

New photographs have emerged that show the bones of more than 140 people discovered during the excavation of a site close to where an abbey once stood centuries ago in Co Antrim.

The Irish News revealed that the skeletons, 120 complete and 26 partial remains, were found during the “very complex” excavation near the site of the 14th century Woodburn Abbey in Carrickfergus.

On site in Carrickfergus during dig near medieval monastery
On site in Carrickfergus during dig near medieval monastery

Archaeologists began work last September as part of the planning process for a new Home Bargains store close to the closed Courtaulds factory.

Initial probing unearthed little of significance, with nothing more found than modern demolished material, but then the bones began to appear, said Chris Long, of Gahan and Long, the archaeology company tasked with carrying out the excavation.



Further investigation revealed the remains of grave cuts, with clear evidence of human remains. It was further stripped back to expose the full extent of the remains, mostly male but some women and infants.

Full skeletons of 120 people were found on the site in Carrickfergus
Full skeletons of 120 people were found on the site in Carrickfergus

“The vast majority are buried in the Christian tradition of east-west orientation, but some later burials have been deposited north-south,” said Mr Long.

“This may reflect the burial of executed criminals from nearby Gallows Green, who would have been denied a full Christian burial.”

It is a “very important archaeological discovery providing further evidence of the medieval history of Carrickfergus”, Mr Long added.

Archaeological dig at a site in Carrickfergus, Co Antrim  thought to be a medieval graveyard. PICTURE: MAL MCCANN
Carrickfergus archaeological dig Archaeological dig at a site in Carrickfergus, Co Antrim thought to be a medieval graveyard. PICTURE: MAL MCCANN (Mal McCann)

“Looking at the site before we started, it was clear that this was an area that could have good archaeological potential, however there was always the belief that the former factory may have removed everything.”

Premonstratensian canons, members of a French order established in 1120, had the priory built in 1326, replacing an original one founded the previous century.

The abbot and community retired to Islandmagee in 1542, while the building was partly demolished beginning around 1558. Noted antiquarian Joseph Francis Bigger, writing in 1907, said the abbey was completed destroyed in the early 1600s on the orders of Arthur Chichester.

Mary Connolly, of the Carrickfergus Historical Society, is calling for some type of memorial or marker to be placed at the site, a move supported by the Department for Communities (DfC).

Mr Long said: “The remains that we have identified show just how resilient archaeological deposits can be. As archaeologists, this is a very exciting find and it is the kind of site that we all want to discover.

“Given the nature of the remains and the ground conditions, this was a very complex excavation.”

The developer was fully supportive and allowed time for the excavation to be completed properly, important “not just from an archaeological point of view but also from the fact that we are dealing with human remains which need to be treated with respect,” Mr Long said.

The bones will be reburied following further study, but this will be limited because there was asbestos in the ground, left by the former factory.

“During the 14th and 15th century this would have been one of the most important ecclesiastical sites in the medieval earldom of Ulster,” said Andrew Gault, senior the DfC’s senior inspector of historic monuments.

The bones of one of the bodies discovered in Carrickfergus
The bones of one of the bodies discovered in Carrickfergus

“Never before have any of the physical remains of the Abbey, or the Abbey complex been discovered. Going forward we’ll hopefully work with the developer to see if the location of the Abbey can be marked in some way to commemorate the Abbey and the people who were buried there.”

Ms Connolly said: “This site was long known to have been home to Holy Cross Abbey but as it had been erased there was no evidence. So it is wonderful that this excavation has uncovered such a wealth of information.

“It is to be hoped that some sort of fitting memorial be placed on the site.”