By Dr Gemma Watson, Post-Doctoral Research Assistant in the Department of Archaeology

Back in May 2017, Roberta Gilchrist, Professor of Archaeology and Research Dean at the University of Reading, presented the prestigious Rhind Lectures, the oldest and biggest archaeology lecture series in the world, hosted by the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland.

Professor Gilchrist presented on the theme of ‘Sacred Heritage: Archaeology, Identity and Medieval Beliefs’, exploring over six lectures the value of sacred medieval heritage today and in the past. The lectures outline a new research agenda for the archaeological study of later medieval monasticism with a strong emphasis on the archaeology of medieval Scotland and tying in with the Scottish Government’s Year of History, Heritage and Archaeology 2017. The lectures are now available to watch online.

The first lecture is on the topic of Sacred Values: Medieval Archaeology and Religious Heritage, and considers the meaning and value of medieval religious sites and material culture in the past and present. Why do we value, conserve and interpret medieval sacred heritage? What is the potential significance of medieval archaeology to contemporary social issues surrounding religious identity, and how does this impact on archaeology?

The second lecture, Monastic Archaeology and National Identity: the Scottish Monastic Inheritance, examines Scottish medieval monasticism from the 12th century onwards. How is archaeological practice shaped by the social value placed on medieval heritage? What is distinctive and significant about Scottish monasticism?

The third lecture is on the topic of medieval healing – Medicine for the Soul: the Archaeology of Monastic Healing. This lecture reviews archaeological evidence for therapeutic treatments in monastic and hospital infirmaries in medieval Britain. How did monastic ideas about the body and soul influence treatment of the medieval sick? Can we detect regional differences and chronological traditions in monastic healing?

Magic is the subject of the fourth lecture, The Materiality of Magic: the Ritual Lives of People and Things. This lecture considers archaeological evidence for ritual practices in medieval Scotland. Why did medieval people place amulets with the dead and deliberately bury objects in sacred space? How were beliefs about magic reconciled with medieval religion?

In the fifth lecture, Monastic Legacies: Memory and the Biography of Place, memory in the monastic landscape is explored through the case study of Glastonbury Abbey. Monasteries were active in creating ritual landscapes as imagined spaces, interweaving myth and hagiography with material practices to embody memory and the medieval sense of place. These meanings were then reworked as post-Reformation narratives, which operated at local and national scales.

The final lecture examines Sacred Myths: Archaeology and Authenticity. How is sacred heritage involved in the production and negotiation of myths connected to saints, kings and nationhood? The role of archaeology and archaeologists in authenticating myths connected with sacred sites is examined.  It considers the changing and multiple meanings of medieval religious sites as they took on new spiritual and political identities in the 20th century.