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Bible: Breakthrough in Search For Lost Christian Monastery That Produced New Testament Manuscript

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The Book of Deer. Cambridge University Library

A decade after archaeologists first set out to find the long-lost Scottish monastery where the Book of Deer was written, they've had their biggest breakthrough yet. 

The Book of Deer is an illuminated manuscript—embellished with gold and silver—from the Bible's New Testament. It contains the oldest-known written examples of Scottish Gaelic, and possibly the oldest Scottish writing of any kind. The Pictish monastery, where the manuscript was penned, appeared to vanish from the historical record 1,000 years ago, according to the Scotsman.

Now archaeologists with the Book of Deer Project believe they may have located the site. While working in the Old Deer village in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, they discovered ancient pottery as well as a hearth and remnants of charcoal. They carbon-dated various objects to between the years 1147 A.D. and 1260 A.D. A stone layer featuring holes for posts hint that an even deeper dig could reveal an undiscovered building, according to the Scotsman. The excavation took place in the summer of 2017 and was filmed for a documentary airing on the Scottish Gaelic language digital television channel, BBC Alba, according to the BBC.

“This project has for many years worked hard to identify the location of the lost monastic site,” Bruce Mann, an archaeologist with the Aberdeenshire Council, told the Scotsman. “These latest discoveries may at last hint that the mystery has finally been solved. More work obviously has to happen, but regardless of what this finally turns out to be, it is a significant find for not only Old Deer, but Aberdeenshire and beyond too.”

The Book of Deer is believed to have been written by the monks of Aberdeenshire in the 9th or 10th century. Because paper was a luxury at the time, the monks took advantage of the margins and other blank spaces to document various aspects of daily life, according to the International Business Times.

The experts told the Scotsman that those notes are the first known examples of Scottish Gaelic writing in that they clearly begin to deviate from the earlier version of Gaelic that was common to both Scotland and Ireland.

book-of-deer The Book of Deer. Cambridge University Library

“The Book of Deer is a tiny book but it has left a huge legacy for us, not only in the north-east but for the whole of Scotland,” Michelle Macleod, a senior lecturer in Gaelic at Aberdeen University, told the Scotsman. “We had to wait another 200-300 years after the Book of Deer to find any more evidence of written Scottish Gaelic.”

The book itself has been at the Cambridge University Library since 1715.

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