Professor Digs Deep to Unearth History for His Students

A lot of research and scholarship breaks new ground in the metaphorical sense. In the case of Thomas Finan, Ph.D., an associate professor of history at Saint Louis University, his work is literally groundbreaking.

Thomas Finan

Thomas  Finan, Ph.D., professor of of history, stands at the dig site in County Roscommon, Ireland

Finan, his colleagues and students spend summers carefully sifting through layers of earth to uncover Ireland’s rich history at an archeological dig in County Roscommon. It is a life Finan dreamed of as a boy in south St. Louis starting with a visit to the ophthalmologist when he was in second grade.

“I discovered Archeology magazine in my eye doctor’s waiting room,” he said, “and I decided that archeology sounded pretty cool.”

In college, a study-abroad experience at the University of Cambridge in eastern England inspired Finan to focus his interest in archeology within the context of medieval history.

Today, Finan is a scholar with SLU’s renowned Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies. He says no other university offers what SLU does – the chance to explore Ireland’s deep history by digging for it. It’s a unique educational experience perfectly aligned with SLU’s Jesuit mission.

“In an Ignatian sense, this is a way of expressing gratitude – giving someone an opportunity, as others gave to me,” he said. “I enjoy working with students, and they enjoy working on a research project, applying the tools and skills that they never thought would have a practical application in life.”

Finan’s students learn everything from how to navigate international customs to how to use the Pythagorean Theorem to measure and establish an excavation site.

Of course, for Finan and his students, it is what they find digging in the dirt at County Roscommon that is most interesting.

“The historical research around this site has been an ongoing interest of mine for decades,” Finan said. “We have spent the last three years conducting topographical, geophysical and UAV-aerial surveys at the site, and we were convinced that this particular site was the location of a market town mentioned in the Irish annals in the 1230s.”

During their most recent dig, Finan and his students discovered the remains of a high-status Gaelic settlement at the site, known as Port-na-Carraig. In historic sources, the site is noted as the market town for the McDermot lord during the Middle Ages.

“This research is ongoing and groundbreaking,” he said. “At a base level, we are convinced that we will be able to answer a number of critical questions about the social and economic structures of Gaelic society in the middle ages, including issues of trade and commerce – and that’s really exciting.”