Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Prof. Aidan O'Sullivan: Why people chose to live on lakes | Drumclay Conference 2014 | Review

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The final speaker of the day was the wonderful Prof. Aidan O'Sullivan of UCD. The session chair, Dr. Nóra Bermingham, introduced him as the person who would allow us to see Drumclay in the broader context. She explained that he has been working with crannogs for much of his career and has published widely on the subject. Following an enthusiastic round of applause O’Sullivan introduced himself to the audience and noted that his task was to answer the question as to 'why people chose to live on crannogs in lakes?'. He explained that the wanted to think about the ways in which Early Medieval people thought about islands and crannogs; the various motivations for building, inhabiting, and abandoning crannogs; to look at international comparisons; and to answer the question ‘is Drumclay crannog the most significant excavated wetland settlement in Europe?’. As a hint to the last question, he placed the answer on the slide: YES!


O’Sullivan then explained that he had spent ‘a goodly part’ of his career thinking and writing about crannogs and wetland settlements generally. He then began a recitation of his publications list, noting his PhD on The Social and Ideological Role of Crannogs in Early Medieval Ireland [Vol 2: here] along with various book written and edited [see here and here]. With each title mentioned and important publication trumpeted, you could feel the temperature in the room drop. The Fermanagh audience were clearly not impressed with this self-important academic showing up to tell them how brilliant he was. By this stage even I was saying to myself that this was a spectacularly ill-judged strategy and that if it all went sour and a riot ensued, I was making my way towards the door at speed and O’Sullivan was definitely on his own! Just as things seemed on the brink of disaster, O’Sullivan said “It’s not that I mean to be immodest, but just that I want to prepare for the answer I’m going to give you in a second. … So … in answer to the question ‘Why did people chose to live on islands in lakes?’: I don’t know!” The wave of laughter and scattered applause that followed was as much filled with relief as it was an approval for the frank acknowledgment by an expert in the field that there were no easy and definitive answers to these questions.

Although admitting that he could leave the lecture there and vacate the stage, O’Sullivan decided that he should press on. He explained that his involvement with Drumclay went back to the very beginning, having visited the site during the botched (my term, not his) Phase I excavations led by Declan Hurl. On many of his visits he would ascend the drumlin and look down over the excavation and think [and this is worth reproducing in full as it sums up so much of the questions that need to be asked about crannogs generally as much as Drumclay specifically] “What – in the name of all that is good and holy – are they doing? What are they doing out on an island there? Why are they doing this? I still, in a sense, don’t really fully understand it. They were metres from dry land! They were literally a stone’s throw from the drumlin. They could have inhabited perfectly nice stable dry surface which didn’t require them to be continually building up the material around them and to be sinking up to their knees in the mud and the muck and the dirt. Is it defensive? They didn’t really need to go 15 metres out into a lake to achieve that. Is it about land use? You could do exactly the same thing with a rath or a ringfort. Is it about economy? No … not really! These are, basically, the same as Early Medieval settlements enclosures on the dryland. Why did they do this? Why did they go to such work? And I think we need to start from here”

Quoting Henry Glassie’s Passing the Time in Ballymenone, which is set in Fermanagh, O’Sullivan noted that ‘if we use the past like a mirror, then of course we’re going to see our own faces looking back at us’. However, if we think of the past as ‘strange’ we then have the potential to access new ways of thinking about our world and our common humanity. In this way, we must start from the point of view that the people of Early Medieval Ireland were not like us and had very different ideas about social organisation, spoke a different language, dressed differently, with different customs, different belief systems: they believed in monsters; they believed in curses that could kill you; they believed in all kinds of strange things that are alien to us. With this in mind, O’Sullivan asked how do we begin to understand that mind-set and, more specifically, why did they build crannogs? He mentioned that a key concept to keep in mind is that the builders of this site would never have called it a crannog – the word simply did not exist in old Irish and only emerges in the language in the 12th century. Until that time all references to these artificial islands use the words Inish or Illaun – both terms for natural islands – and there was no linguistic or mental differentiation between natural islands and artificial constructions. When they built crannogs they understood it as making islands. To get an understanding of how they thought about islands in general there are a number of sources that can be examined including the voyage tales (immran) and the adventure tales (echtrae) along with the annals. From these sources several themes emerge, including the idea that islands held potential for change and transformation and where strange things could happen. They were liminal places – places at the edge of things – usefully remote and inaccessible. They thought that islands were about journeys – the journeys to and from islands were important and these journeys themselves were transformative processes. Islands were seen as places where heroes could commune and negotiate with otherworldly forces. There are examples in the voyage tales where a hero or cleric would visit islands and encounter monsters, strange creatures, otherworldly beings, or sexually predatory women and, in avoiding or overcoming these temptations, could return transformed and redeemed. Interestingly, the sources do not mention the physical size of the islands – it appears irrelevant to the narratives they appear in – it was the islandness of the place that carried the importance.

Looking at the chronology of these sites, O’Sullivan notes that the chronology is pretty well defined and understood. At sites like Lough Gara, Co. Sligo, construction begins in the later Bronze Age. A small number are dated to the Iron Age, but the vast majority are from the Early Medieval period. By the middle of the 6th century they reach their major period of construction and continue in use into the Late Medieval period, particularly in the north-west of Ireland. While the majority were abandoned by the post-Medieval period a number (particularly in Ulster) were re-inhabited and refortified. By a certain point they are no longer considered appropriate places to live.


O’Sullivan notes that excavators of crannogs can testify (including those in the room) that they are exceedingly complex sites that are particularly difficult to untangle. Older investigations of these sites had a tendency of seeing the sites as a series of simple layers stacked on top of each other, but this is not how they work. This is due to the fact that they are continually under attack from natural forces of weather, subsidence, and decay along with continual efforts to consolidate and rebuild. Thus, their stratigraphy is very complex and individual sites can show multiple phases of rebuilding and reuse. For example, at Coolure Demesne crannog, in Lough Derravaragh, O’Sullivan and his co-researchers examined all the sampled wood from the site and found that if had multiple periods of use from around 900 BC. There was further activity at 402 AD with the construction of massive oak palisades, but the majority of the activity appears to have taken place from the 8th to the 11th centuries AD. There was a further burst of activity in the 13th century before finally being abandoned. O’Sullivan maintains that close examination of sites that have been investigated in detail provide an extraordinary sense of both dynamism and persistence. He cites the example of Buiston crannog in south-west Scotland which had a relatively short period of use – about 60 years – from construction in 589 AD with a single house that was occupied for only five years. That house was replaced three times before the entire site was rebuilt and expanded to the north-west in 594 AD. A roundhouse of this Phase was refurbished and rebuilt four times, or every five years. By 620 they’d built a palisade around the site, followed by another arc of stakes in 630 AD and by 650 AD the site was abandoned. This is all evidence for people coping with damp, soggy conditions where the site is continually in flux and give a strong sense of the deliberate persistence required to live in such a place. O’Sullivan argues that Drumclay will be a key site for developing our understanding of this form of question – why did these people invest so much time and effort in attempting to live in such a place? He notes that from the papers presented at this conference and the other information available, there is clear evidence for the site having witnessed long periods of use. However, he believes that there are likely to be some serious surprises in this data in terms of our understanding of those processes where there are lengthy periods of abandonment of Drumclay. For example, at one point the site was deserted for around forty years before being re-inhabited and then abandoned for a further twenty years. He believes that very fine-grained radiocarbon and dendrochronological work will be necessary to tease out the details of these successive abandonments and refurbishments.

Turning to the question of how crannogs occupy landscapes, he noted that there are approximately 2,000 examples known from Ireland. Where they are known they tend to avoid the larger lakes, instead showing a preference for smaller bodies of water. In the smallest lakes there will only be one crannog, but in larger examples there can be several. This rule holds true up to a certain point where the lake is deemed to be too big and none were built. O’Sullivan explains that they’re thinking about bodies of water in very distinctive ways that may be somewhat alien to us as modern viewers. He argues that, thinking of Drumclay crannog in its original landscape, we should consider how the site works in this ‘strange space’ of the lake and the drumlin beside it. Thinking about islands in landscapes and how the Early Medieval Irish considered islands O’Sullivan asks if crannogs could be considered to be prominent within landscapes? Could we think of them as ‘on display’, slightly remote, usefully inaccessible, and usefully requiring a journey to access them? O’Sullivan sees them as tied to contemporary notions of Kingship and points to examples of early associations between Kings and bodies of water where the King was named for the lake and the lake represents the Kingship. In other scenarios Saints would often confront Kings on their islands. In a common motif the King would be in residence on his island and would be approached by a retainer to inform him that the Saint was on the landward shore. Interestingly, the phrase used in these sources is port na hInse (lit. The Harbour of the Island), indicating that there was an appropriate or approved way of approaching the crannog if you wish to visit. In this way, he argues that crannogs are not randomly located in their bodies of water, nor are their means of access. In any case, the King will ignore the Saint, the Saint will get fractious (as early Saints were wont to do) and will cause the lake waters to rise up and flood the crannog. These stories give a sense of issues surrounding the control and restricting of access, along with the tussles between clerical and temporal authorities. O’Sullivan argues that you can also see how islands were used by kings within landscapes of power and points to Croinis on Lough Ennel. Here Maelshaughlin II, High King of Ireland, died in 1022 AD next to his house at Dún na Sciath (The fort of the shields). Even in the modern landscape it is clear that to approach the island the visitor would have been forced to travel along a narrow spit of land between two wetland areas and it is only when the traveller reaches Dún na Sciath, and you can see over the brow of the hill, that the island becomes visible, creating an impression of an island on the edge of the world. O’Sullivan explains that this pattern is repeated on other sites where there is a sense that these crannogs are placed on important boundaries. He notes that while the crannog at Coolure Demesne was selected because of its large size and richness in archaeological remains, it is actually quite close to the lake shore – only about 40m or 50m from dry land – and it is possible to wade out to it in chest-high water. Nonetheless, the recovered artefacts are revealing in terms of their high status nature and there is evidence of feasting and Royal rituals in terms of hostage collars, evidence for high status metalwork etc. It also sits in the landscape in a particularly distinct manner – like Croinis – it is very close to a substantial rath, giving the arrangement of the King’s house on the land and the King’s crannog in the water. At Coolure Demesne they found a series of smaller platforms around the main crannog that are interpreted as smaller crannogs. Thus, when the King is resident on his island his community could be inhabiting the same space around him. Early Irish Kings were peripatetic, frequently moving from place to place around their territories and maintained several residences, each associated with different aspects of their Kingship. These include the administration of justice, the negotiation of treaties, feasting, sporting events etc. At Coolure Demesne, O’Sullivan argues, there was a sense in the modern Townland boundaries of the original royal demesne in the landscape around the lake. At a further remove Coolure Demesne, which is thought to be a royal site of the Uí Fiachra Cúile Fobar, is situated on the boundaries of three Early Medieval kingdoms with the UíMaccu Uais Mide and the Corco Roíde, and all have their crannogs looking at each other across the water. While the boundaries may be somewhat vague or permeable, there remains a strong sense of these being sites which are situated at the edges of their territories observing each other. He notes that the interesting thing is that not all crannogs were such high status sites – most are probably of the free commoner classes. For example Christina Fredengren’s work at Lough Gara showed that most crannogs were small sites with single houses on them. While crannogs come in different sizes and depth of water and there are always questions around accessibility there are also sites like those at Kiltoom in Lough Deravaragh. These are a string of eight sites, each about 10-12m in diameter and while they are on dry land now, they would have been accessible in the Early Medieval period in ankle-deep water and via short causeways. In this way we see that there are ordinary people seeking to create patches of land in the water. While they may not have been able or allowed to build particularly far out into that body of water, it appears that the act of building in the water was the significant variable.


As a final question, O’Sullivan attempts to answer the question: How significant is Drumclay crannog in terms of European wetland settlement archaeology? The way that this would be assessed is to compare Drumclay and its potential with what we know from other sites across north and central Europe. In terms of living on a wetland settlement we have Scottish and Irish crannogs along with a single lonely example from Wales; there are mound settlements in Frisia and Lower Saxony; there are lake settlements in the Baltic region (many of which are of Viking date); along with a number of (mostly prehistoric) Alpine lake settlements. If we look at the sites that have been excavated – of the 2000 known Irish crannogs some 15 have been excavated, none of which have been excavated to the standard of Drumclay. This is due to the fact that some were excavated some time ago before the development of modern techniques, or haven’t been published, or simply that the quality of preservation was not as good. Thus, Drumclay is easily the most important one in Ireland. In Scotland some 20 crannogs have been dug into or nine excavated in some form or another – some done well, others less so – none to the standard of Drumclay. The only exception to this may be Buiston, but that site is nowhere as rich in material or as long-lived as Drumclay. The Iron Age and Early Medieval Terpen sites in Germany and The Netherlands are fascinating. These are dominant sites in their landscapes and are hillock settlements in salt marshes, often composed of a Chieftains house surrounded by workshops. By the 6th and 7th centuries they’re involved in the production of woollen cloth (possibly the fabric known as Pallium fresonicum in the historical sources). Many have been excavated, but very few have been published – and even fewer have been published in English. In Central Europe the only major candidate is Charavines-Colletière on Lac de Paladru (the lake of the pile-dwellings) in Isère, France. The Early Medieval portion of the site was a fortified settlement, probably established by Farmer-Knights, around 1003 AD. During the c.37 year occupation of the site there was evidence of a constant cycle of refurbishment and a continual struggle against damp and decay. The remains from the site shows a strong military presence along with evidence for raising pigs, along with many high status objects. However, it does not have the long chronological span of Drumclay.

O’Sullivan concludes with the idea that there will be many answers to why people chose to live at Drumclay and on crannogs generally. These will include ideas around living together, working the land, making and exchanging commodities, belief systems, the creation of new ground, and very much concerned with notions (strange to us) of islands and ‘islandness’. It is worthwhile to quote O’Sullivan’s closing statement in full: “In Drumclay we certainly have a unique opportunity to explore the lives of peoples of the Fermanagh Lakelands, Ireland, and Europe from the Middle Ages on. … In archaeological scientific terms, big excavations like this have the potential to shove the discipline on, not only because of the data and the types of material … potentially rewarding at every level of archaeological and scientific enquiry while also revealing a lot about the character of Ireland’s wetlands. So, in answer to the question: ‘Is Drumclay the most significant excavated wetland settlement in Europe, even the world, I don’t think you need me to answer that – I think you know it yourselves!”