Wednesday, January 28, 2015

People and Their Worlds | UCD Archaeological Research Seminar | Part III

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< Part I | Part II

The Hill of Ward (Source)
Straight back from lunch at UCD’s Archaeological Research Seminar People and Their Worlds, and we were into Session 3: Environmental archaeology and the reconstruction of living conditions in past societies. The first speaker in this session was the fantastically interesting Dr Stephen Davis (Royal Irish Academy, Meath Co. Co., Office of Public Works, and Heritage Council) to speak about The Hill of Ward Archaeological Project: latest surveys and future prospects. The Hill of Ward is a large quadrivallate hilltop enclosure to the east of Athboy, Co. Meath. Historically, it is known as Tlachtgha, ‘the earth spear’. Into medieval times it was used as a location for the Samhain fire – the origin of the sanitised modern Halloween. Citing Geoffrey Keating, Davis notes that the site was associated with Túathal Techtmar and is, along with Tara, Telltown, and Uisneach, one of the four foundation sites for the Kingdom of Meath. Davis also describes it as ‘a place of threes’, relating how the site was named after the mythical witch/druidess Tlachtga, the daughter of the druid Mug Ruith. She was raped by the three sons of the sorcerer, Simon Magus and gave birth to their triplets at the Hill of Ward, and the earthworks were built over the location. The site measures approximately 150m in diameter with a central area of c.45m in diameter and is one of only three quadrivallate (i.e. ‘four banked’) enclosures known – one of the others being the Rath of the Synods, nearby at Tara. Given its size, it is simply impossible to photograph from the ground [satellite image].

Davis went on to discuss the LiDAR survey of the site and how it allowed many features of the complex to be picked out in unprecedented clarity. The original LiDAR study area, centred on Ward, had been a c.4km2 area. However, this has been expanded to 80 km2 and – just as impressively – uses free/nearly free data sources. The 2012 gradiometric survey showed that the underlying stratigraphy was very complex, consisting of ditches and banks – both of which are highly magnetic. He suggests that this could be because they incorporate large amounts of burnt stone or earlier cultural material from a previous phase of the site. In particular, the central area of the site is, from a geophysical perspective, very confusing and may have experienced repeated episodes of burning – consistent with a site associated with bonfires! Earth resistance survey shows that there may be a segmented circle at the centre of the enclosure, possibly including buried stones. In 2013 the team carried out a Ground Penetrating Radar survey that appears to show a circular feature overlying the segmented circle. I’ll not go into all the detail, but suffice it to say that if you were looking for a definition of complimentary approaches of geophysics revealing complex archaeology, you’d not do better than this! I would also note that the geophysical surveys described above were carried out in conjunction with Dr Chris Carey, University of Brighton, and Lizzie Richley, University of Southampton. In terms of future work, Davis (guided by the geophysics) planned to excavate a series of small trenches across the site to resolve issues of phasing and dating. By the time you read this the 2014 excavations will have finished, but you can keep up to date with the discoveries at the Excavations at Tlachtga Facebook page: here.

Annaghkeen Castle, Co. Galway (Source)
‘Is it (h)all or nothing?’ Recent geophysical investigations of chamber-towers in Ireland is the excruciatingly awful pun-based title of Karen Dempsey’s (IRCHSS Scholarship). As a devotee and connoisseur of the well-crafted pun, I can only salute Dempsey for the monumentality of her achievement – and that’s just the title! Hall Houses are a large group of disparate sites that was essentially proposed by Tom McNeill in his 1997 Castles in Ireland: Feudal Power in a Gaelic World. Dempsey’s issues is that the McNeill’s model has never been adequately deconstructed and challenged. She notes that in England, and other areas with genuine examples of the type, the Hall House has a ‘defined architectural signature’. These include a ground floor location, central hearth, fenestration, defined ‘high’ and ‘low’ ends, and opposing doorways. The Irish examples are dissimilar and are not based on aisles, they are frequently raised over first floor level, they have no appended structures, and no services (such as a buttery, kitchen etc.). Her research has suggested that the Irish examples are more accurately defined as chamber‐towers, which were accompanied by external timber‐built halls. She draws parallels with such sites as Boothby Pagnall, Lincs, which is a free-standing tower with upper floor entrances etc. Although no ancillary buildings survive, geophysics results indicate that they were once a part of the site.

To test her theory, Dempsey undertook geophysical surveys at three chamber‐tower sites. At Annaghkeen, Co. Galway, there are historical references to two buildings on the site in 1240. Here Dempsey surveyed nine 20m x 20m grids. Her results show a startlingly clear impression of a rectangular building that measures approximately 12m x 7m and was (at least) partially paved. She interprets it as a tripartite structure with a central space. The whole clearly resembles a central hall with a possible parlour, or buttery at either end. At Shrule, Co. Mayo, she again surveyed nine 20m x 20m grids, but at a smaller interval than at the previous site. Her results here show the outline of a possible medieval hall, possibly with a central stone-lined hearth, and possibly with a buttery or similar structure at one end. At Ballisnahyny, Co. Mayo, she examined three 20m x 20m grids. Her results here include the discovery of an Early Christian souterrain and a robbed out rectangular, stone-built structure that may be a medieval hall. In summation, Dempsey argues that our current views of ‘hall houses’ are incorrect and based on out of date research. She is emphatic that these 13th structures are Chamber Towers and they are residences, and they are certainly not halls! As I’m not particularly well versed in castle studies, this was one paper that I’d pick out where I would have loved for the speaker to have had a little more time to set the background for the non-specialist. Even so, I really enjoyed this paper and look forward to hearing more about Dempsey’s research in future.

Fishamble St Excavation (Source)
Next to speak was Dr Eileen Reilly (IRC Fellowship) on Reconstructing living conditions in early medieval Ireland: examining the environmental evidence. This multi-disciplinary post-doctoral project (Dirt, Dwellings and Culture: Reconstructing living conditions in Early Medieval Ireland and Northwestern Europe AD 6001100) aims to examine the living conditions in both urban and rural settlements in Ireland and north-western Europe generally. In particular, Reilly wanted to talk about the role of environmental archaeological evidence in the examination of past living conditions. The genesis of the entire project came from observations on insect assemblages at Deer Park Farms, Co. Antrim and Fishamble Street, Dublin. Deer Park Farms is a 7th-12th century rural settlement, while Fishamble Street is a 10th-11th century early urban streetscape. At the former, differences were noted between the interiors and exteriors of the houses. This is also replicated at Fishamble Street, but differences have also been noted within individual houses. She argues that the insect remains can be used as viable proxies for human behaviour. At both sites the bedding areas would have been warm, fairly dry and attracted a certain common group of insects, mostly indicative of dry moulds. At Deer Park Farms the human louse  was very common. At Fishamble Street, analysis of the material recovered from the corners of the houses showed a prevalence of species with a liking for bird’s nests, skin, and hair, which may be due to the presence of skins or hides used as wall hangings, screens or coverings. At both sites there were similarities in the assemblages, including nuisance fly species. At Fishamble Street these were, unsurprisingly, concentrated particularly around the cesspits and in yards. Future work includes examining the evidence for intestinal parasites at Fishamble Street. The published work on Deer Park Farms indicates that these parasites were most highly concentrated in certain exterior areas, close to the walls of the houses, in areas hidden from general lines of sight. In simple terms, this implies that the residents were not averse to taking a bowel movement – practically – on their own doorsteps, but still sought out some degree of privacy. At Fishamble Street the cesspits were not all out of sight and private – most were in the front yards of properties. This may be interpreted as evidence that it was not considered unacceptable to be seen going to the toilet in public in Dublin at this time. Reilly concludes that deliberate effort was, at both sites, put into keeping floors clean and bedding areas relatively warm and dry. In terms of urban living there may be evidence that screens or wall hangings were used internally as the need for privacy was more pronounced. On the other hand, the inhabitants of Fishamble Street may have had less control over their external spaces and reduced levels of expectations in terms of their levels of personal privacy. Both sites have preserved substantial evidence for flies, external parasites and, in the case of DPF, gut parasites, all of which may have been vectors for illness and disease. Fleas have been recovered from both sites, though lice were largely absent from Fishamble Street. Reilly says that this could be an issue with the mechanics of preservation, though there may be a genuine cultural significance here too. What is clear to me is that Reilly is one of our finest archaeological scholars, working with two extraordinary assemblages from two key sites. My quick account here does not in any way do justice to what she has already discovered, and I can only wait with baited, if occasionally slightly queasy, breath for formal publication of her final findings.

Unfortunately, this is where my ability to taken coherent notes finally gave up the ghost and I had to lay down my pencil. I did attempt to struggle on to write some more, but looking at my notes now they are pretty indecipherable, fragmented, and fractured. No amount of effort on my part can tease these back into coherent accounts. Rather than omit all mention of the final set of papers, with the permission of the Department, I here repost the abstracts for each along with my apologies for not being able to do them more justice:

Ballynahatty Timber Circle (Source)
Dr Neil Carlin (IRCHSS Fellowship): Similar but different? Understanding the connections between Late Neolithic timber circles and Middle Neolithic passage tombs in Ireland and Britain.
Over 26 Late Neolithic wooden circular structures have been excavated in Ireland, most notably at the Middle Neolithic ceremonial centres at Newgrange, and Knowth in the Boyne Valley, Co. Meath and Ballynahatty in the Lagan Valley, Co. Down. Most of these are 'square in a circle' buildings comprising a single ring of posts which enclose a square arrangement of four posts and resemble contemporary structures known from Britain. Due to the many difficulties associated with distinguishing between domestic and ritual spheres at this time, our understanding of the nature of these structures and of their role in settlement or ceremonial activities is quite poor. In this paper, I will highlight the connections between these buildings and Middle Neolithic passage tombs, as well as discussing their implications for our understanding of the Irish and British Late Neolithic.

Dr Helen Lewis (presented by Ron Pinhasi): UCD School of Archaeology and Southeast Asian prehistory: updates from the past three years.
This presentation summarises our involvement in Southeast Asian archaeology over the past three years, including progress updates from the Niah Cave Project (Malaysian Borneo), Palawan Island Prehistory Project (Philippines), Middle Mekong Archaeological Project (Laos) and the EurASEAA14 conference (Dublin).

Dr Graeme Warren: Living in the mountains: hunter-gatherer settlement strategies, technologies and changing environments in the Cairngorm Mountains, Scotland.
This paper reviews ongoing and collaborative archaeological and palaeoenvironmental work exploring Mesolithic activities in one of Britain’s most dramatic upland landscapes the Cairngorm Mountains in Scotland. Identifying Mesolithic activity in montane landscapes is difficult. Our multidisciplinary project (2013-present) is providing new data on Mesolithic settlement strategies and technologies as well as detailed understandings of the changing environment. Excavations have taken place at two Mesolithic sites, with survey ongoing. Initial results indicate activity in the later 6th and early 4th millennia cal BC – the latter of particular interest as the period when agricultural practices begin to emerge in Scotland. It is already clear that different sites served different functions, and that there is considerable variation in the use of the uplands; in addition, we have an unparalleled opportunity to explore differences between inland, upland inhabitation of the landscape with other areas of Scotland during the Mesolithic/Neolithic transition. With some Mesolithic sites identified at >500m asl the relationship between climate change and human activity, the impact of human activity on the environment and vice versa can also be examined. Our project also contributes to developing management strategies for early Holocene archaeology in mountain landscapes, especially in the face of modern day climate change and land use pressures.

Prof. Gabriel Cooney: Blue stone from a red mountain: the North Roe (Shetland) Project.
The complex of felsite dykes at North Roe, Mainland Shetland is both the best preserved Neolithic axe (and stone knife) quarry complex in Britain or Ireland. It is also the predominant source for stone axes and Shetland knives in the Shetland archipelago. The results of the 2013 field season involving archaeological survey, portable x-ray fluorescence (PXRF) analysis in the field and work with museum collections will be discussed.

With a final question and answer session and some concluding remarks, the Seminar drew to a close. This was followed by a wine reception in the University Book Shop, to showcase two new books from the department: Early Medieval Ireland, AD 400-1100: The Evidence from Archaeological Excavations and Early medieval Dwellings and Settlements in Ireland, AD 400-1100, BAR S2604. In a beautiful touch to the event, the organisers had also brought out copies of various scholarly works from the Department’s past – right back to the days of John O'Donovan. One part of my mind was taken up with the beauty of this display, neatly illustrating a unbroken commitment to scholarship for almost a century-and-a-half. Admittedly, the other half of my brain was weighing up the odds of getting the O’Donovan volumes (and some of the rarer Barry Raftery ones) into my bag and get out the door before anyone noticed their absence. It is a testament to the unlikely possibility that I have achieved some modicum of maturity to match my chronological age that I managed to resist. Instead, I found my way back onto the 39a bus and onto the train home to Belfast, tired, sore, and general worn out, but filled with admiration for all the amazing work that’s taking place in UCD at the moment. If these posts have managed to convey even a small fraction of that high quality research, and my excitement and enthusiasm for it, I will be very happy indeed. In the meantime, I hope that when Conor McDermott is preparing his list of invitations for the next UCD Archaeological Research Seminar, he’ll not forget to send one in my direction.