Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Irish National Strategic Research (INSTAR) Programme: Findings From the First Phase 2008-2011: Review

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The Helen Roe Lecture Theatre at the Dublin headquarters of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland was the setting for the presentation of nine papers detailing the advances in our knowledge brought about by the INSTAR project. The one-day conference was jointly hosted by the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht and The Heritage Council. Ian Doyle, Head of Conservation at The Heritage Council, chaired the first session and gave the delegates a warm welcome and provided some remarks concerning the means by which the INSTAR Programme was founded. The first lecture of the morning was Making Christian Landscapes presented by Dr. Tomás Ó Carragáin (UCC). In a theme that would emerge as recurrent motif of the conference, he emphasised the collaborative and interdisciplinary nature of the INSTAR programme, bringing together academia and commercial consultancies; archaeologists and historians and the interaction between Irish researchers and their internationally-based colleagues. As a core illustration of this point, the ‘Making Christian Landscapes’ project was defined in terms of not just a comparison of the Irish evidence against the contemporary situation in England, but as part of the broader canvas of Atlantic Europe. The primary tools developed for the project were a database and a GIS application. The main thrust of the project was the use of Historic Landscape Characterisation (HLC) to attempt to define the extents of monastic estates. He made the point that this approach of combining landscape analysis with an assessment of the available historical and archaeological data was fraught with difficulties, but had made some notable successes. In describing the choice of case studies for the project, Ó Carragáin explained that some areas were deliberately chosen as they were known to contain excavated examples of the relatively newly identified ‘Cemetery Settlement’ (or ‘Settlement Cemeteries’, if you prefer) site type. These, he reminded the audience, were unknown to Irish archaeology only 10 to 15 years ago, yet as a direct consequence of the ‘Celtic Tiger’ boom in construction are now well recognised as an integral part of the Early Christian landscape. Such sites were roughly 50m in diameter and contained less than 200-300 burials. The relatively low number of graves is taken to suggest that they represent the burial grounds of single kin groups. On the other hand, some sites like Parknahown 5, Co. Laois, contained up to 600 burials. He explained that this association of the living with the dead may be interpreted as a breakdown of Classical taboos that required separation between the two spheres. Excavation has shown that some of these sites are relatively short-lived, but that some survived in use until the 12th century. This directly opposes the long-held view that non-ecclesiastical burial had declined by the 7th century, at the latest. Ó Carragáin explained that these data raise fundamental questions about our understanding of the Early Christian period: does this represent a resistance to Church authority? Is it evidence for the survival of paganism? His answer was an emphatic: No. Some of these sites, such as Faughart, Co. Louth or Camlin, Co. Tipperary, are known to have been situated on ecclesiastical estates and are unlikely to have been anti-clerical in outlook. Instead he proposes a slightly altered version of the traditional model, where by 800 AD the majority of burials were on church land, but that there was no defined church aversion to non-ecclesiastical burials either.

Ian Doyle (centre) chairs discussion at the end of Session I

He continued with a detailed examination of the Corca Duibne case study, though this did not actually have any known Cemetery Settlements. Here the ecclesiastical focus was the monastic foundation at Inis Úasal in Lough Currane, Co. Kerry. Traditionally, the foundation of the monastery is ascribed to St Finan/Fíonán. The island is known to have been the central node of a large ecclesiastical estate. The application of the HLC process, combining historical and placename evidence (e.g. the prevalence of the ‘Termon’ element in Townland names), along with archaeological survey data (such as the presence of a barrow and various cross-slabs along boundary lines) allowed a relatively secure delineation of the extents of the monastic lands. He notes that this estate would have included a number of ‘secular’ raths and cashels. These lay tenants would have lived somewhat more ecclesiastical or quasi-ecclesiastical lives than the rest of the population, with days set aside for fasting and sexual abstinence. Looking at the broader landscape picture, Ó Carragáin and his colleagues have found evidence for the establishment of family or kin group churches. Comparison of this data with the contemporary situation in Anglo-Saxon England suggests that Ireland had a much heavier density of churches (and possibly more than anywhere else in Western Europe). The implication is that, in Ireland, there was a greater range of both nobles and non-nobles who felt entitled to found churches.

In conclusion, he argued that the progress made by the project only underscored the importance of ‘interdisciplinarity’ where historians can learn to ask archaeological questions and vice-versa. He also argued that the HLC approach was not simply a powerful research tool, but had a wider impact in landscape management. In particular he praised the format of the INSTAR funding in the way that it facilitated research and simultaneously broadened the scope of that research.

Dr. Graeme Warren’s (UCD) presentation on the Neolithic and Bronze Age Landscapes of North Mayo was introduced by Prof. Seamus Caulfield who wished to provide what he termed ‘the prehistory of the project’. Caulfield described how the early work on the Céide field systems during the 70s and 80s was all unfunded, and depended on voluntary contributions by his students. He described the situation of that time where fieldwork of the kind he was undertaking could not find funding, though actual excavations could. He praised INSTAR for taking a broader view and funding both. He also commented on the past difficulties in communicating his results to other academics, and praised the current emphasis on a broad engagement with both academic and non-specialist audiences. Caulfield’s general theme was that the Céide Fields project prefigured many of the positive developments now championed by INSTAR. He also presented cogent arguments to the effect that Céide was the source and partial inspiration for both the ‘Riverdance’ phenomenon and The Discovery Programme.

When Warren was allowed to take to the lectern, he introduced the Neolithic and Bronze Age Landscapes of North Mayo project and the place of the Céide system within the broader landscape setting. One of the main objects of the current research was to produce both academic and popular syntheses of the large series of excavations undertake in the area over the years, the majority of which have not been published in detail. A large portion of the project has been concerned with integrating all the information from the excavations, including specialist reports, stratigraphic data, radiocarbon dates etc. into both publishable report form and a dedicated GIS system. The GIS system has incorporated both old and new data, including a new and more accurate survey of the locations of field walls. The new system boasts a minimum level of accuracy of ±15m for any individual wall, with many having been much more accurately surveyed. As both a visualization and quantification resource, the GIS model is capable of giving a broad landscape context to the fact that 84.5km of theses walls survive across almost 40km of North Mayo. Some 116 excavation cuttings (representing c. 4,000 m2) have been undertaken across this landscape, including excavations by Ó Nualláin & de Valera, Caulfield and more recent investigations. This combination of so much information from so many sources into a single GIS model is also capable of utilisation as a landscape management tool. One example given was of being able to chart the destruction of some areas of Neolithic walling under forestry over the last 20 years.

Warren made the point that the coaxial field system plan of the Céide is deeply embedded within archaeological discourse and that the GIS system allowed us to challenge these familiar ways of looking at this landscape. To this end he demonstrated a number of computer generated visualisations of the landscape rotating in three dimensions. These allowed him to show how the ‘classic’ Céide system is but a part of a much larger landscape and part of a range of field wall patterns. An interrogation of the data shows that the walls now survive only in areas of peatland, while the megalithic tombs survive in both peat and dryland locations. The implication being that the walls, too, once covered the majority of the landscape, but have been destroyed. Another aspect of the project had been to reassess the radiocarbon determinations already available for the various excavated sites. One aspect of this is the agreement with other research that dates provided by the Smithsonian radiocarbon laboratory, undertaken in the 1970s, are too young. Similarly, dates on charcoal from the UCD laboratory may be too early, though dates done directly on tree samples are considered to be accurate [edit: I got this slightly wrong - see response from Dr. Graeme Warren in the comments for corrections]. One interesting anomaly has been the realisation that a large number of radiocarbon dates on birch are dated to the exact point in time that the available pollen diagrams suggest there was a massive decrease in birch growth. Overall, Warren argued that this approach shows the value of the GIS model in assessing different levels of sale and integrating different strands of research.

Dr. Stephen Davis (UCD) spoke on the topic of An Integrated, Comprehensive GIS Model of Landscape Evolution & Landuse History in the River Boyne Valley. In introducing the project, he first noted that the somewhat unwieldy title had since been shortened to the much more manageable The Boyne Valley Landscape Project. He described that Phase I of the project had concentrated on building the GIS model and integrating the available data sources, including OSI mapping, SMR, excavations, known lithic scatters and LiDAR data. Phase II included adding palaeoenvironmental data and commissioning new coring sites for pollen analysis. He noted that although one particular core did not produce any archaeologically-relevant data, it did produce good data on the Late Glacial period and is currently being prepared for publication. Other applications utilised during this phase included Terrestrial LiDAR and geophysical survey. In Phase III, due to budget considerations, the focus was chiefly archaeological. Research concentrated on overlying GIS and LiDAR data, targeted geophysical survey and viewshed analysis. The analysis of the LiDAR data has added 130 new discoveries, and the identification of new sites is still continuing! For example, near Site A, at Brú na Bóinne an enclosure (designated LP1) has been discovered, measuring c. 120m in diameter. Targeted geophysics added further detail to the picture, by revealing a second site inside the first. This second site appears to be a circular arrangement of pits or postholes – perhaps a timber circle? At Site B an enclosure (Site B1) has been identified, surrounding the site. Near Site P a further low-profile site (LP2) has been recognised. Here too, targeted geophysics has revealed incredible detail of a further enclosure. At both Dowth and Ballyboy, evaluation of the LiDAR data has revealed what are best described as ‘hollow ways’. Without excavation there is no direct proof of date or function, but Davis stuck his neck out and suggested a prehistoric date and a ritual use.

With regard to the visualisations afforded by the GIS models, Davis spoke about the use of Local Relief Models and their part in the discovery of a large rectangular enclosure near Site P and a second enclosure at Site A. The application of Cumulative Viewshed Analysis of tomb visibility produced a number of interesting results, including the ‘hidden’ nature of Dowth henge. Essentially, the method has shown that the henge is largely invisible on the landscape – the other tombs cannot be seen from it, nor can the henge be seen from the tombs. Site P was also identified as the only site in the Boyne Valley where all three of the major tombs (Newgrange, Knowth, and Dowth) are simultaneously visible. Such snippets alone should provide sufficient fodder for discussion, debate and assorted theorising for some time to come.

Davis was keen to promoted the ‘spin-offs’ from this project, all of which would have been impossible without the initial impetus from INSTAR. These include the Meath Embanked Enclosures Project and the Hill of Ward Archaeological Project. In the latter case LEADER funding has been applied for to help sustain a local archaeological initiate to produce a brochure/guide to the area. The project has also made application to WorldView-2 for access to their 8 band satellite imagery. This resource provides satellite imagery in various light waves. When combined with LiDAR, the approach is already producing what Davis hopefully terms ‘subtle anomalies’.

Coffee break in  the convivial surroundings of the RSAI garden

After a coffee break, Session II resumed, under the chairmanship of Mr. Brian Duffy, Chief Archaeologist, Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. The first topic was Early Medieval Archaeology Project I&II. Part I was delivered by Dr. Aidan O’Sullivan (UCD) who, like many other speakers, emphasised the role of the project as a partnership between the commercial archaeological sector and the academic world - with tangible benefits for both. In his introduction to the project, he described the Early Christian period as a source of imagery for Cultural Nationalists of the 19th and 20th centuries and, as such it maintained a significant grip on the national psyche. He also saw the ‘Celtic Tiger’ years, and the vast quantities of raw data they produced, as a boon to the study of the period. Alternately, he conceded that these vast amounts of data, and the attendant publication crisis, were also deeply problematic. It was within this framework that the objectives of EMAP were set out: collation, synthesis and publication. There was also a strong desire to create useful resources. To this end data, in the form of PDF reports, was made available via the internet, with the intention of feeding back into both academic scholarship and the commercial world. One interesting aspect of the research was their ability to demonstrate that that the volume of data was not insurmountable and, with judicious selection, could be tackled and synthesised. O’Sullivan’s final point was the heavy domination of settlement evidence in the numbers of sites excavated.

This theme was taken up by Finbar McCormick (QUB) in the second part of the presentation. He spoke on the organisation of Early Christian settlement in terms of social, ideological, and economic factors. In the first instance, he was keen to point out that the old model of ‘monks in monasteries and everyone else in raths’ is over. Interrogation of radiocarbon determinations has shown that by the mid-600s rath construction had peaked (with the exception of the Ulster raised raths). He described an apparent secondary peak during the period 700-800 AD as illusionary and a product of the shape of the calibration curve. It also appears as though bi-vallate and multi-vallate raths were the earliest in the sequence, predating ‘common’ univallate enclosures. However, the picture appears clouded by what he describes as ‘the Clogher factor’ where the early hillfort at Clogher, Co. Tyrone, was replaced by a high status rath. Cashels are also revealed as a ‘post rath phenomenon’. The relatively newly recognised ‘Settlement Cemeteries’ are also revealed as contemporary with rath construction. For McCormick this raises the question of, if they are contemporary, was there some differentiation in status or function? However, an analysis of the recovered finds suggests great similarities between raths and the Cemetery Settlements, suggesting a similar social standing between the two types. On the other hand, McCormick and his colleagues have made a clear differentiation between two types of Early Christian site uncovered in excavation: ones with associated field systems and those without. He sees that raths without attached fields may be associated with stock-raising. Based on the surviving corpus of Early Irish texts, this may be taken as an indicator of higher status dwellings, as opposed to the lower position of those engaged in arable farming. It is these ‘complicated’ raths with multiple ditches and field boundaries that are seen as the centres of working estates, where the chief economic activities were centred on arable farming. McCormick raised the intriguing, but long-dismissed, idea that some of these large complexes could represent ‘proto villages’. At Ratoath, Co. Meath, an analysis of the distribution of discarded animal bone has led to the reinterpretation of ‘paddocks’ as potential house enclosures. He reiterated the need to remember that substantial Early Christian houses, like those found at Deer Park Farms, only survived because of the waterlogged conditions and in regular dryland sites would only have survived as a collection of stakeholes, the postholes of the door jambs and, perhaps, the drip-trench to convey water away from the thatched roof. A recent illustration of this is the Early Christian rath and house the author excavated at Carryduff, Co. Down, where the central house was defined by the slightest of evidence [video]. He also argued that sites such as Knowth, Co. Meath, and Ballywee, Co. Antrim, can be considered as genuine examples of Early Christian nucleated settlement, with 10 and eight houses respectively. This brough McCormick back to the often-contested assertion by Harold Mytum (1991) that raths were the preserve of the nobility and that there may well be some merit in it.

Examining the dates for mills, McCormick notes that very few predate c. 800 AD. He sees this as evidence that major changes in the economy were taking place around this time. Specifically, he sees a move from a subsistence economy to one much more commercial in scale. In this way, small quern stones, used by individual families, were replaced with larger, industrial-scale mills. This time frame appears to correlate with a concurrent decrease in the evidence for cereal drying kilns. Again, this is seen in terms of moving away from individual families, each drying their own small volume of grain, to bringing it to larger-scale commercial centres for drying and processing. The later kilns would have been large, above-ground structures, more susceptible to erasure from the archaeological record. However, he did suggest a possible candidate surviving at Nendrum, Co. Down, though this has yet to be investigated. To my mind this raises the intriguing possibility that we are seeing evidence of the Church, having cemented its grip on the conscience of the people, consolidating its position by seizing the means of production and processing. In any event, all the available dates cease around 1000 AD and we are currently left only with questions. If they did abandon the raths where did the people go? Did they move to dispersed settlements? Did they move to towns? There is certainly huge scope for future research in this field.

The first portion of the paper: Mapping Death: People, Boundaries & Territories in Ireland 1st to 8th Centuries AD was presented by Dr. Edel Bhreathnach (UCD). Like any of the speakers before her, she underlined the interdisciplinary nature of the project, bringing archaeologists (both commercial and academic) together with historians, linguists, and a whole host of scientific applications; including DNA and isotopic analyses, along with radiocarbon dating and osteoarchaeology. Bhreathnach was keen to place the Irish evidence, not solely in a local, Early Christian frame, but in the wider context of Ireland as a frontier zone of the Roman Empire in the Late Antique Period. She spoke of how the Mapping Death project concentrated on building a complete cultural and archaeological history of each site. While their online, searchable database contains ‘only’ 160 sites, she was quick to point out that these are sites researched in depth, providing a true multi-disciplinary analysis of Irish society in the period from 300 – 700 AD. Analysis of this body of data represents a huge advance in our understanding of Early Christian death and burial. Some of the questions this data has been applied to include how burial rites and cemeteries reflect practiced religion, ritual acts and belief systems. Another avenue of the dead has been the exploration of the ‘Landscape of the Dead’, looking at the relationships that existed between contemporary society and the ancestors, and how the living negotiated the complexities of existence with and among the dead. The data also throws light on the conversion process in Ireland, showing evidence of a lengthy endeavour stretching from 400-700 AD. Bhreathnach was also keen to stress the external influences on Ireland, especially in the sense that Christianity came not on its own, but as part of a package to this frontier zone of the Roman Empire. The additional items in that package took the form of a new language (Latin), texts and thoughts. In the latter instance, these new thoughts become manifest in terms of how the associations between the living and the dead changed over time. In this way the evolution of burial rites and cemetery structuring reflected the structures within contemporary society.

While the terms ‘Settlement Cemeteries’ or ‘Cemetery Settlements’ appear to be gaining popularity, Bhreathnach would argue for either the term ‘Familial Cemeteries’ or ‘Familial Settlements’, stressing the primacy of the kin groups to whom they belonged. The information gained from this project is providing detailed pictures of the health and genetics of the population. However, it is isotopic analysis that is providing some extraordinary insights. In particular, there is evidence for population movements, especially of women, from the west of Ireland to the east, and from the north-east (and possibly Britain) to the south. This ties in well with early accounts of the mobility of women as they moved for the purposes of marriage. In the question and answer session afterwards, Dr. O’Brien spoke about recent isotopic work on E. P. Kelly’s excavation of a number of skeletons at Bettystown, Co. Meath, discovered in the 1970s [Dr. O'Brien has asked me to note that most of the isotopic/oxygen analysis was undertaken by Dr. Jacqueline Cahill Wilson]. She revealed that one of the burials, deposited in an unusually tight (for Ireland) crouched position, actually originated either in North Africa, or the most extreme southerly tip of Spain. Not only did this person get as far as Meath and die there, the implication must be that he was not alone – at least one person had accompanied him and was able to ensure that his compatriot was buried in a manner appropriate to his culture. Addressing future recommendations she called for Heritage Council backing to secure EU funding to assist in the integration of the various databases, to move away from the current ‘patchwork’ of resources. Dr. Elizabeth O’Brien then demonstrated the ‘Mapping Death’ database, explaining that it was intended as a starting point for future research, not an end in itself. Her primary example was the entry for Ardnagross, Co. Westmeath, showing the detailed records the resource contains and how the data may be effectively mined to extract relevant research data.

The final session of the day, chaired by Prof. Gabriel Cooney (UCD) was begun by Dr. Barra Ó Donnabháin (UCC), speaking on The People of Prehistoric Ireland: Healthand Demography. He began by defining the human experience as a synergy between biological and cultural systems, that we as archaeologists may access it through the medium of human skeletal remains. Within such a paradigm he argued that the act of burial was a tangible link between these biological and cultural experiences. One point that I found particularly incisive was his contention that actual skeletons had made little impact on Irish prehistory, as discussion is generally limited to mortuary practices. He continued, saying that where skeletal material is assessed in excavation reports, it is frequently relegated to an appendix, making little, if any, impact on the body of the text. Giving the development of the project, he described Phase I, beginning in 2009, with the process of data collection. This process led to the collation of information on 1100 sites and the commissioning of new radiocarbon dates to assist in the resolution of chronological issues. Phase II, in 2010, was concerned with updating the database of sites and establishing two hard copy libraries of all available osteological reports etc., at QUB and UCC. Since that time the emphasis has been on providing a synthesis of the osteological data, with publication being the next anticipated step. At the present time the database holds records on 1651 sites where human skeletal material was recovered. This ranges from single-line references in antiquarian reports to modern osteological examinations from the latest excavations. In all the database lists c. 3000 burials, the majority of which are Bronze Age in date, and the most usual method of disposal was by cremation. Ó Donnabháin and his colleagues are currently in the process of mining this data mountain and attempting to correlate biological data (age, sex etc.), with evidence for mortuary practices and wider issues of health and demography. A number of new radiocarbon determinations have also been commissioned to help resolve problematic dates from other excavations. The example he chose was the different ages from the two cremations in the segmented cist at Newtonstewart Castle. One cist returned a determination of 3897±39 BP (UB-6783, 2475-2212 cal BC), while the other dated to 3680±38 (UB-6784, 2195-1915 cal BC). Such discrepancies in dating raise questions about the curation and pre-depositional history of human skeletal material, or perhaps the longer term access to the cist grave. As an aside, I would mention that although I was not on site the day the Newtonstewart cist was opened, I was the digger that found it, hidden in the foundations of a 1960s shop ... while using a jackhammer! It remains one of my best finds, and while I was glad to see it published (UJA 64), I’m delighted that it remains the subject of debate and investigation.

The author (with jackhammer) at Newtonstewart Castle,
shortly before the discovery of the segmented cist

Ó Donnabháin also explained that the format of the database used by the project allow spatial analysis of the data to examine regional differences in mortuary practises and population health. He allowed that although there are some issues of archaeological visibility and recording bias, the approach does appear to be revealing genuine cultural behaviours in the past. What he termed the ‘nuanced interrogation of these data’ is already producing results. For example, of the 1726 known individuals, children (or ‘non adults’) are distinctly under represented (c. 25%). Among the adults, there is a similar under representation of women. Across the Neolithic and Bronze Age it appears that age and sex demographics are broadly similar. During the Neolithic there are relatively low markers for physiological stress, but there indications of long-term damage to shoulders and backs. This work-related trauma is taken to suggest that there was a large amount of heavy lifting and portage in these people’s lives. By the Bronze Age there appears to have been a diminution in general health, with increased markers for physical stress. There is also evidence for increases in blunt-force trauma and an upsurge in tooth decay. Outlining plans for the future, he argued that an effort should be made to locate the current whereabouts (and curation details) of the skeletal material. At this time, the location and condition of 80% of the material in their database is unknown. Though, to put this in context, this figure does include antiquarian investigations and modern excavations are much better represented. In his final comments, Ó Donnabháin called for the standardising of ostearchaeological methodology, recording analysis and reporting. He also argued that it should be standard practice to publish, not just the summary results, but the raw data set accumulated during the analysis. Such a move would allow other researchers to examine and reassess the work in the future and would be a considerable resource for researchers.

Dr. Ingelise Stuijts (The Discovery Programme) spoke about WODAN: Developing a wood and charcoal database for Ireland. She began by giving a brief history of the project and explaining that Phase I began with gauging the desirability of such a resource within the wood identification community and also assessing how information was currently stored. The first realisation was that there was no standardisation across the profession. In terms of storing data, many individuals and institutions used their own in-house database systems, which were largely incompatible with each other. She also pointed out that many researchers stored their data in MS Excel spreadsheets and, while useful, are not actually databases. Having decided to create a new database the question arose as to how the data would be shared. The idea that it could be disseminated on disc to interested parties was considered, but ultimately rejected; owing to issues of distribution and the difficulty in knowing of the data you are working with is the latest version. From these bases, the aims of the project were to create a new database that pursued high standards (recognised both in Ireland and internationally); accessibility of the data; and built on a secure, robust technology. The project took the decision to embrace open sourcecloudcomputing’ to provide a web enabled and web hosted resource. Although not yet ready for public release, Stuijts described some of the features of the resource, including ‘MyWODAN’ where personal projects (either research or commercial) may be hosted, though not ready for full dissemination. There are also flexible query functionality and the ability to produce auto saturation curves. This latter function allows the researcher to gauge the number of individual samples necessary to provide a comprehensive assessment of an individual site. In its current form the database contains detailed information on over 500 sites.

Looking to the future, she argues for agreed standards in wood and charcoal identification, along with standardised outputs. The project is also working to provide suitable pro-forma sheets to be used by field archaeologists to assist in the collection of suitable meta-data on the samples excavated. She would also like to see stronger links with field archaeologists to allow information to be referred back to the database from final reports and publications. Finally, she argued for the use of the database to be linked to the licenses to export and alter archaeological materials, to ensure the best level of reporting.

Dr. Nicki Whitehouse (QUB) presented the results of Cultivating Societies: Accessing the Evidence for Agriculture in Neolithic Ireland. She explained that it was a topic close to her personal research interests in the beginnings of the Neolithic across the whole of northwestern Europe. However, she felt that there had been little previous work in linking individual sites to the environmental data and to the economy – a situation rectified by the INSTAR funding for this project. As others had previously described, this project wished to create new paradigms through the maximisation of the data mountain produced through commercial excavation during the ‘Celtic Tiger’ economy. In particular, the project sought to bring a Bayesian approach to questions of chronology, while bringing both archaeological and palaeoenvironmental data together. The project commissioned 189 new radiocarbon determinations and collated a further 1433 previously available dates. The project used paired dates in a Bayesian framework to significantly refine the available chronology. She identified a problem in the accessing of much of the ‘grey literature’ resource as there is no central repository for archaeological reports. Nonetheless, she did praise the ‘huge goodwill’ the project generally received from the archaeological community. Once the basic data had been collected, the state of the resource was examined. One result of this process was the identification that half of the relevant sites are securely dated, while the other half is not. Of the dated material, Neolithic houses are particularly well represented, while pit complexes are neither as well dated, nor as regularly selected for radiocarbon dating. In essence, there has been a concentration on dating the very obvious features. Not coming as a huge surprise, the project indentified that charcoal dates tend to be older and that there should be a concerted effort to utilise short-lived samples. While I agree wholeheartedly, I have argued elsewhere (Chapple 2008a, 156; see also Ashmore 1999) that while such concerns are well recognised within field archaeology, finding a suitable single entity sample is often difficult to achieve.

The project also sought to interrogate the robustness of McSparron’s ‘Neolithic House Horizon’ where the vast majority of well-dated houses cluster at the beginning of the Neolithic (McSparron 2008). McSparron (using 18 radiocarbon determinations) sees the dates for these structures as confined to a 100 year (or less) window at the very beginning of the Neolithic. The project commissioned a further 126 dates on single entity, short-lived materials. The results demonstrate the robustness of the McSparron model, though the use of Bayesian analysis could reduce the time span further, to a 40-100 year period. Similar new dates and Bayesian analysis at Corbally, Co. Kildare, have demonstrated that settlement here may be broken down into four distinct phases, as opposed to the previous understanding that all the activity was contemporary. A particular emphasis was placed by the project on dating the previously under-represented pit complexes. In all, 37 new dates were commissioned for 10 sites. The results of this show a general picture of the rectangular house phenomenon being replaced by pit complexes. While there is a slight degree of overlap between the two forms of occupation, it appears to be based on the data from a single site. If I understood her correctly, the site in question is one excavated under my direction: Site 12 at Oakgrove, Gransha, Co. Londonderry (Chapple 2008b). Here a date on charcoal came back at 4930±70 (Beta-227762, 3943-3583 cal BC). Further dates in short-lived, single entity materials were undertaken by the ‘Cultivating Societies’ project (Schulting & Reimer in Chapple 2008b, Appendix 7), refining the chronology considerably. At the time I wrote it up for publication I was unsure as to whether it could realistically be described as a ‘house’ in the way that that term is usually used. My feeling was that, when the recovered evidence was taken together, it must represent some form of ‘settlement’, if not an actual ‘house’. I largely stand by this assertion, but feel that if there had to be a defined affinity between one group or another, Site 12 should be categorised among the houses.

Site 12, Oakgrove, Gransha, Co. Londonderry, during excavation

An examination of recovered weed seeds has also been taken to suggest that during the Neolithic permanent, manured plots were used. While it seems like a simple observation, this has radical implications for how we interpret questions of sedentarism and mobility during this period. Whitehouse was also quick to point out that charred plant macrofossils are only part of the picture and involve questions of survival and discovery. To demonstrate this point, she pointed to the evidence recovered from Clowanstown 1, Co. Meath, where analysis of waterlogged material demonstrated the continued importance of wild varieties in the Early Neolithic diet.

In assessing the available pollen records the project found that although some 400 pollen cores have been taken over the last 80 to 100 years, only 70 were considered sufficiently well dated and of use to the needs of the project. One of the questions being investigated is the evidence or spatial variability in events such as the Elm Decline and how it is actually associated with the beginnings of the Irish Neolithic. Another aspect of working with the pollen diagrams is that not all have sufficient radiocarbon dates (and in the right places). To circumvent this difficulty, the project made use of ‘Age Depth Modelling’, where a mathematical model is employed to create ‘virtual’ radiocarbon dates for any given place on the core. To date over 700 age models have been created and the elm decline may now be confidently dated to the period 4327-3881 cal BC – a period of 946 cal years. Within this data there also appears to b evidence of a geographical lag between the north and the west of the island. However, Whitehouse admits that more work is needed. There also appears to a correlation between reforestation in the period 3400-3300 cal BC and the end of the rectangular house ‘building boom’. She suggests that this may coincide with the dates for Whittle’s arguments for a rise in the construction of enclosures and cursus monuments.

The final speaker of the day was Prof. Przemysław Urbańczyk (Polish Academy of Sciences) who talked about INSTAR and Archaeological Research Funding Initiatives. For those of us not familiar with him and his work, he described his background in Irish Archaeology and his association with INSTAR in particular. In particular he charted the vicissitudes of funding for the programme and, despite the reduced investment in the later phases, saw much to recommend. In particular he wished to stress the achievements of the programme and the results achieved. He argued for the value of such a programme and compared its existence and success to the situations in both Norway and his native Poland. He described how in Poland the National Heritage Institute allocates money to a much larger number of small projects, versus the small number of INSTAR projects. While he sees that the Polish system makes ‘more people happy’, the Irish system has returned projects that have had much more major impacts on our understanding of the subject as a whole. He also saw that in both Norway and Poland most of the money spent by the state was spent on the management of the existing resource (curation, cataloguing etc.) as opposed to INSTAR, which has made meaningful new leaps forward in our knowledge. There are no large-scale projects funded through central government in either of these countries, and he felt that the Irish situation may well be unique. This uniqueness was expressed not just in terms of the national scale of INSTAR, but in the bringing together of both academic and private stakeholders. For achieving these goals, it should be the envy of Europe. While he admitted that the INSTAR programme has not been prefect, it was his contention that it remained as an exemplar for others to follow. He also spoke on the importance of not just seeing Ireland in terms of it relationships with Britain, but as part of a Europe-wide canvas. This is not simply a plea to ‘big picture’ archaeology, but a response to the reality that the majority of the funding coming from European central funds is keen on examining this theme and that projects (however worthy) that fail to look at the widest picture will not succeed. Practically his final words to the assembled delegates spoke of the achievements of the INSTAR programme: “What you have done: this is really great”

As one might imagine, all the speakers were concerned to demonstrate that the funds entrusted to them had paid dividends – not ‘merely’ in terms of the exciting and extraordinary results that had been achieved. In his presentation, Ó Carragáin explained that the ‘Making Christian Landscapes’ project had employed two core researchers, supported two PhD students and also resulted in various publications and conference papers, including the organisation of a dedicated conference in UCC to be held in 2012. Dr. Graeme Warren’s discussion of the effects of the ‘Neolithic and Bronze Age Landscapes of North Mayo’ project also promoted the importance of the employment opportunities created and their commitment to dissemination of their results. Stephen Davis spoke of the truly impressive list of collaborators that ‘The Boyne Valley Landscape Project’ had accrued, underlining the importance of the interdisciplinary nature of INSTAR. He also discussed the job creation aspect of the project, and while there were no long term jobs created, a number of short contracts were awarded. On top of this, the project facilitated two PhD and two MA students. Davis also wished to emphasise the more intangible, but no less important, benefits of capacity building. The interdisciplinary scope of the project has changed how many of those who participated in it now work and see the contributions that can be brought by their colleagues. Dr. Aidan O’Sullivan told how EMAP had already resulted in 32 public presentations, 20 publications, and one conference, along with having funded, supported and facilitated various MA and PhD scholars. EMAP has also made their reports directly available from their website. In Bhreathnach’s summation of the ‘Mapping Death’ project she noted that it had employed five part-time researchers, along with producing various published papers and conference presentations. The ‘People of Prehistoric Ireland’ had similar outputs, including the hard-copy libraries at QUB and UCC, along with a list of both academic and popular publications and public presentations. Similarly, Stuijts, in her summation of the achievements of the WODAN project, mentioned various conference presentations (including one in Japan), four organised workshops, one PhD thesis facilitated, along with the creation of one full-time and three part-time research positions. The ‘Cultivating Societies’ project was similarly prodigious, with various seminars organised and the employment of three researchers. In particular, the ‘Cultivating Societies’ project will soon have an issue of the prestigious Journal of Archaeological Science dedicated to its work.

There is only one thing that the various INSTAR projects have not done yet and that is to deliver the major syntheses that have been promised. All of the speakers emphasised their commitment to producing these volumes and, from what I can gather, the texts are well advanced. If I was to isolate one theme that came from this conference it would be that Irish archaeology as we knew it is over. While these publications are pending, the ground is still reverberating and in shock. But when they arrive and are digested, we will awake with new eyes and look upon an unfamiliar landscape for the first time. I, for one, can’t wait.

Ashmore, P. J. 1999 ‘Radiocarbon dating: avoiding errors by avoiding mixed samples’ Antiquity 73, 124-130.

Chapple, R. M. 2008b ‘The excavation of Early Neolithic and Early Bronze Age sites at Oakgrove, Gransha,county LondonderryUlster Journal of Archaeology 67, 153-181.

McSparron, C. 2008 ‘Have you no homes to go to?’ Archaeology Ireland 22.3, 18-21.

Mytum, H. 1991 The Origins ofEarly Chritian Ireland, London.

As the major theme of the conference was the relaying of the results from so many imaginative projects, the data was, at times, flying thick and fast. I hope that I have done justice to all of the speakers at the event and their projects. Nonetheless, I do sincerely apologise if, in the rush to write notes and keep up with the pace of delivery, I have misrepresented or misquoted anyone. If so, please contact me and I will endeavour to set the record straight.

I realise that ‘Early Medieval’ is the generally accepted term these days. However, as I have already stated, I dislike and distrust this neologism and refuse to use it. Throughout this paper, I have used my preferred term: Early Christian.

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  1. Great stuff Robert. Very informative for those of us who couldn't make it. Colm

  2. As I was writing up Finbar's presentation about the decline of quern usage in favour of collective milling it occurred to me about the possibility of it being a move by the church to 'corner the market' on milling and cereal-drying. This is not just rampant anti-clericism on my part - I was actually thinking of a specific piece of evidence that mostly escapes my memory. A good many years ago I was told about an excavated church site where the church floor was composed of quern stones. For the life of me, I can't remember who told me about it, but I do remember that the explanation given was that the church had forced the locals to hand over their querns and use the church's mill instead. Am I just dreaming this, or does it ring a bell for anyone?

  3. Robert

    many thanks for this - very useful.

    If I can just clarify re. the North Mayo C14 dates. You write "dates provided by the Smithsonian radiocarbon laboratory, undertaken in the 1970s, are too young. Similarly, dates on charcoal from the UCD laboratory may be too early, though dates done directly on tree samples are considered to be accurate". Either you or I have got our earlier/younger confused at some stage in the presentation or note taking. Just in case, I outline below the redating results.

    We reassessed C14 dates from the Smithsonian Institute on pine stumps in peat and archaeological wood. In all cases the Smithsonian dates are younger (i.e more recent) by a couple of hundred years than the new (QUB) dates.

    We reassessed UCD C14 dates on two pine stumps
    in peat. The new dates are reasonably consistent with the old dates - one new date is very slightly younger than the UCD date but they do (just!) overlap at 2-sigma. The other redating gives an identical result.

    We have (so far) reassessed one UCD bulk charcoal date from the Ceide Fields. The new QUB date (single entity, short life sample) is earlier than the UCD dates - i.e. the UCD dates may be too recent, not too early as in your notes above. This may simply be to do with reassessing a bulk charcoal date on the basis of a single entity date - we're reassessing further UCD bulk charcoal dates from Ceide in order to examine this in more detail.

    I'm happy to provide full details of the dates etc to anyone interested.

    Thanks again for your very useful review of the day


  4. Graeme,
    Many thanks for the clarification - in all likelihood it was me that got the information wrong. As I said in the notes at the end - there was just so much information, it was hard to keep up with all of it.

    Personally, I would love to see the dates, if you don't mind. I keep a free-to-download catalogue of (mostly) Irish radiocarbon & dendro dates
    and an associated Facebook page
    (https://www.facebook.com/pages/Irish-Radiocarbon-and-Dendrochronological-Dates/224330070949225). With your permission, I could add your dates to the resource,but I'm also happy to wait until the final publication arrives!

  5. Thanks Robert - super summary. Sounds as if it was a very interesting and thought provoking series of talks,

  6. Robert

    our final set of dates should be back in a couple of weeks, at that stage I'll pass on the full details of all new and old dates which you can post on the DBs you mention.



  7. Great Work Bob. Very useful for those of us that weren't there. I do take issue with Early Christian as a period label, however. For those of us from further east using this term for the 8th and 9th C seems to be stretching 'early' a little too far. Irish ecclesiastical scholars were, by then, engaged in educating the rest of Carolingian Europe and were, presumably, working from a long established monastic tradition?

    Maybe not the place for an entire debate but thought I'd chuck that one in.