Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Review: Creative Minds: Proceedings of a Public Seminar on Archaeological Discoveries on National Road Schemes, August 2009

Michael Stanley, Ed Danaher & James Eogan (eds.).  National Roads Authority, Dublin, 2010. 146pp. Colour illustrations and plates throughout. ISBN 978-0-9564180-2-9. ISSN 1694-3540. €25.

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Creative Minds is the result of a 2009 public seminar on archaeological results from National Road Authority schemes in the Republic of Ireland. The volume is also the seventh in the ‘Archaeology and the National Roads Authority Monograph Series’ publications of conference papers. To anyone involved in Irish archaeology over the last decade, these volumes have become a staple source for the dissemination of the latest results and ideas on some of the major excavations of our times. It is inevitable that, with the completion of many road schemes, coupled with the general downturn in the economy, this volume should present more thematic overviews of entire road schemes, rather than the results of individual excavations. The volume is dedicated to the late Dáire O’Rourke, Head of Archaeology at the NRA from 2001 to 2010

The first paper in the volume is Farina Sternke’s From boy to man: ‘rights’ of passage and the lithic assemblage from a Neolithic mound in Tullahedy, Co. Tipperary’. The author attempts to move beyond what she terms the ‘dry, technical pursuit’ of the analysis of lithic assemblages to gain deeper insights into the lives of our ancestors. The site at Tullahedy was an enclosed Neolithic settlement complex that had suffered from quarrying over the last two centuries. Despite this, five phases of occupation have been identified, beginning in the Middle Neolithic (3600-2900 BC) and running up to the working of the modern quarry. The recovered lithics (1691 items) comprise various cores, blades, flakes etc., along with 137 whole or fragmentary polished stone axe heads. The majority of the assemblage (87%) was chert, and the author makes the point that a corpus of this size is exceedingly rare in the southern portion of the island. The presence of artefacts and production processes at variance from the accepted forms led the author to speculate that they may be the work of apprentices. These include the numerous abandoned arrowhead fragments that appear to have broken during manufacture. Similarly, the recovered axe heads display remarkable defects: use of unsuitable raw materials, poor workmanship, and many would have broken at the first attempt to use them. The author sees the Tullahedy mound as a special place within the landscape, possibly a ritual centre where such ceremonies as rites of passage were conducted. While I remain to be fully convinced by all of the arguments and speculation presented, the assemblage is certainly intriguing and deserves further study. Richard O’Brien presents a general introduction to Spindle-whorls and hand-spinning in Ireland. Based on his MA research, he presents brief overviews on identifying and dating Irish spindle-whorls. This is followed by some observations on experiments with whorls. In his conclusions, O’Brien asks for better reporting of spindle-whorls in future excavation reports, especially the inclusion of weight data. In Clay and fire: the development and distribution of pottery traditions in prehistoric Ireland, Eoin Grogan and Helen Roche attempt to use the combined evidence from recent NRA excavations to reassess the chronology and development sequence for all Irish prehistoric pottery types. They also offer a review of the contexts and distribution of this material. They see pottery production as occurring at the local level of family or community, utilising locally available materials, and carried out by the more adept members of the group. They suggest that during the Early Bronze Age, in particular, there is evidence of specialised potters, producing higher quality funerary vessels. They suggest that the absence of both ‘practice pieces’ and children’s playthings may be explained in terms of a general taboo or long-standing restrictions associated with pottery production. They also raise the question of the almost complete absence of both human and animal representations from prehistoric pottery. They see the new data provided by the ‘Celtic Tiger’ building boom as both confirming known patterns of spatial distribution and human activity, and extending our of knowledge of the range and density of prehistoric settlement. Ellen OCarroll presents Ancient woodland use in the midlands: understanding environmental and landscape change through archaeological and palaeoecological techniques. The linking of archaeologically excavated evidence and palaeoenvironmental is demonstrated in a case study relating to the rath at Barronstown 1, Co. Meath. Excavation produced nearly 500 wood fragments, from artefacts to stakes and chippings. The identified samples included a range of species, but the assemblage was dominated by hazel, ash, oak, and yew. Further analysis, centred on pollen identification from the bases of the ditches provided a different picture. Here there were high levels of herbaceous taxa (including cereals), but low levels of tree pollen. This is in keeping with other research that suggests a major programme of deforestation from the later Iron Age onwards to provide viable farm land. The author then details her PhD project, funded by the NRA, to examine landscape and environmental change in the Irish midlands, through the medium of human interaction with woodlands. Initial findings from one of the pollen cores suggests large-scale clearance of the landscape from the Bronze Age onwards. Charcoal identifications from various sites along the N6 scheme show a domination of oak in the record, but with significant proportions of alder, ash, and hazel. In Reinventing the wheel: new evidence from Edercloon, Co. Longford, Caitríona Moore and Chiara Chiriotti describe the excavation of Ireland’s earliest block wheel. It was recovered from the base of a large trackway. While the wheel itself has not been directly dated, a piece of brushwood that directly overlay it was radiocarbon dated to 2909±39 BP (1206-970 cal BC, Wk-20961). A dendro date of 1120±9 BC was returned from wood from the same layer, but in a different part of the trackway. A further wheel rim was recovered, dating from the 7th to 3rd centuries BC. Amazingly, the only known parallel for such a find was also recovered from the Edercloon excavations, though this piece is broadly dated to the 7th to 9th centuries AD. A number of hypotheses as to what the wheels may have looked like, supported with excellent computer-generated visualizations, are presented and analysed. The authors also note that despite this profusion of wheels, the Edercloon trackways were never suitable for wheeled transport. The chronological span of the artefacts is not only seen in terms of a long-term tradition of wheel-making, but an enduring custom of deposition within the trackways. Angela Wallace and Lorna Anguilano look at Iron-smelting and smithing: new evidence emerging on Irish road schemes. They examine the methods production, from sourcing, processing, and smelting the ore, followed by an assessment of prehistoric and Early Christian iron working. Detailed case studies are presented for Lowpark 1, Co, Mayo, and Borris, Co. Tipperary. In conclusion, the authors identify the lack of recovery of ore from excavations, along with the absence of large-scale iron-smelting sites. They propose that an examination of 18th and 19th century mining records, as part of a broader research framework, may lead to the discovery of Iron Age sites. Further research is urged on the development and adoption of iron-working in Ireland. They argue that while there is much evidence for small-scale iron-production in the Early Christian period, there is also evidence for increased specialisation, with different activities being carried out at different sites. Paul Stevens presents For whom the bell tolls: the monastic site at Clonfad 3, Co. Westmeath. He outlines the phases of occupation at the site from the early monastic occupation in the 5th to 6th centuries AD (Phase 1A) to small-scale iron smithing in the 17th to 19th centuries (Phase 3). After a short introduction to the recovered metallurgical residues, the evidence for the production of Early Christian hand bells is presented and assessed, along with attempts to reproduce an example of such a bell. In particular, there is evidence that wrought iron hand bells were covered in a thin layer of bronze, applied using the brazing technique. The place of Clonfad 3 is also assessed in terms of its position as a long-term manufacturing centre for these prestigious items. Finally, Niall Kenny presents a valuable contribution on Charcoal production in medieval Ireland. In response to such comments as ‘charcoal production pits are one of the most understudied areas in Irish early medieval archaeology’, the author presents a review of the traditional methods of charcoal production. The main methods include pit kilns and mound kilns, and the comparable archaeological evidence is presented and reviewed.

From the point of view of my own research interests, the appendix presenting the radiocarbon determinations from the sites discussed in the text is of special importance. The appendix lists 99 radiocarbon dates, 61 of which are new to the IR&DD catalogue. However, in adding these dates to the resource a number of inconsistencies in the data were noted. To cite one example: the date Beta-171418 from Curraheen 1, Co. Cork, is here cited as 2210±60 BP, but is given as 2230±60 BP in the NRA Database entry for the site. While this is a small discrepancy, it is sufficient to produce different calibrated dates and, more importantly, lessen confidence in the accuracy of the published data in the site. This appears to be a recurring error in this series. As it appears to be confined to dates produced by Beta Analytic, I would guess (but I may be wrong) that it is due to the incorrect usage of the two types of date provided by the laboratory. I have written about this before (here (or here), and here), but it is useful to recap: Beta Analytic provides both a Measured Radiocarbon Age and a Conventional Radiocarbon Age. The Measured Radiocarbon Age records the amount of 14C surviving in the sample, while the Conventional Radiocarbon Age contains corrections to allow for isotopic fractionation etc. Of the two, only the Conventional Radiocarbon Age should be quoted in publications. Unfortunately, when both dates are available there is no easy way to distinguish which one is the MRA and which is the CRA, leading to a lack of confidence in both. My one other, albeit minor, criticism is that the one dendrochronological date quoted in the text is not afforded its own appendix, making it easy to accidentally overlook by researchers such as myself.

Despite these minor criticisms, this volume represents a valuable step in the process of synthesising data from numerous excavated sites on publicly funded NRA schemes and presenting it to a wide audience of both professional archaeologists and the interested public. The editors and contributors are to be commended for their dedication in continuing this important series.

Note: Robert M Chapple wishes to acknowledge the financial assistance provided under the Built Heritage element of the Environment Fund by the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht towards the Irish Radiocarbon & Dendrochronological Dates project [IR&DD Facebook Page].

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