Sunday, November 27, 2011

Review: Past Times, Changing Fortunes: Proceedings of a Public Seminar on Archaeological Discoveries on National Road Schemes, August 2010

Sheelagh Conran, Ed Danaher & Michael Stanley (eds.).  National Roads Authority, Dublin, 2011. 170pp. Colour illustrations and plates throughout. ISBN 978-0-9564180-5-0. ISSN 1694-3540. €25.

[**If you like this post, please make a donation to the IR&DD project using the button at the end. If you think the review is useful, please re-share via Facebook, Google+, Twitter etc.**]

This is the eighth instalment of the ‘Archaeology and the National Roads Authority Monograph Series’ and presents the results of nine papers given at a public seminar held at the Gresham Hotel, Dublin, in 2010. Despite such opulent surroundings, the theme for the seminar was more in keeping with current economic concerns of the vicissitudes of life and wealth – never let it be said that archaeologists are disconnected from the modern world around us! As I noted in my review of the preceding monograph, Creative Minds, the focus is less on individual sites and more towards the creation of syntheses based on a broad range of data from various road schemes.

In the first paper of the volume, Souterrains, social stress and Viking wars in north county Louth, Niall Roycroft presents a model of ‘crash and crisis’ from the first arrival of the Vikings in 795 AD to end of an initial raiding ‘blitz’ in 833 AD. This was followed by an uneasy peace until c. 921 AD. He argues that the radiocarbon dates from excavated souterrains at Newtownbalregan 6 and Tateetra 1 fall in the period from 800 AD to 1000 AD, when the Viking raiders were at their most ferocious and active. Roycroft argues that the souterrains of north Louth may be divided into two types: ‘double entrance’ and ‘single entrance’ types. Of these, he sees the ‘double entrance’ type as the earlier response to attack, allowing escape from the rath enclosure. The, apparently, later ‘single entrance’ type, Roycroft argues, were intended as refuges for the local community. He goes on to delineate the three zones of these ‘single entrance’/’refuge souterrains’: entrance zone, security zone, and end zone. He also presents brief sets of comments on aspects of souterrain usage such as air supply and drainage, lighting and alcoves. In what I can only believe future generations of archaeologists will regard as ‘Roycroftian Whimsy’, he suggests that the secondary entrance to the Newtownbalregan 6 souterrain is ‘reminiscent of ‘chutes’ used for posting dogs down into animal-baiting pits’. While locking terriers into a souterrain may have provided an additional layer of security, I fail to see how it would necessitate providing them with their own dedicated entrance. Similarly, his suggestion that the large alcove at Newtownbalregan was used to house multiple lamps, intended to light the reused megalithic art half way down the chamber, is (to my mind) stretching the evidence to breaking point and beyond. While souterrains today may be ‘dark and silent’ and provide the exploring archaeologist with a ‘moving and memorable experience’, I doubt that they would have been so when they were at the heart of a bustling farming operation. To push the point further and suggest that they played some role in coming-of-age rituals is, to me, lacking both merit and supporting evidence. Roycroft seems perfectly happy to accept other pieces of reused decorated stone at Tateerra as simply the result of robbing out older monuments, so why not Newtownbalregan 6? Whatever one’s position on many of Roycroft’s spirited suggestions, they are certainly thought provoking and, even in disagreeing with him, force a careful re-evaluation of the evidence – I look forward to disagreeing with him at length in future!

Joanne Hughes & Mícheál Ó Droma present Finding the plot: urban and rural settlement in 13th-century Cashel, Co. Tipperary. In this paper they chart the development of Cashel town and how ecclesiastical influence changed and moulded this progression. All this is all placed within the context of the rural Medieval settlement discovered at Monadreela during the construction of the Cashel Bypass. While the section on urban Cashel in the 13th century is necessarily brief, it eloquently states the current state of knowledge on the town. ‘Life in rural cashel in the 13th century’ presents the Monadreela complex. This rural settlement occupied a portion of the eastern hinterland of Cashel town. The earliest evidence suggests that the site began life with a single long house and grew to include several domestic dwellings, all within their own defined plots. The recovery of charred grain and chaff indicates that cereal processing was carried out on site. Such evidence also complements the findings from within the town of chaff-less cereals, suggesting that winnowing had been undertaken outside the walls. Hughes and Ó Droma see the Monadreela settlement as having developed in the early 13th century to cater for the development boom ongoing in Cashel town. By the early 14th century, at the latest, the settlement was defunct and Cashel had gone into a prolonged period of decline and stagnation. The authors identify the causes of this decline as a combination of the impacts of the Bruce Wars, the Black Death, and worsening climatic conditions – factors which all impacted heavily on other urban centres at this time. The illustrations that accompany this paper highlight the potential for the discovery of unexpected archaeological sites on road schemes, but also the frustrations in not being able to extend the excavated area to get a fuller picture of the site. I can only hope that future work, both geophysical prospection and archaeological excavation, can be deployed to explore more of this fascinating site.

In Profiting from the land: mixed fortunes in the historic landscapes of north Cork, Ken Hanley describes “some embryonic attempts” to apply the methods of Historic Landscape Characterisation (HLC) to road impact assessments. He first presents an intriguing and thought provoking definition of what a landscape actually is, followed by an explanation of the processed of HLC and how it may be applied to road schemes. Hanley’s study area is the M20 section from Buttevant to Mallow in county Cork. While space does not permit a full assessment of the specific results from this project (go buy the book from Wordwell), Hanley provides an evaluation of the HLC method itself. He sees it as a means by which the landscape as it exists today may be meaningfully characterised, but that it is not by any means definitive in describing the full panoply of human interactions with the land from the prehistoric to the modern periods. In particular, the value of HLC is seen in the description of the later historic period, as opposed to earlier periods of human history. The author also comments on methodological issues regarding both the scale of the study areas chosen and the focus of such projects (future-oriented planning vs. purely archaeological/historical applications). While the M20 HLC study is still ongoing, Hanley argues that it allows a ‘much richer and textured understanding of the receiving historical landscape’. In particular, he sees it as a useful tool in exploring issues of land colonisation and field system evolution.

Karen Molloy & Michael O’Connell present Boom and bust or sustained development? Fossil pollen records and new insights into Bronze Age farming in County Clare. They report on investigations into pollen cores from Caheraphuca Bog and Caheraphuca Lough, near Crusheen, county Clare, taken as part of the Gort to Crusheen portion of the M18 project. After a thorough description of the methodology, the results are presented along with a reconstruction of the long-term environmental change in the area. The model presented shows full woodland cover in existence from the earliest portion of the core (c. 6000 BC), with no evidence for the presence of Mesolithic populations. The Elm Decline is noted and dated to 3850-3550 BC. While two chert artefacts of Neolithic date were recovered during the excavation of the Caheraphuca 3 burnt mound, there is no evidence for Landnam woodland clearance, so typical of other regions such as at the Céide Fields complex in north Mayo. The palynological data suggests that during the Early/Middle Bronze Age (2400-1200 BC) the economy centred on pastoral farming, with only a minor arable component. The picture is by no means static, and intensive farming activity is noted in the middle and at the beginning of the period, with corresponding lulls between the two and at the end of the era. Large-scale woodland clearance is indicated during the Middle/Late Bronze Age (1200-950 BC). The recovery of micro-charcoal is taken to indicate the frequent occurrence of fires, but at some distance from the lake. It is suggested that one of the sources for this charcoal was the numerous burnt mounds in the general vicinity. Finally, in the Final Bronze Age to Middle Iron Age (950-130 BC) woodland regeneration begins but is limited by human activity until around 650 BC. The pollen diagram suggests a collapse of the farming economy for two centuries after this point.

Based on the large numbers of cereal-drying kilns discovered on NRA projects, Scott Timpany, Orla Power & Mick Monk examine Agricultural boom and bust in medieval Ireland: plant macrofossil evidence from kiln sites along the N9/N10 in County Kildare. The authors begin with a lesson on the anatomy and function of the kiln form, followed by an assessment of the 25 dated examples from the N9/N10 project. The authors stress the importance of choosing short-lived species to create a robust chronology. Only four were dated from charcoal, three were dated on nut shell fragments, and the remaining 18 were all on charred grain. The results of this dating programme indicate that while individual kilns date from c. 100 AD to c. 1500 AD, the concentration is from c. 300 AD to c. 1000 AD, with a defined peak around 500 AD. When morphological factors are fed back into this model it becomes clear that the earliest form was the oblong kiln. Figure-of-eight kilns begin to be constructed from c. 200 AD to c. 500 AD. After a dip around c. 600 AD, they continue in use until c. 900 AD. The keyhole kiln appears to be used throughout this period, from c. 200 AD to c. 1400 AD. An examination of the recovered grain types, plotted against age, is also of interest. This shows wheat to have been popular from c. 300 AD to c. 800 AD; oats from c. 600 AD to c. 1000 AD; and while it went through several highs and lows in popularity, barley remained a constant feature from c. 200 AD to c. 1400 AD. Looking at the broader picture, the authors see a ‘boom’ in kiln use (especially the figure-of-eight variety) in the Early Christian period and a concentration on the production of barley. They see a corresponding ‘bust’ centred on c. 1000 AD, though the decline would appear to have begun nearly two centuries previously. Compared to a graph of dated cereal-drying kilns from across Ireland the data fits well with a defined trough around 1000 AD, though again the decline may have begun as early as c. 800 AD. This island-wide graph is then compared to climatic data, including dendrochronological, tephrachronological, palaeohydrological, and palynological records, along with evidence from testate amoebae records, but shows little convincing parallels to explain the rising and falling popularity of kilns. The authors next examine the possibility of social change as a factor in kiln-use and evolution. They suggest that the decline in the prevalence of the figure-of-eight kiln in favour of the keyhole kiln may be related to a move towards more centralised, larger-scale farming enterprises. Also, the longer flue of the keyhole kilns meant that they were less susceptible to accidental fire. This is in harmony with a number of points raised by Finbar McCormick at the recent INSTAR conference where centralised mills overtake the use of quern stones in the period after 800 AD, along with a collapse in the numbers of cereal-drying kilns. As I have stated in my review of the INSTAR conference, I think there is a case to be made for the church attempting to centralise the means of production and processing, further cementing their grip on the populace.

In Wax or wane? Insect perspectives on human environmental interactions Eileen Reilly sets out to examine aspects of woodland change, development of human habitation, settlement activity and landscape change, along with trade links and food storage. Her approach is to pick key findings from a number of sites investigated as part of NRA projects, and dating from the Neolithic to the Medieval period. In terms of woodland change, populations of beetles have diminished as woods have been destroyed to make way for open pasture. However, comparison with the British evidence indicates that forest clearance was on a different scale in Ireland and that the forest floors were cleared in such a way as to permanently alter living conditions for several species. At both rural and urban settlement sites ‘signature’ faunas of beetles have been identified, particularly associated with houses and stables. Interestingly, many of the species considered to be ‘house’ fauna are unlikely to have co-existed in nature, and with changes in building techniques and materials, many are now quite rare. Many new species appear to have been accidentally introduced into Ireland by human agency, including Bruchus rufimanus, the ‘broad-bean’ or ‘seed-been’ weevil. It is absent from Irish sites during the Early Christian period and only confined to urban centres during the Medieval period. Similarly, the wheat weevil (Sitophilus granarius) is believed to have appeared in Britain during the Roman period, though is unknown in Ireland before the 12th century.

Brendon Wilkins, in Examining death on the M6: 3500 BC to AD 1500, first poses the question of what may be learned from a study of the dead. He argues that the techniques of osteoarchaeology tell us more about the living person than the dead body: sex, diet, stature etc. An analysis of mortuary behaviour not only examines the behaviour of people towards the dead, but the place of the deceased within society. He highlights the concepts of primary and secondary burial rites and the distinctions between psychical and social death. With these categories in mind he examines the discovery of the Bronze Age pyre at Newford, county Galway. The pyre superstructure had been constructed above a large pit. During the firing process the partially burnt wood had tumbled into the pit. During excavation c. 700g of human bone was recovered from the feature. Wilkins argues that relatively little of the 1kg to 3kg of bone that may be expected from a cremated adult actually turns up in the archaeological record. Such ‘token cremation burials’ are frequently discovered at Middle and Late Bronze Age sites across the island. He suggests that if some of this bone was formally deposited in cremation pits on the site, the remainder may have been intended for non-funerary contexts. He argues that the remaining bone could have been used as a ‘social artefact’ intended for ceremonial exchange between different groups to cement relationships and the bonds of inheritance etc. While there is much to recommend this theory, not least as an explanation of why small amounts of human bone frequently turn up in non-funerary contexts, he does not propose an answer to why a substantial portion of a cremated individual was left in the pyre pit and never recovered. Wilkins’ second case study is the Early Christian cemetery-settlement at Carrowkeel, county Galway. As nearly 90% of the burials were of infants, juveniles and foetuses, it was initially assumed that they represented post-Medieval burial of the unbaptised in an Early Christian enclosure. However an ambitious programme of radiocarbon dating proved that this segregation of children’s burials dated to the period from 700 AD to 1100 AD. The author suggests that this segregation may have been a function of not seeing children as full members of society and that this diminution in status in their lives was paralleled with a similar treatment in death. In this context Wilkins sees the segregation of children in the Early Christian period as a precursor to the use of Cillíní/Children’s Burial Grounds in the post-Medieval period. Personally, I find the Carrowkeel site endlessly fascinating and it is another example where the remainder of the site, outside the boundary of the road take, could be targeted for further research.

Matthew Seaver presents Back to basics: contexts of human burial on Irish early medieval enclosed settlements. In this paper he attempts the gargantuan task of examining the range of practices for dealing with human remains on Early Christian enclosed settlements without clear evidence for churches. He presents what he terms a ‘crude model’ for burial in the Early Christian period where members of hierarchical social groups had a range of options as to how they disposed of their dead: from within their own family group’s enclosure to traditional, pre-Christian, burial places (ferta) to formal ecclesiastical sites, with many varieties in between. Seaver begins to draw out the complexities of choice of burial location and its complex cultural interactions with memory, tradition, power structures etc. To me this simply reinforces how much scholarship has progressed in this field over recent decades, when researchers were arguing over which set of criteria were necessary to identify a site as an ecclesiastical or secular burial ground. Indeed, Seaver’s thoughtful, nuanced and multi-faceted model could not even have been conceived of two decades ago – much less could we have contemplated a situation where it could be described as ‘crude’. He shows how there were myriad ways in which settlement sites could incorporate human bone, from full and formal burials to disarticulated pieces. Seaver argues that the processes governing the treatment of human remains were a complex amalgam of religious belief, local custom and regional tradition. These multifaceted considerations led in turn to an intricate matrix of representations that included: family crisis; boundary demarcation; age, gender or status considerations etc. In so far as I am aware, this is part of Seaver’s ongoing PhD thesis. From the evidence presented here, he has already made a significant contribution to our understanding of these sites and the processes surrounding death and burial. For my part, I look forward with anticipation to his further insights.

The final paper in the collection is by Catriona McKenzie & Eileen Murphy. They present Health in medieval Ireland: the evidence from Ballyhanna, Co. Donegal. The initial excavation of the site produced the remains of 1,301 individuals surrounding the remains of a small stone church. A truly impressive programme of AMS dating carried out by 14Chrono in Belfast has shown that although burial was initiated here in the 8th and 9th centuries AD, the vast majority of individuals were interred from the 13th to the 16th centuries. This research is part of the Ballyhanna Research Project, funded by the NRA. The mission of the project is the investigation of the Ballyhanna skeletal population through a variety of scientific techniques. The importance of the project lies in the size of the population – by far the largest Medieval population excavated in Ireland – and its meticulous study by osteoarchaeologists and related scientists. A further point of importance is that while other excavated populations come from areas under Anglo Norman control or influence (and are likely to contain both natives and newcomers), the Ballyhanna material is likely to exclusively contain the remains of the lower class Irish, an under-represented and under-studied portion of the population. The evidence presented indicates that just over half the adult population died before the age of 35 and that they were generally short in stature. The average height for an adult male at Ballyhanna was 167.1cm and 154.8cm for females. This is taken to suggest that, genetics aside; the population was probably poorly nourished during childhood. Examples of physiological stress within the population include cribra orbitalia, suggestive of a number of conditions, including chronic infections and a deficiency in vitamin B12. Porotic hyperostosis is thought to be the result of haemolytic and megaloblastic anaemias resulting from deficiencies in vitamins B12 and B9. At Ballyhanna over 17% of adults presented with dental enamel hypoplasia, an indicator of non-specific physiological stress. While the evidence suggests that this was a poor and stressed population, this figure is well below the rates reported from other comparable populations; these ranged from c.36% at Ardreigh up to c.60% at St. Elizabeth’s Church. Tibial periosteal new bone formation may result from inflammation in infectious processes, direct trauma, or other physiological stress and occurred on c.11% of the population. This paper is but one of the outcomes of the Ballyhanna Research Project and a major monograph, incorporating all the strands of research, is expected in 2012.

As with the other volumes in this series, there is an appendix detailing the radiocarbon dates from the various sites discussed in the forgoing papers. This appendix lists 129 dates, 113 of which were new to the IR&DD catalogue. I have recently mentioned the recurring problem with the presentation of radiocarbon data from Beta Analytic Inc., and do not propose to bore the reader with it again. In the current volume a date from the souterrain at Tateetra 1, county Louth, (Beta-217960) is given as 1340±40 BP, but as 1350±40 BP in the NRA Database. While it is but a small discrepancy, it is sufficient to undermine confidence in both this individual date and for the dating of the site as a whole. Such a small criticism as this aside, the editors and contributors are to be congratulated for again producing a valuable and useful addition to our knowledge – long may it continue!

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].

[** If you like this post, please consider making a small donation. Each donation helps keep the Irish Radiocarbon & Dendrochronological Dates project going! **]