Saturday, October 22, 2011

Review: Tintern Abbey, Co. Wexford: Cistercians and Colcloughs. Excavations 1982-2007.

Ann Lynch. Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Dublin, 2010. xvi + 245pp. Colour and black & white illustrations and plates throughout. ISBN 978-1-4064-2532-1. €30.

[**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.**]

The publication of Tintern Abbey, Co. Wexford: Cistercians and Colcloughs. Excavations 1982-2007 is the fifth instalment in the Department of Heritage and Local Government’s internationally peer reviewed Archaeological Monograph Series. The abbey was founded in 1200 by William Marshall, Earl of Pembroke, and quickly became one of the most important Cistercian foundations on the island. After its dissolution the abbey, and the majority of its lands, passed to Sir Anthony Colclough (pronounced Cokelee). The site remained in the family until 1959, and was vested in the Commissioners of Public Works in 1963.

In Section 1, Lynch places the abbey within its physical and historical setting. While the introduction to the Cistercians is excellent, the portion dealing with the tenure of the Colclough family superb and is very much brought to life with reproductions of paintings and photographs from the early 17th century to the beginning of the 20th century. Section 2 begins with a description of the state of the medieval buildings at the time of its transfer to the Commissioners of Public Works. Further subsections examine the building history of the abbey church and the cloister gateway, including various additions and modifications carried out by the Colclough family. Of particular interest are detailed examinations of sections of surviving Elizabethan panelling in the crossing tower. The portion dealing with the history of the conservation works on the site is particularly fascinating. The works here were carried out in three major phases over approximately 40 years. Each phase of conservation represents different approaches to the problems at hand and illustrates the changing nature of ‘best practice’ over several decades. The archaeological excavations (Section 3) were primarily intended to facilitate the conservation of the site. These were carried out in various phases from the early 1980s, the early to mid 1990s and in 2006-7. This section is profusely illustrated with colour and monochrome photographs and detailed site excavation plans and section drawings. In particular, the use of shading to differentiate between Cistercian and Colclough phases of construction is very useful and adds to the general clarity of the information being presented. While I have a personal penchant for archaeological illustration, I would single out examples of the two-light lancet window in the chancel (Fig. 9) and the reconstructed elevation of the cloister arcade (Fig. 33) (both by R. Stapleton) as items of art in their own right. The excavations revealed numerous details of the structural development and alterations to the structures, during the tenures of both the Cistercians and the Colcloughs. This significant body of data is placed within the twin contexts of other excavated Cistercian monasteries and the post-dissolution history of the site.

The excavated burials are examined in Section 4. While there appears to have been no burials to the north of the church, human remains appear to have been interred almost everywhere else. In the absence of grave goods or reliable stratigraphy, six skeletons were radiocarbon dated. One burial, an adolescent from the Lady Chapel, dated to the late 13th to 14th centuries. The dated burials from the west ambulatory occurred during the 14th and 15th centuries, while those from the nave, chancel, and south transept dated to the late 15th to early 16th centuries. While four of these determinations are investigated further by Gault in Appendix III, the raw dates are not provided for the remaining two. In all, the associated meta data for this body of dates is, to my mind, incomplete and prevents its incorporation into future research projects. I realise that I am quite pedantic on this point [see also here], but I firmly believe that archaeological dates have a viability outside the particular research project that they were created for, but only if the fullest amount of information possible is provided with them in print. Between all phases of excavation, some 106 whole or partial skeletons were recovered. Burials in the nave and chancel were dominated by adult males, though adult females were more frequent in the transept and ambulatory. However, in the chapel, only non-adults were recovered. Examination of the non-adults (below 18 years) indicated that 48.5% did not survive beyond their 5th year. Of the adults, 52 of the 65 sexed skeletons could be given a determination of age. It appears that, for both sexes, the majority of deaths were in the ‘younger adults’ category, with relatively few individuals surviving into advanced old age. Interrogation of the data by age and burial location suggests deliberate segregation. While males were buried in practically every part of the church, the chancel was the preferred location for younger males. Similarly, adult females were buried in most parts of the church, but a distinct preference is shown for younger females to be buried in the nave. An examination of the surviving teeth indicates that ante-mortem tooth loss accounted for nearly 17% of all recovered teeth. Dental caries were observed in 69% of the population, a particularly high figure for any society living before the introduction of refined sugars. There is also evidence for the presence of calculus, abscesses, periodontal disease, and enamel hypoplasia. Degenerative joint disease was also common among the recovered skeletal remains, but with females slightly less affected than males. While these are indicators that the individuals led quite harsh lives, full of physical activity, analysis of the women suggested that they frequently carried loads on their heads. A number of skeletons exhibited evidence for healed fractures, and three males carried evidence of sharp-force trauma, suggesting that at least two of them came to violent ends. Overall, the general health of this population was poor and the people buried here may have suffered periodic episodes of biological stress, especially the females. The higher prevalence of enamel hypoplasia among females is taken to suggest that, from an early age, females were less well fed than males. This situation may also have persisted throughout their adult lives. Excluding fragments of architectural stone, some 1900 artefacts were recovered during the excavations (Section 5). While I do not intend to list even all the categories of finds, a number do stand out. While various Cistercian rules forbade the use of wall paintings, quite a substantial corpus of painted plaster fragments were recovered, though it is difficult to visualise the original design. A number of fragments of medieval stained glass were recovered, all the more beautiful for their rarity. As one would imagine with a site of this type, the pottery remains take up a sizeable portion of the text. The types recovered include Leinster Cooking Ware, various Wexford-type wares, along with Saintonge and transitional types. The entire corpus spans the period from the late 12th to the 16th centuries. Among the recovered metalwork, the stand-out piece is a silver ring brooch of 13th to 14th century date. This entire section dealing with the finds is well presented, logically laid out and well illustrated. Not only does it present the recovered artefacts in a well-researched and attractive format, but it will easily become a ready reference for future excavations and for excavators seeking comparanda. Many of the illustrations in this section were prepared by Patricia Johnson and are among the finest examples of archaeological illustration in print. Section 6 presents the final discussions and conclusions, and attempts to draw together all the strands of the previous sections. The text is embellished with a number of reconstructions of what the abbey must have looked like in its heyday. Various discussions of the surrounding farmland of the abbey, and the lifestyle and economy of the people are also presented. The evolution of the abbey is charted through the centuries until its dissolution and granting to the Colcloughs and eventually into state care. In the final portion of this section Lynch assesses the unresolved questions raised by the excavations, and lists further profitable avenues of exploration and research.

In Section 7 Tietzsch-Tyler, the artist responsible for the wonderful reconstruction drawings, details the research that went into creating these fantastic images. While this is an important aspect of all reconstructions, it is rarely explicitly stated and dissected in this way. My only quibble would be that this deserved to be treated as an appendix, rather than a fully-fledged section, as it (to my mind, at least) breaks up the flow of the narrative. Nonetheless, this form of examination of the evidence and sources that make up the reconstruction drawings is important, and I would encourage its use in future projects. The volume also presents a number of appendices. Gault’s interrogation of some of the radiocarbon dates in a Bayesian framework, utilising the OxCal program, has been mentioned above. McCormick analysis of the small corpus of faunal remains identified sheep/goats, pigs, cow, horse, cat, dog, ox and a number of wild animal types. The assemblage is dominated by sheep/goats, and is taken to indicate evidence for the traditional Cistercian practice of sheep rearing. Although not ruling out the possibility that the representatives of cat, dog, otter, and fox were food items (especially in times of scarcity), it seems more likely that they were exploited for their pelts. Brown and Baillie report on the dendrochronological dating of a number of the recovered timbers. Samples from a number of large beams from the tower last grew in 1569, being felled either in the winter of that year, or the following spring. Portions of the panels were more difficult to date, but are estimated to have been felled around 1610.

Despite my objections to the presentation of the radiocarbon data and the placement of Section 7, I find little else to criticise. The text and illustrations combine to present a logical and well-balanced report on the excavations, firmly placed in the changing contexts of the Cistercians and the Colcloughs. It is a beautifully produced book that deserves its place in the distinguished Archaeological Monograph Series. I can only look forward to further high quality publications in the 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].


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


Monday, October 17, 2011

Review: The Dublin Region in the Middle Ages: Settlement, Land-use and Economy

Margaret Murphy & Michael Potterton. Four Courts Press & The Discovery Programme, Dublin, 2010. 598pp. Colour and black & white illustrations and plates throughout. ISBN 978-1-84682-266-7. €50 or €45 from FCP website.


[**If you think the review is useful, please re-share via Facebook, Google+, Twitter etc.**]



The publicity literature surrounding The Dublin Region in the Middle Ages: Settlement, Land-use and Economy describes it as ‘the first major publication of the Discovery Programme’s Medieval Rural settlement Project’ … and major it is in every sense. The first thing that struck myself and others when we saw it at the Discovery Programme book stall at the recent INSTAR conference was its sheer physical presence. There were several jokes about not putting your back out trying to lift it and not letting it fall on you etc. While such comments are to be expected, its physical mass and volume are the smallest things about it. In the Preface, MRSP Project Director, Niall Brady, sets out the research framework for the current volume. The landscape encompassed is impressive: the entirety of Dublin city and its hinterland, up to 30km. The model used was based on the ‘Feeding the City’ project, developed by the Centre for Metropolitan History at the Institute for Historical Research, University of London. Where the MRSP approach exceeds the ‘Feeding the City’ project is not just in its commitment to including archaeological data into the synthesis, but describing it as ‘the essential driving force of the present study’. Brady argues that the ‘objective and factual insights’ of the archaeological data inform aspects of the discussion unavailable to the written sources alone. These include questions of diet, trade and exchange, as well as industrial processes.

In Part I, Chapter 1 introduces the project and defines its overriding aim as ‘to construct a picture of the medieval landscape and settlement features of the area using a wide range of archaeological and documentary sources’. The chapter also describes the spatial limits of the study zone and introduces the background geological and soil systems of the area. It is only with Chapter 2 that one begins to appreciate the scale of the undertaking when the archaeological and historical sources consulted are laid out. I find it quite charming that the first sentences of the chapter are so understated as to be almost apologetic. They simply state that the present volume ‘did not involve any new excavations or large-scale fieldwork’. There is a beautiful simplicity, close to a tacit apology, in the description of the work as ‘essentially a desktop study’. It is only when one is presented with the breadth, depth and sheer variety of sources that the authors had to work with and that an appreciation can be gained of the scale of the data mountain the project had to climb. The available records are presented and briefly assessed, highlighting both its strengths and weaknesses.

Part II, dealing with the topic of Settlement and Society, begins with Chapter 3, an examination of the Dublin region before the Anglo Norman incursion in 1170. The chapter sets out the argument that, prior to 1170, the Norsemen were in control of a substantial Kingdom that encompassed all of modern County Dublin and parts of Counties Kildare and Wicklow. The authors chart the progress from the construction of the original longphort in 814, and assorted military forts, through the foundation of Dublin in 917 and its swift development into a vibrant trading and manufacturing centre. By this time the agricultural hinterland supporting the city was essentially coextensive with modern County Dublin. The development of Dublin town was effectively paralleled in the rise of ecclesiastical power from a dependency of Glendalough diocese in 1111 to full status as an independent archdiocese in 1152. By the arrival of the Anglo Normans the Cistercians and Augustinians had a sizable presence in the town and, along with the Archbishop, held extensive properties in the hinterland. The chapter raises, but is unable to answer, the question of the numbers of Scandinavians living in rural Dublin. While there is ample evidence that the Kings of Dublin effectively controlled large portions of the surrounding countryside, there is little documentary support to define whether the residents were native Irish or planted Norse. Finally, the chapter sets the political scene and how the various machinations and changes of allegiance led to the banishment of Diarmait Mac Murchada to Bristol. Once Mac Murchada returned to Dublin with the support of his Anglo Norman allies, the Scandinavian influence on the region was brought to a swift and merciless conclusion. Chapter 4 examines patterns of land ownership after 1170 and up to the beginning of the 17th century. Interestingly, there is much continuity in land holding patterns, especially in terms of ecclesiastical and monastic power. While virtually all the existing orders maintained or increased their holdings, new continental orders were also heavily endowed with grants of land. Throughout this period, the single largest landowner was the Archbishop of Dublin, who by the early 13th century had acquired the land of bishopric and abbey of Glendalough. Similarly, Baronial families established Strongbow and de Lacy were long-lived and retained large tracts of land over many generations. In Chapter 5, Defence and Fortification, the authors demonstrate that the region was among the most heavily defended in medieval Ireland. The chronological span of castle building is investigated, running form the late 12th to the 17th centuries, as are the fluctuating motivations (defence, aesthetics, ostentation etc.) behind the need and desire to build. In a comprehensive survey of the earthwork castles, it emerges that the earliest mottes were frequently sited at existing nodal points, such as settlements and ecclesiastical centres, many of which went on to develop as significant regional centres. While many mottes were built by individual lords, an analysis of their regional distribution shows that together they formed a protective cordon around the city. This suggests to the authors that, in the early portion of the Anglo Norman tenure at least, there was a centralised defence policy in operation. Finally the authors examine the number and variety of castles built in the region as a function of the multiplicity power forms, including the Crown, the archbishop and various lordly families. The multi-faceted functionality of these establishments (from rural fortifications to administrative centres and storehouses) and their evolution over time is also examined. Manor centres, tenants and rural settlement is the subject of Chapter 6. Here the authors rely mostly on good documentary sources for manorial centres, as the archaeological evidence is relatively scarce. Again, manors varied widely in terms of their size and the numbers, type and construction of their buildings, along with being populated by a wide assortment of tenants. Many tenants were imported from England and Wales, but there is evidence for the continued presence of both native Irish and Scandinavian smallholders. The authors conclude that while there is evidence that rural Dublin was relatively densely populated (especially in the 13th century), the location and nature of their residences remains elusive. Chapter 7, examining the Church, identified over 300 medieval churches and chapels within the study area. They see the evolution of the parish church as a centre for tithe-rendering being closely linked to the development of Anglo Norman manorial estates. While there was a profusion of parish churches, religious houses and hospitals appear to have been less well represented in the rural landscape and show a decrease over time. The economic might of the Dublin religious houses is well assessed and their links to the countryside are clearly delineated, showing the pathways for tithed produce from the fields to the tables and storehouses of the Abbots. To put this in context, during this period the Dublin diocese was the richest on the island and the majority of that wealth was derived from farming and the exploitation of the natural resources of the region. The English Pale is comprehensively examined in Chapter 8 and effectively combines both historical sources and the little available archaeological research. They place its construction within the broader canvas of other defensive boundaries, including Offa’s Dyke, Hadrian’s Wall and the Black Pig’s Dyke. They stress the over-abundance of studies of the Pale boundary in terms of ‘a concept and a state of mind, rather than as a physical entity’. While recognising that the project was never completed, they argue that perhaps more had been constructed than previously realised, though much may have been lost through intensive agricultural exploitation of the area. The authors also stress the fact that the Pale earthwork was only one portion of the defensive mechanism, and cannot be considered in isolation from the numerous towerhouses and church towers along its length. Other points of note are the reuse of existing portions of double ditches and defensible natural features. The Pale earthwork, as a defensive bulwark against the Irish, was eventually a failure, though it does appear to have functioned successfully for some time. The authors argue that there are still many questions to be answered in terms of the mental and political origins of the Pale defenses – confident assertion of ‘Englishness’ or resignation at the contraction of a colony?

Part III deals with the Exploitation of Resources, and Chapter 9 provides a detailed examination of agriculture. During the period under investigation, the majority of land outside the city was in under some form of agricultural exploitation, be it arable, pasture or meadow. While arable farming was, generally, the most important form, there were large regional variations. Analysis of the surviving textual evidence indicates that arable was of most importance in the north of the study area, while pasture was the dominant form in the south and south-west. While some of this patterning was a direct consequence of environmental factors, it also appears to have been moulded by the requirements of the city. Arable land was generally sown with grain, predominantly wheat, oats, barley, and rye, along with various legumes. Of these, wheat and oats dominated on the manorial demesnes, frequently to the exclusion of all other crops. Alternately, the smaller farmers are shown to have grown a wider mix of crops. Both archaeobotanical and historical evidence indicate that growing rye was a minority interest in the region. The available evidence (both archaeological and historical) also indicates that weeding and manuring were frequently used to increase yields. Oxen are shown to have been the chief draught animal used for ploughing in the early 13th century, though mixed teams of oxen and horses were also used. By the late 15th century this situation had evolved to the point where horses were the dominant ploughing beasts. In terms of meat sources, cattle predominated, though both sheep and pigs were important commodities on farms of all sizes. Goats appear to have been raised only by the lower members of society and were particularly popular in the highlands of south Dublin. Rabbit warrens were introduced in the late 13th century, both to provide meat for an individual lordly family and as commercial enterprises in their own right. Around the same time dovecots were introduced on the larger manorial farms and, by the 15th century, had spread to smaller farming enterprises. The authors identify one of the problems with the surviving sources is the fact that it mostly relates to the large-scale ecclesiastical and secular holdings, while information on the lives of peasants and the lower end of society is sparse. The sources are also mostly concentrated in the period around the 13th and early 14th centuries, making it difficult to provide indications as to how the situation changed over time. In examining Horticulture (Chapter 10) the evidence suggests that many gardens existed, but it appears to have been on a small-scale footing, as opposed to any large commercial venture. One of the contributing factors to this lack of success may have been that all but exotic, imported fruit was not particularly highly valued, making it difficult to eke out a profit. The majority of gardens, both rural and urban, were intended to supply the individual family or religious institution. To both rich and poor, these horticultural resources provided valuable additional nutrients and variety in their diets. In Woods and Woodlands (Chapter 11) the authors identify timber as among the most important resources for Dublin, requiring a constant supply sourced from  the immediate hinterland. Timber was required for everything from the construction of houses and boats to waterfront revetments and the most commonly used fuel source. Even though construction techniques moved from post-and-wattle in the Viking city to, generally, stone built by the 13th century, vast quantities of wood were still required for roofs, floors and scaffolding. This evolution in building methods also brought a change in the types of wood used; moving from ash in the earlier period to a greater reliance on oak. Interestingly, research indicates that local supplies of timber remained viable until the 13th century, but by the following century more distant forests were being exploited. By this later date it appears that supplies were, at least occasionally, being imported from County Antrim. This wholesale deforestation means that most of the Dublin hinterland would have largely been open countryside during the medieval period. Most of the surviving forest land was vested in the Crown and was preserved for hunting. Other Natural Resources are the concern of Chapter 12. Peat bogs are (along with gorse) assessed as an important, if minor, source of fuel. However, this level of peat exploitation led to the exhaustion of some reserves by the 14th century, though some of this does appear to have been as a direct result of the pressure to free up more land for agricultural purposes. Building stone and roofing slate were usually quarried locally, though if sourced from greater distances it is likely to have been transported by river or along the coast. An examination of the available Water Resources (Chapter 13) indicates the both historical and archaeological sources agree on the importance of fish in the diets of the city dwellers, though its availability in the countryside is not fully understood. The sourcing, marketing and retail of both marine fish and shellfish are revealed as an efficient, sophisticated system. Fewer types of freshwater fish were available, with salmon and eel predominating in the records. While the evidence supports extensive foreshore exploitation, actual examples of the methods, structures and equipment is exceedingly rare. It is also posited that a preoccupation with safety sprung up during the 16th and 17th centuries in response to the privations caused by increased costal piracy by the native Irish. Responses to these new threats included the construction of a fortified harbour at Skerries and a wave of new castles.

Many of these natural resources had to be processed and marketed before they were ready for sale in the city. It is these means of Processing and Distribution that are the subject of Part IV. Chapter 14 examines the Processing of Cereal Products and reports that the majority of the grain produced in the region was dried in keyhole-shaped kilns and, usually, ground with water-powered mills. Milling in the region peaked in the period c.1285-1315, and while it remained an expensive venture to initialise and maintain, it was always a profitable occupation. During this brief high-point, the Dublin region was so noted for the quality of its milling that grain was exported from Scotland to be processed in the region. However, both the archaeological and documentary evidence suggests that milling entered a serious decline from the middle of the 14th century, from which it does not appear to have recovered. While grain was primarily used for baking bread, it was used extensively for brewing. The authors note that the scale of brewing declined through the 14th and 15th centuries. This is seen, partially, as a response to falling production, but also as a response to the increase in available clean drinking water. The Processing of Animal Products (Chapter 15) indicates that while dairy products must have been of significance in the lives of Dublin city folk, there is little evidence of their preparation and sale. Although Irish butter appears to have been highly regarded, the same cannot be said for locally produced wool, which was deemed to be of low quality. Nonetheless, it was in high demand among the cloth-manufacturers of Flanders. Similarly, Irish hides were exported to the continent. The authors draw a distinction between cereal processing, which was generally carried out at manorial centres, and the processing of animal products. The latter was generally on a smaller scale and combined with other occupations, carried out by small holding farmers. Chapter 16 examines The Importation and Processing of Natural Resources. The authors demonstrate that while some iron was mined locally, the majority was imported from England, Brittany and Spain. Analysis of slag recovered from excavations indicates that smelting technology improved over the centuries. Other metals, such as lead, silver, copper, and tin were worked within the city, but the raw materials all appear to have been imported. At the time of the Anglo-Norman arrival, the majority of pottery appears to have been imported, though local production centres soon emerged. The most common type found on excavations outside the city is Leinster Cooking Ware, and although recovered from more than 75 sites in the region, a definitive kiln site has yet to be identified. Within the city the ‘Dublin-type wares’ predominated during the late 12th to 14th centuries. Imported pottery from England, France, and The Low Countries is etc. are frequent finds on excavations in the city. The majority of the English pottery from the 12th and 13th centuries originated from Bristol, paralleling the documentary evidence for strong links between the two cities at this time. Small quantities of Leinster Cooking Ware have been found in the city, while similarly small amounts of ‘Dublin-type wares’ and imported pottery are found on rural sites. There appears to be no well-defined relationship between the wealth of a rural site and the presence of imported pottery. The authors state that, while wealth is a factor, proximity to a seaport was at least as important in acquiring exotic pottery types. Like the pottery, earthenware floor tiles were initially imported, but soon produced locally. Distribution and Provisioning (Chapter 17) explores the movement of these commodities around the region. The authors demonstrate that the provisioning relationship between countryside and city was a multi-faceted one. For example, the ecclesiastical estates appear to have been largely immune from market forces, and concentrated on their city-based houses. For the rest of the city dwellers, acquiring affordable and reliable sources of provisioning was of the utmost importance, though occasionally precarious. While the status of the city as a military mustering point ensured the development of efficient transport and marketing organisations, the populace frequently resented any actions by the governors that might disrupt their supplies. In general terms, Dublin city appears to have been well provisioned from its hinterland. Interestingly, the physical limits of this hinterland are explored in terms of the practical limits of how far produce could be transported in a single day, allowing the farmer to return home at night, or with a single overnight stay in the city. An effective limit of 30km is proposed and appears reasonable. The structure of the hinterland is also revealed in terms of the northern portion being chiefly involved in grain production, while meat, dairy produce and wood was sourced to the south of the city. While this may have been partially the result of determined spatial organisation, environmental factors were of equal, if not greater, importance. Part V is contains only a brief (considering the depth of what has gone before) Conclusions (Chapter 18), eloquently drawing together the main findings and themes of the volume. The unique position of the region, as the only significant urban area on the island, is highlighted. The authors look forward to comparing this area with other parts of the island, once sufficient regional studies have been completed. As a template for further research, it is comprehensive and has much to recommend it as a research model for other areas. Finally, the authors state that the available data from both the archaeological and documentary evidence is far from exhausted, and that much research may yet be profitably carried out on this region.

I am loathe to describe the work as ‘perfect’ as I am sure that some deficiencies must exist within the text, but I have yet to find them. I would particularly like to praise the clarity and simplicity of the writing style, as the authors have been able to convey difficult concepts succinctly and eloquently for both an academic and general audience. The illustrations are well chosen and the combination of excellent photography, historic imagery and archaeological field drawings add much to the impressive text. The single most ubiquitous image is (understandably) that of the regional distribution map. It is a minor point, but one worth expressing, that the use of a single style of map style repeatedly overlaid with different information is a great aid to the overall clarity. My only criticism would be that the inclusion of the major watercourses would have been an additional aid to that clarity. Many reviews of this type conclude with the assertion that the volume under discussion will be the standard for a generation, and unlikely to be superseded anytime soon. While I wish I could avoid using such epithets, tarnished from overuse, I simply cannot believe that this work on the Dublin region will be surpassed in the next number of decades. However, I do hope that it serves as an inspiration for other researchers (and, perhaps, The Discovery Programme) to apply these techniques to other cities and their hinterlands. Murphy and Potterton have, with the support of The Discovery Programme, produced a volume that is both beautiful and informative. The breadth and depth of their research is astonishing and while it represents ‘only’ a desktop survey, it adds materially to our knowledge. I would commend it, wholeheartedly, to both the academic communities and the interested reader alike.

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! **]

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Review: Of Troughs and Tuyères: The archaeology of the N5 Charlestown Bypass

Richard F. Gillespie & Agnes Kerrigan. National Roads Authority, Dublin, 2010. NRA Scheme Monographs 6. xii + 412pp. Colour and black & white illustrations and plates throughout. ISBN 978-0-9564180-1-2. ISSN 2009-0471. 25.

[**If you think the review is useful, please re-share via Facebook, Google+, Twitter etc.**]



Since the arrival of the NRA Scheme Monographs in 2007 with Monumental Beginnings: the archaeology of the N4 Sligo Inner Relief Road the series has established itself as a benchmark in high quality academic publishing. Of Troughs and Tuyères: The archaeology of the N5 Charlestown Bypass is the sixth instalment in the series and continues this high standard of excavation reporting and dissemination. In the preface, R. M. Cleary contrasts the traditional focus of archaeological excavation on monuments with the opportunity to examine the, apparently, mundane landscapes revealed through large-scale, linear road projects. Indeed, the route was specifically selected to avoid all known archaeological sites. She argues that such schemes have forced us to revise much or our understanding of ‘past societies in a local and regional setting’. I would disagree only in that I see the significance of these projects (and their resulting publications) as having an island-wide significance, with the potential to revolutionise every aspect and period of Irish archaeology.

The volume presents a synthesis of the results of over forty excavations in eastern Mayo and a small portion of western Roscommon, covering approximately six millennia of human activity across the landscape. Chapter 1 (Kerrigan & Gillespie with MacDonagh) presents an introduction to the scheme, placing it in both planning and archaeological contexts. Brief, but informative, sections deal with the geography, geology, soils, and drainage of the area. This is followed by a wide ranging review of the general landscape character from the Mesolithic to 19th century Charlestown. Coinciding with my personal research interests, I am gratified to see a section explaining (mostly) the problems inherent in the use of radiocarbon data and the difficulties in selecting suitable samples for investigation. In what I see as a particularly brave stance, the authors highlight one spurious date from a cremation burial at Lowpark that produced Bronze Age pottery, but dated to the Neolithic (4840±50BP, Beta-23161). In such instances it would be all too easy to hide this anomalous date deep within the text and conveniently dismiss it. Placing it here within the introduction to the project speaks, to me at least, of a commitment to address all aspects of the results, not just the ones that neatly fit the other evidence. I have previously argued for the improved reporting of both radiocarbon dates and their associated meta data, and I applaud the note that the Beta Analytic dates were calibrated using the IntCal04 curve, albeit with the simplified Talma & Vogel (1993) system – the latest versions of Calib or OxCal are definitely to be preferred. Similarly, the dates from Groningen are noted as having been calibrated using IntCal04, but there is no indication of which computer program was employed. It is a minor point, but it should be remembered that different computer programs, even using the same version of the calibration curve, may give different results. Thus, for complete inter-date comparability it is strongly advised that the same curve and programme be used across the range of returned dates and that these choices be made explicit within the text.

Chapter 2 (Gillespie) reports on the Neolithic excavations at Sonnagh II, Ballyglass West I, and Cashelduff I. Of these, the most interesting (and contentious) is undoubtedly the Early Neolithic sub-circular structures at Sonnagh II. We are long-used to rectangular houses of the Early Neolithic period and such an early sub-circular feature is clearly anomalous (5275±35BP, GrA-35591). Indeed, the author struggles to find appropriate parallels and falls back on structural similarities with the Curraghatoor 3 structure in Co. Tipperary. Though that particular structure it is not directly dated, he notes that the Curraghatoor complex is significantly later than the Sonnagh evidence, dating to the Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age. Considering the implications for our understanding of the Early Neolithic, one can only regret that further samples were not directly dated. It may well be that the gravelly fills did not provided sufficient charcoal for further dates, but we can only hope that, now the potential importance of this site has been recognised, efforts will be made to reinvestigate and re-date any surviving samples. Chapter 3 (Kerrigan & Gillespie) tackles the large volume of Bronze Age burnt mounds and burnt spreads discovered in the course of the project. It is impossible to pick out as many interesting features of the excavated examples as I would like, but the recovery of a tin bead from Sonnagh V (perhaps imported from Switzerland) is a major addition to our understanding of these, generally artefact-free, sites. As the author points out, it speaks of long-distance trade and contacts, placing the Irish evidence within a truly international context. While the illustration throughout the volume is superb, I would like to particularly note it here as the judicious use of colour and shading to define the surviving wooden elements within troughs is excellent and strongly contributes to the quality of the work as a whole.

Chapter 4 (Gillespie) is, by a considerable margin, the longest in the book, weighing in at 163 pages. It deals with the reporting of the previously unknown archaeological complex at Lowpark. The earliest evidence from the complex dates to the Early Neolithic, with additional activity in the Bronze Age. However, the major phases of activity centred on the Iron Age and Early Christian periods, when the site was used as an iron working area, complete with semi-sunken workshops, anvils and a large volume (c.1.5 tonnes) of iron slag. The Neolithic activity included a number of pits and a particularly rare Grooved Ware timber circle. During the Early Christian period the site was enclosed, not by the usual rath ditches, but by timber palisades made from split planks. Settlement here appears to have been of a considerable duration as there was evidence of repair to the defenses. Amongst all the spectacular finds of the ‘Celtic Tiger’ years, now finding their way into print, it is easy to lose sight of the importance and rarity of individual sites. Lowpark is certainly unique within the Irish archaeological record and is the chief basis for my contention of island-wide significance for this volume. The domestic finds from the site, including rotary querns, lignite bracelet fragments, a bone pin, and beads are all well attested on other sites across the island. However, the recovery of the gold filigree panel, with its close parallels to Lagore, Co. Meath suggests high-status associations. Another important result of the Lowpark excavation has been the recovery of high-quality samples for dating from the souterrains. As Clinton (2001) has shown, souterrains are notoriously difficult to date. Thus, firm evidence of construction in the 6th and 7th centuries is much welcomed.

Chapter 5 (Gillespie) describes the excavation of a bivallate rath and souterrain at Cloonaghboy. Here too dating evidence was recovered from postholes associated with the souterrain, placing construction in  the period from the early 7th to the mid 9th centuries. Unfortunately, severe truncation of the interior had erased any trace of the structures that once stood here. Chapter 6 (Kerrigan & Gillespie) begins with an examination of the charcoal production pits, the majority of which dated to the 11th to 17th centuries. The chapter continues with descriptions of a small number of vernacular houses, along with some miscellaneous sites encountered on the project: a set of three stepping stones across a stream (Ballyglass West) and a wood-lined drain (Cloonaghboy). Appendix A lists the 81 radiocarbon dates commissioned by the project and is a significant addition to the Irish corpus. An accompanying CD also lists the radiocarbon dates, along with pottery reports from Lowpark (Appendix 2), the lithics (Appendix 3), the gold filigree panel (Appendix 4  - an edited version also appears as ‘side bar’ within the main text), Lignite artefacts from Lowpark (Appendix 5), ferrous and non-ferrous artefacts and stone artefacts from (Appendices 6a-c), the Sonnagh V tin bead (Appendix 7), metallurgical residue (Appendix 8), faunal remains (Appendix 9), burnt remains (Appendix 10), wood and charcoal (Appendix 11), macrofossil plant and insect remains (Appendices 12 & 13), along with geography and geology (Appendix 14). A separate folder also provides the original final excavation reports from the sites as PDFs. If I am to be honest, I am rather ambivalent about the relegation of specialist reports to CDs or similar media. It is all well and good now while the technology is still current, but inevitably that technology will move on and these valuable appendices will be lost to all researchers without access to ‘legacy systems’. Even within recent memory we have seen the fashion for microfiche sheets come and go, leaving us with volumes of data so close, but just beyond reach. On the other hand, it is not as though these appendices could easily have been incorporated into the volume for a relatively minor outlay in costs – they represent, by my count, an additional 482 pages. Even leaving aside the additional 2130 pages of PDFs of the original excavation reports, that is a vast amount of data. I do not raise this as an issue solely with this volume, but as a long term archival issue that must yet be addressed.

If I had to identify any faults in the publication, it is the continued use of ‘fulacht fiadh’ over the preferable terms ‘burnt mounds’ and ‘burnt spreads’. It feels churlish to speak about this again, but I do believe that we must move away from this inaccurate and out-dated term. On the other hand, my personal preference is for the out-dated term ‘Early Christian’ over the more commonly used ‘Early Medieval’. In this context, my complaints may be viewed as personal preferences that in no way impinge on the quality of scholarship or value of the data presented here. Like the other titles in the NRA Scheme Monograph series, this is an impressive volume that materially adds to the collective knowledge of our past: both for the Charlestown area and the island as a whole.

References:
Clinton, M. 2001 The Souterrains of Ireland, Bray.

Talma, A. S. & Vogel, J. C. 1993 ‘A simplified approach to calibrating 14CdatesRadiocarbon 35.2, 317-322.



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 Gaeltachttowards the Irish Radiocarbon & Dendrochronological Dates project [IR&DD FacebookPage].


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

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

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

[**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.**]


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.


References:
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.


Notes:
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.


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