Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Review: In the Lowlands of South Galway: archaeological excavations on the N18 Oranmore to Gort National Road Scheme

Finn Delaney & John Tierney. The National Roads Authority, Dublin, 2011. x+225pp & CDr. ISBN 978-0-9564180-4-3. £22.26 (via Amazon) or €25 (via Wordwell Books).

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In The Lowlands of South Galway is the seventh in the National Roads Authority Scheme Monographs series. In my review of the previous volume (Of Troughs and Tuyères), I stated that since its inception in 2007, the series has established itself as a benchmark in high quality academic publishing. This volume is a fine addition to the series and, if anything, sets the bar higher for future contributions. In the Introduction, Finn Delaney, Jerry O’Sullivan and Maurizio Toscano describe their study area as ‘a self-contained sort of place with a strongly defined character that derives in part from the landscape and in part from its history.’ In preparing a review such as this, I do strive to be as even-handed and professional as possible, but this, the first line of the introduction, was a ‘you had me at hello’ moment. Although I’ve not lived in the area for over twenty years, this is where I grew up, where a large part of my family still live (and are buried), and where I first developed my interest in archaeology. Even simply listing the major families of the area - the Gregorys, Martyns, Persses, Shaw-Taylors, O’Shaughnessys (from whom I am descended), and the O’Heynes - is deeply redolent to me of my background, my family, and my past. To say that I am biased in favour of this book may be an overstatement, but I have been excited about the archaeology of this area since I was a child and I have looked forward to reading this book since I first heard that it was coming to print. Perhaps I am a little biased, but at least I’m honest about it! Back to the introduction: the authors describe the project to construct approximately 28km of dual carriageway from near Oranmore to the outskirts of Gort. They provide succinct introductions to the landscape and settlement history - from the Neolithic to the 19th century. This is followed a very brief synopsis of the 23 archaeological excavations carried out along the route by Eachtra Archaeological Projects. The chapter concludes with a description of the Geographical Information System (GIS) employed on the project, the Eachtra Archaeological Projects Office Database (EAPOD). While this topic may only be fascinating to a relatively small number of professional archaeological practitioners, its direct relevance for readers of this book is that it is the means by which the large number of detailed site plans and wider distribution maps were produced, along with being the repository of the data by which the detailed spatial analyses were undertaken.

In Chapter 2, Burnt Mounds in the Bronze Age Landscape (Finn Delaney and John Tierney with Maurizio Toscano) the results of some 12 excavations are presented. The dating of these sites in keeping with other sites of their type, with radiocarbon determinations stretching across the entire period from Early to Late Bronze Age. As the authors point out, the significance of this group lies in the paucity of excavated examples in county Galway - only 18 had been excavated in the county prior to 2006. While they have become somewhat ubiquitous in other parts of Ireland, the addition of twelve published examples to the known corpus from Galway is definitely welcomed. The chapter continues with a detailed spatial analysis of the sites, examining their distribution in relation to other recorded prehistoric monuments. Interestingly, concentrations of ring barrows centred on Derrydonnell North and the well-known Dunkellin barrow group appear to be adjacent, but not co-terminus with defined groups of burnt mounds. As the authors note the subjective nature of such comparisons of distribution maps, they set out to use more objective (or at least, less humanly-subjective) methods available through various techniques of spatial analysis. Unsurprisingly, there is a confirmation of previously noted trends, such as location of sites near water. Analyses of density and clustering indicate that the burnt mounds should not be seen as isolated sites, but as part of an integrated Bronze Age landscape. Further analyses of the morphology and taphonomy of the excavated sites follow. In all cases, the stone type used on these sites was the locally available limestone. While it has been suggested (Grogan 2007) that the use of limestone would provide calcium hydroxide, it is argued that the amount created would be insufficient to poison the food. One of the excavated troughs, at Ballyglass West, showed evidence for having been provided with a stone lining, though it may have been further augmented with wooden elements and clay daub. Other sites revealed stakeholes in the bases of the troughs, interpreted as evidence for wattle linings. While animal bone is infrequently recovered from burnt mound sites, it is incorrect to imagine that they are wholly devoid of it (Tourunen 2008). Pig teeth were recovered from Ballyglass West; single cattle teeth were recovered from both Caherweelder 2 and 3; while a cow horn and a portion of shed deer antler were recovered at Moyveela 2. The poorly preserved site at Coldwood produced both cattle and sheep bones. Similarly, only a few lithics were recovered, all of which are regarded as chance or residual finds. A possible Early Mesolithic chert blade was recovered at Ballyglass West, while at Caherweelder 6 a Late Mesolithic chert blade was recovered. Neolithic flakes were also recovered from sites at Coldwood, Caherweelder 5, and Ballinillaun 1.

The Archaeology of Early Medieval Uí Fiachrach Aidhne (Finn Delaney with Maurizio Toscano) examines the excavated remains of levelled cashel sites at Derrydonnell More and Drumharsna South, along with a ‘cemetery settlement’ site at Owenbristy. The chapter first sets the scene by examining the physical influences of the local landscape on site choice of site location. This is followed by a thorough review of the ringforts and cashels of the area, firmly placing them within their physical and political landscapes. Further geospatial analyses examine clustering of sites to identify physical concentrations of sites, along with the identification of trends in altitude, aspect etc. One result of particular interest is the observation that there is a clear relationship between the positioning of ringforts and cashels in relationship to early ecclesiastical sites. The church sites were seen to be deliberately positioned at the peripheries of the main enclosure groupings, while actively avoiding both isolation and the centres of enclosure clusters. While the authors stress the tentative nature of these results and the need for further study, I find them fascinating, not least as they appear to be in contrast to results from my own work on the ringforts of the Loop Head Peninsula, Co. Clare. Here I examined similar aspects of location, morphology and relationship to early ecclesiastical church sites to those undertaken for the south Galway area (Chapple 2003, 2011). My conclusions were that the church establishments were initially pioneering foundations in a relatively unpopulous landscape. This allowed them to amass comparatively significant estates prior to the later development of more secular development. However, in the light of recent research carried out by the Early Medieval Archaeology Project, as part of the INSTAR programme, the traditional dichotomy of ‘monks in monasteries and everyone else in raths’ must be reassessed.

Chapter 4, Rural Settlement in the Early Modern Landscape (John Tierney with Maurizio Toscano), deals with the excavation of five early modern sites on the road scheme. At Moyveela 3 a pre-Famine clachan was investigated, while two cottages were identified at Roevehagh 2. At Lavally a tenant farmstead, inhabited until the early 20th century, was excavated, along with two community wells at Ballyglass West and Caherweelder 4. In particular, the reconstruction drawing of the Moyveela 3 clachan truly brings the site to life. To my mind, it demonstrates all that is best about thoughtful artistic interpretations and their ability to capture the informed imagination of the reader.

Chapter 5 represents the ‘main event’ of this volume with its description of the excavation and analysis of the ‘cemetery settlement’ at Owenbristy (Owenbristy - Cashel and Cemetery). While short summaries of the findings at this intriguing site have been available for a time (Delaney et al. 2009; Lehane et al. 2010), this represents the definitive account of the site. The original excavation director, John Lehane, provides a comprehensive summary of the excavation. This includes pre-enclosure activity during the Beaker period, through the main cashel and cemetery phases, and into the later burials of the 13th to 15th centuries. A brief review of the recovered artefacts is also appended and include short entries on lithics, quern stones, blue glass beads, bone pins, metal artefacts, along with modern pottery etc. Of the metal artefacts, the majority were of iron, with small numbers of copper alloy, brass and bronze also being represented. A terminal of a bronze brooch decorated with simple, cast interlace was recovered. Of particular significance was the recovery of a plain iron neck ring from around the neck of one of the burials. The skeleton (Sk70) was later radiocarbon dated to the mid 6th to mid 7th centuries cal AD (1457±36 BP, UB-11248). Margaret McCarthy provides an analysis of the animal bone from the site, demonstrating that the majority of the species represented were of cattle, sheep/goat, and pig, but that horse, dog and deer were also represented. While some discrepancies are noted in comparison to other ‘cemetery settlement’ sites, the dominance of cattle is an emerging constant. This is contrasted to contemporary ringfort assemblages that lack the same high percentages of cattle remains. McCarthy suggests that, in the developing paradigm, where ‘cemetery settlements’ are perceived as foci of local power and wealth, the assemblages represent meat provisioning for the social elite who visited these sites at times of burial. Jonny Geber presents the results of an analysis of the human remains from Owenbristy. Of the 75 burials dated to the Early Christian period, a number of conclusions may be drawn. In common with other sites and assemblages, the highest risk areas for mortality were during youth and young adulthood, and after 40 years of age. The mean stature of the male population was 1.73m (5ft 8in), while the mean female stature was 1.60m (5ft 3in). Various dental and skeletal pathologies were identified. Caries was only present in adults, though young adult and older adult females had the highest occurrences, which may be related to gender differences in diet. Calculus (tartar) was present on the teeth of all adults, and approximately half of the non-adult population. A number of degenerative joint diseases, including vertebral osteophytosis, intervertebral osteochondrosis, and osteoarthritis were also identified. Isotope analysis of five Early Christian skeletons suggested that the population relied on a terrestrial diet. High δ15N values among infants and young children are taken to indicate the practice of breastfeeding. Comparison of these values across the age groups suggests that children were regularly weaned around their second or between their second and third year. While this is an uncommonly late age in contemporary Western European society, it is still the usual practice in developing countries and is approximately the length promoted by the World Health Organisation. Of the Early Christian population, 22% of the adolescents, 10% of the adult females, and 31% of the adult males suffered violent deaths - all of which are much higher rates than other contemporary assemblages. One of the adolescents (13 to 15 years of age) had been repeatedly stabbed and eventually (after two unsuccessful blows) decapitated. Two of the females had been decapitated, one with at least six further facial stab wounds. In this latter case, the evidence suggests that she attempted to fight off her attacker while she lay on the ground, frantically moving her head from side to side. One of the adult males was decapitated, though this appeared to have taken at least three blows. A number of other adult males displayed evidence of having received wounds from bladed weapons, such as swords. One individual received 127 independent cut wounds as his corpse was decapitated and quartered. Elizabeth O’Brien examines the context and content of the cemetery, drawing on Geber’s work on the Osteology of the population. She concludes that the Owenbristy site gives us an overview into life and death in Early Christian Ireland, especially in the period from the 7th to the 9th centuries. In the final portion of this chapter (Owenbristy: towards an understanding) Finn Delaney with Zachary Silke examine the historical background of the site and ponder the exact form and function of this ‘cemetery settlement’. As an aside, I would draw the reader’s attention to the excellent reconstruction drawing of Owenbristy. Both of these reconstruction drawings are by Dan Tietzsch-Tyler who, incidentally, provided the beautiful reconstruction drawings for Ann Lynch’s monograph Tintern Abbey, Co. Wexford: Cistercians and Colcloughs. Excavations 1982-2007 (see my review: here).

Chapter 6 provides Excavation Summaries of all the sites investigated as part of this project. While the entries are brief, they are comprehensive with clear and concise information given on every feature excavated. The sites are comprehensively illustrated with post-excavation plans, along with on-site and finds photography. Personally, I would have liked to have seen some representative section drawings or profiles through some features - especially the burnt mound troughs - but that’s probably just me!

Chapter 7 details the Artefacts and Plant Remains. Sara Camplese and Finn Delaney provide a catalogue of selected prehistoric and medieval finds, expanding on the brief notices given in the body of the text. Farina Sternke discusses the significance of the lithic artefacts. Among the Mesolithic and Neolithic pieces noted earlier, there are brief comments on lignite bracelet fragments, hones and a spindle whorl from Owenbristy, along with a possible naturally-formed crucible from Drumharsna South. Mary Dillon and John Tierney discuss the charred plant remains. At the burnt mounds, only the site at Ballyglass West produced charred plant remains. Here a single cereal grain and a small number of knotweed seeds were found. Similarly, the three major Early Christian sites at Owenbristy, Derrydonnell More, and Drumharsna South produced relatively few charred plant remains. Small amounts of wheat, barley, and oat grains were recovered, along with a weed seed and a sloe stone. At the burnt mound sites the recovered charcoal was mostly hazel (35%), with Pomoideae type (16%), oak (14%), and ash (13%) also being represented. At the Early Christian sites charcoal was generally sparse. At Derrydonnell More the most abundant charcoal types were pine and ash, while willow was most commonly recovered at Owenbristy.

Appendix 1 lists some 79 radiocarbon determinations commissioned for the project, while Appendix 2 provides a catalogue of the burials from Owenbristy. The volume also comes with a CDr containing all of the original ‘grey literature’ site reports. While I have not taken the opportunity to investigate all of them, a select perusal indicates that they contain the full texts of all the appropriate specialist reports etc. In my review of the Of Troughs and Tuyères volume, I expressed my ambivalence with the CDr format and how it may be more easily superseded by emerging technology than we may care to admit, leaving us with valuable, but unreadable, data. I still see no clear way forward where these large volumes of data may be easily and cost-effectively presented and still remain ‘future proofed’ against the tide of changing technology.

I would also like to give special notice to the quality of the photography in the volume. Every facet of the photography is superb, from the on-site images to the finds photography. However, it is the additional photographs of nearby sites, outside of the road-take, but still of interest and importance, that I found particularly arresting. Their inclusion demonstrates a wider commitment to not just communicating the archaeological discoveries themselves, but to placing them within their wider landscape and cultural contexts.

Obviously, this volume is a must for any student of Early Christian settlement and burial, along with anyone interested in the burnt mound phenomenon, not to mention our early modern past. It is also a must-have volume for anyone with an interest in this ‘self-contained sort of place’. Beyond that it, together with the other volumes in the NRA monograph series, forms one of the jigsaw pieces in a new archaeology of Ireland - perhaps one of the few lasting legacies of the Celtic tiger experience. Perhaps it is too much hyperbole to suggest that when the ghost estates have been demolished and the road network is again considered insufficient for the needs of the population, that the knowledge and scholarship gained from these excavations will continue to inform, educate and inspire. Then again, maybe it’s not!

Chapple, R. M. 2003 ‘Ringfort morphology and distribution on the Loop Head peninsula, Co. ClareNorth Munster Antiquarian Journal 43, 53-74.

Delaney, F., Lehane, J., Keefe, K. & O'Sullivan, G. 2009 ‘Medieval life and death by the 'broken river'Seanda 4, 36-39.

Grogan, E. 2007 ‘General evaluation and assessment of the excavation results 1: fulachta fiadh and related sites’ in Grogan, E., O’Donnell, L. & Johnston, P. The Bronze Age Landscapes of the Pipeline to the West. Dublin.

Lehane, J., Muñiz Perez, M., O'Sullivan, J. & Wilkins, B. 2010 ‘Three cemetery-settlement excavations in county Galway at Carrowkeel, Treanbaun and Owenbristy’ in Corlett, C. & Potterton, M. (eds.) Death and burial in Early Medieval Ireland in the light of recent archaeological excavations. Dublin, 139-156.

Tourunen, A. 2007 ‘No bones about it: burnt mounds along the N9/N10Seanda 2, 70-71.

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