Monday, September 3, 2012

Review: Archaeology Ireland 26.2 (Issue 100)

Summer 2012. ISSN 0790-892x

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Sometimes it’s the little things that make you realise your age – and not always in a good way. The grey hair, the aching joints, your colleagues disbelief that ‘you’re how old?’ … these are definitely not great ways to be reminded of your advancing years. But there are other ways, too. Ways that make you proud to have been part of something; that allow you to say ‘yes I was there … and yes, I am that old!’ I would definitely put the arrival of the 100th issue of Archaeology Ireland into that latter category! While the inception of the magazine was (just) before my entry into archaeology, I have been a long-time reader, subscriber and occasional contributor to it. I remember the first time I saw it for sale – it was in Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop in Galway (not the current fantastic temple to the printed word in Middle Street, but its much more humble origins on Dominic Street) in 1989. I got chatting to Charlie about archaeology books and he said something along the lines of ‘if you’re serious about archaeology, you’d better take a look at this magazine’ and handed over a copy of Archaeology Ireland. And so a love affair, now in its third decade, was born. I would contend that Charlie's advice then is as good today: ‘if you’re serious about archaeology, you’d better take a look at this magazine’.

As one might imagine, the publication of the 100th issue gives ample opportunity to look back over the last quarter century in Irish archaeology. First off the block is Eoin C Bairéad in the article ‘Go maire tú an céad - may you live to be 100!’ In just a few short pages, he sums up the major events of the magazine over a quarter of a century. He charts its development from a small sized, black-and-white publication to the latest, full-colour, A4 format. Along the way we’ve seen boom and bust and always Archaeology Ireland has been there to document it.

Prof. Audrey Horning and Nick Brannon continue the theme in examining the path of Irish archaeology as a whole over the last 25 years. ‘Irish archaeology 25 years on - upwards, downwards and outwards’ notes how some things never change: we’re still concerned with the problems of publication, and dissemination of our results, but also how other aspects of archaeology have changed. In particular, they note that the scope of the discipline has broadened from the prehistoric and Early Christian periods, to include landscape, environmental, underwater, and urban issues too. The authors see contraction within the profession – we are once again in a period of economic turmoil, and many jobs have gone in the sector. As John Waddell argued for in another period of economic strife, what we need now is long-term planning. We need to put in place robust procedures for dealing with large paper, digital and artefactual archives. While Horning and Brannon argue that some positive steps have been taken in the Republic, the situation in Northern Ireland is more worrying. Almost euphemistically they note that ‘the state sector has steadfastly avoided the issue of long-term curation, turning a blind eye to the de-accessioning of excavation assemblages by commercial companies’ – it almost seems forgivable when you put it like that! What has actually been happening is nothing less than the wholesale abandonment of our cultural heritage by these commercial companies. I am given to understand that one company called up its past clients and informed them that they could either come and collect the artefacts/archives from their sites, or they would be charged for future storage. To the best of my knowledge, this has led to large collections, from significant excavations, passing out of any form of archaeological curation. I wish I could report that the collections were being adequately cared for, but I doubt it! It is likely that the vast majority of this material has permanently disappeared from view and will be forever lost to scholarship. While the topics of ‘professionalism’ and ‘factionalism’ are, to my mind at least, continuing sloughs within the profession, there is some ray of light at the thought of ‘inclusion’. The authors, quite rightly, see the rise of ‘community archaeology’ as a strategy for keeping our relevance as a profession and preserving our jobs. But whatever its origins, carefully crafted community and cross-community projects have the potential for immense social and archaeological good.

Prof. Gabriel Cooney, in ‘From Amstrad to Apple - making Archaeology Ireland happen!’ recalls his time as editor and of those heady, pioneering days of the magazine’s infancy. He contemplates the differences between now and then – the ease and power of electronic communications and publication, versus the rudimentary capabilities of an Amstrad computer and squinting at illustrations on a light box. For me, one image that takes me back is the feeling of combined terror and consummate professionalism as I carefully annotated illustrations using letraset … those were the days! Cooney looks back to his first editorial for the magazine – the project’s stated aims were to provide information on important developments within the profession and act as a forum for debate. While times have changed, the magazine continues to adhere to these important goals. Cooney rightly sees the challenge facing archaeology in the current economic climate as not just maintaining our ability to ‘assess, manage and sustain for the future the archaeological heritage which has been developed since the 1980s’, but communicating that value to the widest audience. Archaeology Ireland has done this remarkably well for 25 years, and is as necessary now as it was on the day its first issue rolled off the presses.

In ‘Homage to Archaeologia’ Patrick F. Wallace, former Director of the National Museum of Ireland, looks back on our archaeological deceased. By his own admission, it is a selective chronicle that focuses on Dublin, urban archaeology, Vikings and boats. I’ve read the published works of many of those mentioned here. Quite a few were inspirational to me in various ways throughout my career, dispensing good advice and encouragement. In particular, I remember the late Tom Fanning – a remarkably dedicated archaeologist and my first site director. I worked for him in 1989 on the excavation of Rinnaraw, Co. Donegal and there are some photos from that season available here. I can only quote Wallace’s words: “raise a glass to these extraordinary men and women who have shaped the subject we love in the last 25 years”.

Breaking away from the celebrations, Martin Fitzpatrick, in ‘Murder in Tisaxon?’, describes the discovery of human remains and a souterrain in Co. Galway. The bones were from a male (17-25 years of age) who was struck by a socketed iron arrowhead, which entered through the side of his skull. As there was no evidence of healing, it is surmised that death was either instantaneous or occurred soon after receiving the blow. Analysis of the arrowhead suggests a 9th to 10th century date. Some distance to the north, the souterrain creep was discovered. It was constructed with stone walls, and a stone-lintelled roof. Fitzpatrick recounts the argument, put forward by the late Etienne Rynne (and others), that Tisaxon is related to Mag nEo na Saxon in Co. Mayo, and may have been a refuge for monks following the Synod of Whitby in 664 AD. He ties the most recent discoveries into the long-term series of finds in the Tisaxon/Templemoyle area, which include burials, a graveslab and an Early Christian hand bell. His conclusion is that the young man died in a conflict at the site, and that he may have been only one of a number of burials in the area. It is obvious that there is still much to be discovered in this fascinating place.

In ‘True or false? The crane revisited’ Padraic de Bhaldraithe replies to some of the issues raised by O'Toole & O'Flaherty’s (2011) discussion of The Eurasian crane, Grus grus and its relevance to the field of Irish palcenames. He disputes, as far as I can see, pretty much every aspect of the arguments put forward by O'Toole and O'Flaherty. Instead, he sees that the majority of the usages of Corr in Irish placenames are not related to cranes, but to other topographical features such as marshes, hills, etc. I cannot pretend that I understand enough Irish, nor am I sufficiently well versed in the methodologies of placename studies to offer a coherent perspective of my own. However, I can say that the article makes for fascinating reading, and I hope to see further discussions and deliberations on the topic in future editions of the magazine.

Christine Baker, in ‘Excavating an archive’, discusses her assessment of Leo Swan’s archive for the Early Christian monastic site at Kilpatrick, Co. Westmeath. Swan, funded by the Royal Irish Academy, dug the site over a number of seasons from 1973 to 1981. As Baker explains, the site produced evidence of habitation, agricultural practices, metalworking, as well as international trade. Summary reports on the site are available via the wonderful website for the years 1973, 1975, and 1980-84. Unfortunately, the excavation remained unpublished at the time of his death, and much of it has lain undisturbed in his private study since. The primary phase of Baker’s work has been the collation of the paper archive for the site – no small achievement, considbuering the passage of time and the inevitable loss/degradation of data. Baker is quick to point out that despite initial impressions to the contrary, Leo’s record keeping was immensely detailed and methodical. This initial assessment has shown that, while the excavation was very much of its time, the archive is substantially complete. While any further exploitation of the archive will be without the insight of its original excavator, there is still much to be learned from it. This current phase of work was, like the original excavations, funded by the RIA. Having established that there is much of value in the archive, I can but hope that this funding is continued, so that this important site is finally brought to full publication.

In ‘Remains of a second pre-Romanesque church at Inchcleraun on Lough Ree’ Con Manning draws our attention to a number of relatively neglected sites. The small island of Inchcleraun, Co. Longford, contains the ruined remains of an Early Christian monastic site with several churches. To illustrate how neglected the study of the site has been, Manning notes that the ‘only article ever written on Inchcleraun’ was by F. J. Bigger in the 1900 edition of the Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland (available here | JStor access required). While it may be the only substantive paper on the site, it is not alone! Bigger was obviously very taken by the remains he discovered here, particularly the inscribed cross-slab he noted (Bigger 1900, 80), as later the same year, he was inspired to use it as the model for the ‘faked’ grave of St. Patrick. Manning directs our attention to the north wall of Templemore church, where the remains of an earlier church are visible. Here a portion of the wall is built in a different style, much closer to the stonework of the mid 10th century shrine chapel to St Diarmuid. However, unlike St Diarmuid’s, this new discovery does not possess external antae. On this basis he dates it slightly later, to the 11th century. This fascinating discovery is an important addition to the corpus of pre-Romanesque churches in Ireland. Unfortunately, on the same visit that produced this discovery, Manning also noted that the site had been comprehensively worked over by illegal metal detectorists. The author urges anyone seeing such activity in progress to contact the authorities and note down any car registration numbers, etc.

Next, David A. Wheelan describes two examples of ‘Lismore Castle ice houses’, Co. Cork. These are 19th century structures, unusually (in my experience) combined into a single complex. These two examples were used primarily for the storage of salmon from the River Blackwater and were in use until the Second World War. The plan and reconstruction drawings (by Walter Quirke) that accompany the piece are excellent and deserving of special mention. For anyone interested in gaining a broader knowledge of this topic, I would recommend the excellent Shire Album by Buxbaum (1992).

From my first excavation, I was aware of Tom Fanning’s saying: ‘Heaven lies under the balk’. I was not, however, aware that ‘The Gates of Heaven’ were to be found in Kilranelagh graveyard, Co. Wicklow. Chris Corlett describes a rare survival of the possible original entrance feature to an Early Christian enclosure. While all above-ground traces of the church and monastery here have long disappeared, the entrance has survived to mark its place. Corlett sees it as a deliberate means of controlling and restricting access to the ‘inner sanctum’. Although he has no direct evidence for dating the site, he tentatively suggests a 7th or 8th century origin for the site. While I was previously unaware of these stones, a quick search of the internet suggests that they are relatively well known, if their function is not well understood. One source suggests that they may be a stone pair, while another opines that they may be the remains of some form of megalithic tomb. While Corlett’s idea is attractive to me, I think it requires substantial further research to prove the point. In particular, I believe that it needs to be ascertained that this is not merely a post-Medieval grave marker, however unusual the form – I look forward to any new results and revelations!

I’ve also been looking forward to Michael Stanley’s paper ‘The 'red man' of war and death?’ It was mentioned some time ago in a discussion on the Facebook group ‘Togher: Irish Raised Bog Archaeology’ and I’ve been excited about it ever since. As an aside, I would point out that the ‘Togher’ group is an excellent example of professional archaeologists using social media as an effective means of communication, discussion and dissemination of ideas – if you’re serious about Irish wetland archaeology, it’s the place to go! Anyway: Stanley first describes the Bronze Age alder-wood figure from Kilbeg, Co. Offaly. It is a piece of curved alder roundwood, interpreted as depicting a human form of indeterminate sex. The condition of the wood, without root or insect damage, is taken to suggest that the item was buried soon after creation, though it may first have spent some time upright. Six other ‘red men’ have been recovered from Ballykilleen, in Cloncreen bog, also in Co. Offaly, and are of similar date. The author places them within the broader contexts of Irish and European anthropomorphic figures, albeit at the more abstract end of the continuum. As such, the Kilbeg and Ballykilleen examples appear to form a defined regional group, even within the Irish examples. I shan’t attempt to repeat and rephrase all of Stanley’s suggestions for how the idols may have been used and what they meant. Instead, I will confine myself to observing that the multifaceted and nuanced approach he adopts is not just an excellent means of conveying the complexity that these items represent, but showcases the multitude of competing ideas and theories that an archaeologist has to assess when interpreting the function and life history of any artifact – it’s just nice to see it done so well! The main theory being promoted here, though, is that the choice of alder for the wood was a deliberate one. When cut, alder quickly turns from white wood to a blood-red colour. Stanley posits that the colour may have been symbolic of blood and that the artefacts were deposited as effigies, in lieu of actual human sacrifices. The idea that this is a precursor to the Iron Age escalation of actual human sacrifice is intriguing, to say the least. Parallels with the disposal of the Balluchulish figure, finds of human remains form Irish bogs, along with folkloric evidence are woven together to produce a convincing case that the Offaly ‘Alder Kings’ were sacrificed to, perhaps, ‘make amends’ for the society and change its fortunes.

Mick Monk and Orla Power tackle the subject of cereal drying kilns in ‘More than a grain of truth emerges from a rash of corn-drying kilns?’ They show that the NRA-funded excavations, in particular, have led to the identification and excavation of almost 800 examples of the type. Analysis of the resulting data mountain has led to some interesting results. With the exception of a few dates in the Bronze Age and earlier portion of the Iron Age, the genesis of the cereal drying kiln appears to have been after 100BC, though their use was concentrated in the period from the 4th to the 13th centuries AD. The similarity of the figure-of-eight kilns to Romano-British parching ovens, may suggest an origin in the Roman world for this particular type, at least. Even when taking the selection bias of the motorway routes into account, there does appear to be defined and genuine concentrations in north Leinster. This area also boasts the earliest examples of the type and the authors argue that cereal drying kilns originated here, before spreading into south Leinster, then to the midlands, before heading to the south and the west. Possible reasons for the explosion in the use of cereal drying kilns during the 6th century include the environmental effects of volcanic eruptions in 536AD and 540AD – possibly leading to wetter weather which required cereals to be dried. However, the authors point to the fact that other palaeoenvironmental and historical data suggests that there was a population explosion going on in north Leinster, from the Iron Age, right into the Early Christian period. Such a population increase would necessitate new and innovative methods of securing the maximum amount of food resources, possibly requiring the use of the kilns. However, socio-political factors may also have been at work, too.

Over the years there have been several suggestions as to what burnt mounds were used for. The stock answer is that they were for the cooking of food, though the idea that they were used for brewing beer has, in the last few years, gained popularity. In ‘Barking the yarn' and 'walking the cloth'’ Fiona Reilly uses the combined environmental analyses undertaken at a site at Coonagh West, Co. Limerick to argue that, this site at least, was used for textile production. Analysis of the pollen from one of the troughs included a number of types that may have indicated grain-processing, flax/hemp retting, or brewing. However the included large amount of alder pollen may be indicate that the site was used to produce dye – catkins are traditionally used to produce a green dye. Trace element analysis recorded unusually high levels of lead and zinc, but reduced levels of chromium. Taken together with the plant macro-remains, it is argued that these form a cogent case for the site having been used in the dying process. What has been lacking in some theories of burnt mound function is direct evidence of what actually occurred there, frequently coupled with a belief that a ‘one size fits all model’ is required: either they’re all for cooking or they’re all for bathing etc. Reilly’s paper shows a maturity that recent debates on the topic have brought to the fore – these sites are superficially the same, but may have held widely differing functions. Her triumph is bringing together the diverse threads of the various analyses to weave together (there is no escaping the textile-based puns here) a coherent argument for the Coonagh West site having been used for dyeing. I would also compliment the NRA archaeologists who approved the necessary time and money to undertake these varied analyses. The fact that such a variety of analyses were attempted indicates that the on-site survival must have been significant, but there was obviously a willingness to direct those resources at what could easily have been regarded as yet another ‘boring burnt mound’. Reilly notes that the site is currently being written up for more detailed publication – I’m certainly looking forward to it!

Muiris O'Sullivan and Liam Downey are back with the latest instalment of the ‘know your monuments’ series. Their latest topic is on Napoleonic period ‘Martello and signal towers’. As the authors clearly state, their work draws heavily on that of Kerrigan (1995). As with all the papers in the ‘know your monuments’ series, it is a short, but information packed, introduction to the subject at hand. On a personal note, I was actually quite surprised to learn that less than 50 of the distinctive Martello towers were ever built. Of the ones that were, they were mostly constructed on the east coast, around Dublin. My surprise stems from my feeling that they were such a ubiquitous part of my childhood in south Galway. I now realise that the reason for this was that two of the three built in coastal west of Ireland were practically on my doorstep. Finavarra and Aughinish, Co. Clare, were so frequently seen on family outings that I appear to have been left with the deep and abiding impression that they’re everywhere along the coast!

In ‘Fishamble Street Project: inventory and insect analysis’, Eileen Reilly, Lorna O'Donnell and Adrienne Corless introduce readers to the NMI funded ‘From Landscape to Streetscape – what insects tell us about urban life in Viking age Dublin’. The first part of the work involved cataloguing of the bulk soil samples from Fishamble Street II and III excavations, between 1979 and 1981. Of the surviving material, 104 samples were chosen for detailed insect analysis. This general assay of the samples archive has shown the high quality of both documentation and survival, which will assist in the targeting of future research. The insect analysis is currently underway and is scheduled for completion in October 2012 – yet another publication I look forward to seeing!

Rob Chapman, Norman Moles, Richard Warner, and Mary Cahill are back to continue the discussion on the source for Irish gold during the Bronze Age (see Warner et al. 2009; 2010). Specifically, the authors are responding to Ian Meighan’s (2011) contention that the geology of the Mourne Mountains would have been unsuitable for the emplacement of ‘hard-rock’ gold. Meighan proposes that the gold in the Mournes is glacially derived from the Sperrins, 100km to the north-west. The authors argue that there is little if any evidence for transportation of the gold, as, in many instances, it is still attached to the original quartz host. Similarly, the chemical signature of Mourne gold is different to that of Sperrin gold, nor can any dispersion trail be found between the two sites.

Susan Johnston provides a brief, but informative, obituary of the late Bernard Wailes. For the majority of us involved in Irish archaeology, Wailes will be first remembered as the excavator of the Royal Site at Dun Ailinne. While many archaeologists I know bristle at his unorthodox naming conventions, there is no mistaking which site you’re talking about when you overhear someone discussing ‘the mauve phase’ or ‘the rose phase’. I never had the opportunity to meet him, but this beautifully written obituary imparts some idea of his personality – enough to make me feel that I too have lost a friend.

Taken all together, what are we to make of this 100th edition of Archaeology Ireland? In itself, it represents a marvellous publishing feat – as my groaning bookshelves will attest. For me it has made me realise that we were looking at this the wrong way about … we thought that we were contributing to the magazine, but it was contributing to us – the archaeologists we became and how we developed as professionals was deeply influenced by the contents of Archaeology Ireland. We thought that we were chronicling the ancient past, but the magazine was simultaneously chronicling its own times too – all the ups and downs of the last 25 years – they’re all in there too! To the magazine, its writers, publishers, editors – the lot – I say thank you for having had a great idea and for sticking with it. Thank you for creating a magazine that I’ve been able to contribute to – some of my proudest achievements in the field are chronicled on your pages. Thank you for providing a means of feeling good about my age! Here’s to the next 25!

Bigger, F. J. 1900a ‘Inis Chlothrann (Inis Cleraun), Lough Ree: Its History and Antiquities’ Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland 30.1, 69-90.

Bigger, F. J. 1900b ‘Miscellanea: grave of Saint Patrick’ Ulster Journal of Archaeology 6.1 (2nd Series), 59.

Bigger, F. J. 1900c ‘The grave of Saint Patrick’ Ulster Journal of Archaeology 6.2 (2nd Series), 61-64.

Buxbaum, T. 1992 Icehouses. Shire Album No. 278. Shire Publications. Princes Risborough 

Meighan, I. 2011 ‘The sourcing of Irish Bronze Age gold’ Archaeology Ireland 25.4, 31-32.

O'Toole, L. & O'Flaherty, R. 2011 ‘Out of sight, out of mind? On the trail of a forgotten Irish bird’ Archaeology Ireland 25.1, 13-16.

Warner, R., Chapman, B., Cahill, M. & Moles, N. 2009 ‘The gold source found at last?’ Archaeology Ireland 23.2, 22-25.

Warner, R., Moles, N., Chapman, R. & Cahill, M. 2010 ‘The Mournes: a source of early Bronze Age tin and gold’ Archaeology Ireland 24.4, 18-21.

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  1. Again, a wonderful post. Really enjoy your engaging writing style. Makes me feel like we are sharing a cup of something (hot, cold, or spirited!) and having a discussion.
    And, hey! Old? No one is old as long as they are active learners!

    1. Thank you! That is a very kind thing to say & a lovely compliment to receive on my writing!