Friday, December 27, 2013

Drumclay Crannog, Co. Fermanagh. Dr Nora Bermingham | Lecture to the UAS December 9 2013 | Review

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Drumclay crannog under excavation. Source.
Regular readers of this blog may be aware that – to put it mildly – I’ve something of an interest in the Drumclay crannog in Enniskillen [here | here | here | here | here | here]. So, when the Ulster Archaeology Society announced that they had booked Dr. Nora Bermingham to deliver their December lecture on that very site, I was immediately intrigued ... to say the least! By tradition, all UAS lectures are held in the downstairs lecture hall of the Elmwood Building, at QUB. The last time I was in this hall was in December 2012, when I was speaking to the Society on the Middle Bronze Age ritual complex at Gransha, Co. Derry~Londonderry. On that night we were in the grip of flag-related rioting and you could occasionally hear the distant sound of police helicopters in the skies and the intermittent scream of a police or ambulance siren. I had all of 30 people in the audience that night – and was happy to get them![1] But this … this was somewhat different! The lecture theatre has recently received a complete refurbishment and looks superb with new seating and state-of-the-art display systems. However, the main difference was that the space was packed – there was hardly a spare seat to be found. This site has generated huge interest and media coverage and expectations were running high.

Excavation director, Dr. Nora Bermingham (centre), with archaeologist Andrew Cunningham (left), and (then) Minister for the Environment, Alex Attwood, MLA. Source
After an introduction by the great and wonderful Barrie Hartwell, President of the Society, Bermingham began by acknowledging the hard work of the site crew and noting that the site had been funded through the Department of the Environment and the Department for Regional Development. Turning to the site itself, she first provided something of the context of crannogs in Ireland generally. These are artificial (or semi artificial) islands, generally built close to the lake shore. There is thought to be approximately 2000 crannogs known on the island of Ireland. Some 141 known or suspected sites lie within the modern county of Fermanagh. As their distribution is, of necessity, related to lakes, they are found in the ‘lakiest’ (my term!) parts of the island, i.e. mostly in the midlands and western Ulster. Given their complexity, and the attendant expense of investigation, not to mention the logistical difficulties involved in their investigation, very few have been excavated in recent times. Although not exclusively so, the majority have been found to be of Early Christian origin. The Drumclay site lies approximately 2km to the north-east of Enniskillen town in an inter-drumlin lake. It lay close to the shore, no more than 30m from the nearest land. It has been known about since the 1835 when it appeared on the Ordnance Survey 6” maps (it also appears on the 1860 revision) and it was visited by Wakeman in the 1870s (1873, 322). At that time the lake had been partially drained and he described it as ‘rather a dangerous swamp’. He also records that he had been informed that a dugout canoe (‘of the ordinary kind’) had been found in the vicinity and had been reburied. The process of draining the lake appears to have continued throughout the late 19th century, eventually leaving the area as a ‘blind’ or seasonal lake. Certainly, by the 20th century, the area was a difficult-to-access expanse of swampy ground. Diplomatically skipping ahead to August 2012, Bermingham noted that the site had been surrounded by ‘rock armour’ as part of the road stabilisation process. At that time the site measured something in the order of 30m in diameter, though it eventually proved to be approximately 80-100m in diameter.

Bermingham proposed that she would present a chronological account of the crannog, essentially giving the discoveries of the excavation in reverse.  Before there was ever a crannog, there was a shallow lake underlain with deep silts and muds. It was into this material that numerous poles were driven vertically. This process helped to partially drain the area and also created a stable working surface. Directly on top of these poles a series of platforms were created, each made of several overlapping layers of wood. The chosen wood was chiefly alder (Alnus) and Bermingham noted that this was a wise choice, demonstrating considerable woodland knowledge, as alder lasts particularly well in watery environments. Bermingham drew the audience’s attention to the fact that this material would, most likely, have been sourced locally in the landscape immediately surrounding the site. She also noted that the quality of the woodworking displayed on these timbers was extremely basic and devoid of all niceties – just enough rough working to make the logs fit. This is a recurring theme among the structural timbers recoded on the site, each receiving only the bare minimum of working to make any individual piece fit for purpose. When completed, there were at least eight platforms. There was one, large, central platform, surrounded by several smaller examples. The smaller examples were each 10-12m in diameter and all were bounded by low wattle walls. This appears to have – literally – laid down the foundation for the development of the site, as each platform appears to only have been used for one building at any given period and houses were repeatedly built and rebuilt in the same locations over much of the history of the site. Thus, the format of the site was that of a large, central house with a number of satellite buildings and/or open areas. The stratigraphy has yet to be wholly untangled, and it is currently unclear as to which platforms were built in which order, but the central example was by far the largest and deepest. Between the platforms and the buildings evidence was recovered for several pathways that appeared to have been maintained over a considerable period of time. The evidence indicates that these platforms were consolidated and reconsolidated time and again throughout the history of the site, and that the whole was subject to running repairs from the time of its construction. Throughout, the stratigraphy is extremely complex and difficult to untangle. There is a partial parallel to this at Cloneygonnell, Co. Cavan, where Wood-Martin (1886, 197-8, fig. 205) investigated a similarly constructed platform. However, this earlier example was a single large platform, approximately 90ft (27.5m) in diameter as opposed to the several smaller tessellated examples at Drumclay. Bermingham noted that there was a further possible parallel known from Scotland, but that it lacked the depth of stratigraphy and the length of occupation. At Drumclay what is not currently known – though this may become clearer as the post-excavation dating strategy progresses – is how many of these platforms were occupied at any one time. The central house may have been a permanent fixture, but how many of the satellite platforms either housed structures or were left as open areas at any one time is, to say the least, unclear. In all likelihood there were multiple houses and ancillary structures in operation simultaneously. The challenge for Bermingham and her post-ex team is differentiating which ones were contemporary!

Cloneygonnell, Co. Cavan (Wood-Martin 1886, fig. 205)
Bermingham can ascertain that there were something in the vicinity of thirty houses built at Drumclay. As previously noted, these were repeatedly built and rebuilt on the same footprints, though it is currently difficult to ascertain how many were occupied during any given phase. The house types recorded include rectangular, round, and figure-of-eight examples. Up until the excavation at Drumclay the prevailing consensus was that round houses predated rectangular houses in Early Christian Ireland and that the change between the two occurred during the 9th to 10th centuries. The possible reasons for this change are varied and still actively debated, but the chronology appears sound. However, at Drumclay rectangular houses predate round houses, in some cases by quite significant periods of time. Bermingham noted Pat Wallace’s theory, based on his excavations in Viking Dublin, that rectangular houses could be an indigenous development, as opposed to one imposed or adopted from outside. Bermingham is hopeful that the unparalleled opportunity for dating and investigating the genesis of this building tradition can now be investigated in a depth not previously possible. All of the houses investigated were of post-and-wattle construction, with double-skinned walls. Entrances were preserved as were thresholds and door jambs. There was frequent evidence for internal divisions, but very few of the houses showed evidence for internal roof supports.

Example of rectangular house. Source.
Section of post-and-wattle walling during excavation. Source.
As an example of the rectangular houses, Bermingham showed images of one that measured up to 8m long and up to 4m wide. She noted that some houses possessed a central aisle similar to the ‘triple aisled’ Dublin Type I houses. In a number of instances, large logs were recovered from the immediate vicinity of the hearths and may have been utilised as benches. Also near a number of hearths were slotted beams packed with the remains of smaller posts, similar to ones recovered at Deer Park Farms. Bermingham speculated that these may have been used as heat reflectors to direct heat from the fire to other areas of the house.

Roundhouse with log underfloor. Source.
One example of a roundhouse was c. 6m in diameter and was significantly stratigraphically above (and later than) the previous rectangular house –by 1-1.5m! The roundhouses appear to have been built to a similar process, starting with the construction of the walls and the laying out of the hearth. Roughly hewn timbers were then used to create a log under-floor around the central hearth. This floor space was subsequently built up. In some cases this included rough cobbling, though there appears to be evidence that sod floors were deliberately laid down. Bermingham also noted that the arrangement of the log under floor and hearth was such that no room was left for a central post or other internal roof supports. There was also evidence for one figure-of-eight house, and possibly some traces of a second example. It was hoped that careful excavation and recording of these structures would indicate whether these structures were of a single phase of construction or if there was one initial house with a later addition. Unfortunately, the expansive roots of a later alder tree obscured and destroyed the vital ‘junction zone’, so that issue is unlikely to be resolved here. This particular figure-of-eight house was stratigraphically later than the previously discussed roundhouse, lying over 1m directly above it. Above this particular collection of houses there was a layer of made ground, 1m to 2m thick, intended to consolidate the site, which appeared to be suffering from subsidence at this time. Beyond this time all habitation appears to have been concentrated on the northern side of the crannog. With regard to the excavated hearths, Bermingham noted that they could be divided into two broad categories: either slab-lined or clay-lined. Both were rich in finds, including bone combs etc. Again, many bore strong resemblances to those excavated in Viking Dublin.

Stone-lined, rectangular hearth inside house. Source.
Bermingham stressed that the evidence at Drumclay was very different to that from other sites – including antiquarian accounts and even more recent excavations, including John Bradley’s investigation of Moynagh Lough crannog – where at any one phase there was one central house and a small number of out buildings. At Drumclay there appear to have been several substantial buildings in operation at any one time.

The excavation also uncovered a number of workshops. The best one was a rectangular area on one of the satellite platforms. It was quite different in construction to other buildings as it had no evidence for wattle walls, being merely defined by a kerb of logs. This would suggest that these were open areas, as opposed to enclosed buildings. The most artefact-rich of these areas included three consecutive smithing hearths, indicating that a coppersmith had been active here at one point. Lower levels of the workshop indicated that it had previously been dedicated to carpentry as all the recovered waste related to woodworking. A second workshop was discovered on the south-east side of the site, but was not so rich in hearths and associated waste. Bermingham emphasised that one of the aims of the post-excavation phase would be to examine just how people organised living in such a wet, cramped space.

Archaeologist Cathy Moore displaying one of the quern (grinding) stones. Source.
Turning to the finds, Bermingham noted that many were recovered from the south side of the crannog, indicating that material was being thrown out and away from the site, out into the lake. Many artefacts were discovered within the houses. In particular, the association between hearths and recovered items is such that the traditional explanation of them being casual losses appears unlikely. Instead, they may be evidence of deliberate foundation deposits, placed at the time of construction. In all, some 5497 artefacts were recovered from the site. The range of finds is impressive and includes: amber, antler, animal bones, copper alloy, glass, gold, iron, leather, pottery, shale/lignite, stone, textile, and wood. Of these, approximately 3000 were of pottery, making this the finest collection of crannog ware/Ulster Coarse Ware yet excavated.

Sole of leather shoe. Source.
Nineteen examples of shale/lignite bangles were recovered, along with one bead of the same material; Three amber beads were recovered and are thought – on stratigraphic and stylistic grounds – to be pre-Viking. The rarity of amber at this early date is such that it must underline the high status of the occupants. Only six glass beads were recovered, along with a small number of bangle fragments. Bermingham noted that in the case of the glass, it is still unknown whether these were imported as finished objects, or were created on the site begin – another puzzle that post-excavation research may be able to resolve.

Excavation director, Dr. Nora Bermingham, showing off an elaborate glass bead and a copper alloy dress pin. Source.
Upper layers of the crannog under excavation. Source.
Some 34 combs, of different types, were recovered during the excavation. These include a 7th century high backed comb with possible bird-head decoration. Ian Riddler, the well-known small-finds specialist, identified the combs and has suggested that this example may be paralleled with finds from Clonmacnoise, Co. Offaly, and Carraig Aille, Co. Limerick. Bermingham stressed that even with a secure date for the artefact, there are a number of possibilities in its relationship to the structure within which it was found. These include the two being contemporary and the artefact dates the house or it could have been an heirloom, significantly older than the house within which it was found. Among the high-status single sided combs is one ‘Auspicious Comb’, dated by Riddler to the period from 1050 to 1125. This example is 22cm long, and while not the longest on record is certainly among the higher end of the known range. Bermingham also noted that this example appeared to have been deliberately placed in a compartment within the house. The corpus of Drumclay combs also included a number of double-sided single-piece combs, similar in appearance to the ‘nit-combs’ still sold today. The majority of these appear to be of Late Medieval date (post 16th century).
Very large single-sided comb. Source.
Single-sided comb. Source
Portion of single-sided comb. Source.
Double-sided bone comb. Source.
The gold finger ring was described by Bermingham as being very plain and that, if you didn’t know its age and origin, you’d consider handing it back to whoever gave it to you! Four or five pieces of copper alloy wire were recovered from the site and are less than 1mm in thickness. One of the wooden dishes from the site was found to have been repaired using just this form of wire. Some 127 copper alloy dress pins were recovered during the excavation and no two are the same. Most date to the period from the 7th to 9th centuries, and a number may be paralleled to finds from Knowth, Co. Meath. Bermingham also showed an image of a Type 1 pin, dating from the 8th to 9th centuries that may be paralleled with one from Chris Lynn’s excavations at Deer Park Farms. One stone mould was recovered during the excavations. It appears to have been for casting silver ingots, and may be paralleled with finds from significant sites, including Lagore, Ballinderry, and Knowth. A number of iron objects were also recovered from the site. These included an iron axe head with a portion of its wooden handle still surviving. This woodworker’s tool has been dated to the 9th century. A selection of general purpose iron blades were recovered, some of which appear to have been deliberately deposited. Two iron spear heads (and the remains of a possible third) were recovered during the excavation. Bermingham emphasised that these could as easily have been used for hunting or as weapons of war. The same can be said of the carpenter’s axe and the general purpose blades – all could have been used for the most mundane and prosaic of activities, and still served as weapons in times of trouble.

Extremely simple gold finger ring. Source.
Copper alloy dress pin. Source.
Iron shears. Source.
Iron spearhead. Source.
One of the fantastic things about wetland sites is the potential for preservation of wooden objects that simply do not survive elsewhere. In this, Drumclay is no exception as it produced approximately 1000 wooden finds. Bermingham noted that this can be put in context by considering that Pat Wallace at Wood Quay in Dublin, recovered c.600 wooden items, and the extensive excavations at Coppergate in York produced c.1500. That both of these were large-scale, urban, excavations as opposed to a single, rural site merely highlights the importance of Drumclay. To illustrate the diversity of the recovered artefacts, Bermingham used a slide that simply listed the categories of the objects:
Barrels, beater, board, bowls, boxes, buckets, combs, cups, dishes, distaffs, dowels, gaming board, gaming pieces, handle, hoops, ladle, lids, log boat ... tuning key ...
Cross-inscribed cheese-press. Source.
… well, that’s as far as I got before my hand cramped! Bermingham noted that the gaming board and pieces were recovered from the south-western portion of the site, in the same general location as the unusual amber beads. She wondered if the discovery of these two forms of prestige items in the same area had any particular significance. Bermingham displayed an image of one of the carved vessels from Drumclay, decorated with carved interlace and pokerwork, and noting that it is an almost exact parallel to one illustrated by Wood-Martin (1873, 101, fig. 102). Another of the major finds from the site was a cheese press inscribed with a Greek cross. Bermingham noted that crosses were occasionally found on leather objects (including one from the Fishamble Street excavations in Dublin), but this is the first time that one has been found on a wooden object. She noted that the presence of the cheese press itself indicated the importance of dairying. There appear to be no Irish parallels, but there is possibly one known from Oakbank crannog in Scotland. Another potential avenue for research that Bermingham noted was the Irish tradition of using the Christian cross as a charm to ward off bad luck in butter and cheese making. With regard to the wooden spoons, Bermingham mentioned how a number were recovered from Drumclay, but that they appear to be the only known examples from Ireland. Bermingham noted that the volume of finds recovered at Drumclay from secure, well dated, contexts is such that there is now a significant hope that chronologies for various artefact types will be significantly refined.

Decorated wooden vessel (Wood-Martin (1873, fig. 102)
Example of gaming piece. Source.
In terms of dating the site, it appears from the artefacts that the site was in some form of use from the 7th to the 17th centuries. So far, there are five radiocarbon dates available from low levels within the site, but not the lowest levels. These are: 830-1036 cal AD; 773-944 cal AD; 709-937 cal AD; 694-888 cal AD; 677-864 cal AD. The stratigraphy shows that the site was probably intensively inhabited from the 7th to the 10th centuries, but more sporadically inhabited after this point.

Archaeologist Cathy Moore, shows off a remarkable well preserved portion of a wooden keg. Source.
Turning to the historical context in which the Drumclay crannog was built and used, Bermingham suggested that it may have been the property of a local vassal king, though it may have become associated with the church at some stage. Tantalisingly, she pointed out that in the Irish Life of St Molaise (associated with nearby Devinish Island) there is a reference to a place called ‘Drumclay’. It is not yet known if there’s sufficient evidence to link that Drumclay to this Drumclay … but the possibility is distinctly intriguing! In the Irish Life Molaise visits the local king and subsequently receives the residence as a gift, having miraculously saved the place from being consumed in a fire. I hesitate to suggest it, but perhaps the post excavation research should examine the archive for evidence of a partial (but not all-devouring) conflagration on the site … though considering that the saint is believed to have died in 564 AD and the occupation here didn’t begin until the 7th century, it may be a red herring!

At this point, the lecture proper concluded and the discussion was thrown open to the floor. I have recorded a number of the most pertinent answers (you can work out the questions!) to give a flavour:

A: All wooden poles and logs were cut and trimmed with axes – there was no evidence for the use of saws.

A: In the later levels there is evidence for the use of reeds, straw, bracken and even sod flooring, but there appear to have been no ‘finished’ floors in the earlier phases.

A: No evidence for a causeway from the shore to the crannog survived as the site had suffered truncation along the perimeter.

A: We’re not sure what types of games were played on the recovered gaming board, but it may have been related to the Scandinavian game of Hnefatafl.

A: There was a small amount of evidence for post-16th century occupation, but the site had been pretty much abandoned by then.

So, there we have it - A fascinating glimpse into the amazing discoveries at this remarkable site! In what seemed like a very brief hour and a half, Bermingham managed to convey some of the wonder of discovery, the complexity of the remains, and the difficulties of excavating such a well-preserved, multi-period site. She also drew attention to the potentially vast new insights that may be gained as a result of this project, not the least of which are refinements to artefact and architecture chronologies. I should point out that I had no expectation that Bermingham would (or should) deal with what may be euphemistically described as the ‘difficulties’ encountered prior to her appointment as Site Director. Nonetheless, the fact remains that we are still waiting for the publication of Prof. Gabriel Cooney’s review, ordered by the (then) Minister for the Environment, Alex Attwood. I am given to understand that the report has been completed, but has yet to be made public. Until such time as the report enters the public realm, we are left with no official account of the planning process behind the selection of the route, the archaeological advice given, the oversight provided by the NIEA, the actions of the original site director (and his employers), along with those of the consultancy who supplied the archaeological labour. From the currently-available information, it appears that a number of these people have serious questions to answer about their professional behaviour. I truly look forward to the eventual monograph that will be the outcome of the Drumclay excavation. From Dr. Bermingham’s lecture, it is clear that it will be a landmark publication, with significance for Early Christian/Medieval studies not just on this island, but across Europe. However, the publication of Cooney’s report is, arguably, of greater significance as it will potentially speak to systemic issues within the entire process of archaeological legislation, oversight, resourcing, and excavation. I look forward to reading both!

Wakeman, W. F. 1873 'Observations on the principal crannogs of Fermanagh' Journal of the Royal Historical and Archaeological Association of Ireland (4th Ser.) 2 (2), 305-324.

[1] That’s my excuse, and I’m sticking to it!

[general] There was an awful lot to take in during this lecture and I’ve done my best to record the material as delivered. However, if I have deviated in any significant way from the topic, or misheard any point, the error is mine alone.

Update April 2014: An edited version of this post can be found on pages 8-10 of the Ulster Archaeology Society's [Website | Facebook] Newsletter [here]

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