Thursday, February 6, 2014

Dunbeg, Co. Kerry | Early Christian Promontory Fort | Damaged in Storms | Photos from 1982

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The recent storms that hit the Irish coastline have exposed a number of archaeological sites, including a possible Neolithic settlement at Omey Island, Co. Galway, an ancient forest uncovered at Ballinesker Beach, Co. Wexford, finds of stone axes from Connemara, Co. Galway, and the wreck of a 19th century ship at Rossbeigh beach, Co. Kerry. The opposite side of this unexpected boon has been destruction at the promontory fort at Dunbeg, Co. Kerry, when a portion of its cliff unexpectedly fell into the sea. A report in The Irish Times, quoting a spokesperson for the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, states that:

“There has been very serious storm damage and a large part of the western limits of the site has fallen in to the sea. The immediate priority is to ensure public safety and the site is now fully closed off from the upper roadway.”

“The site is being inspected by OPW and National Monuments Service personnel to assess the situation on the ground. However, the scale of the recent damage, coupled with the nature and location of the site, would suggest that may be very little that can usefully be done.”
Plan of Dunbeg Promontory fort, showing areas investigated in 1977 (Barry 1981)

The site is composed of four stone and earth banks, which serve to cut off and defend a small seaward promontory from the land. A further stone-built rampart is the innermost defence. It was originally built as a straight wall, but became curved as the result of later remodelling and reconstruction. Even in its original form, this wall is of two periods. The inner face of is the older and was erected as a single entity. It was later added to and strengthened on its landward face. It is part of this large stone rampart that has fallen into the sea. At the innermost portion of the site is a stone house, or clochán, with a sub-circular external plan, but square interior. It is linked to the covered entrance in the stone rampart by a flagged path, and was provided with a curving, lintelled drain to keep water away from the interior. A souterrain leads from the interior of the site towards the landward defences.

Detailed plan of clochán at Dunbeg Promontory fort (Barry 1981)
It has long been recognised that this site was under threat from this form of coastal erosion, though to lose such a large part of the site at one go is still shocking. From June to September 1977 the site was partially excavated by Terry Barry. The areas chosen for investigation included cutting sections through the landward earthen defences, and almost the entirety of the main stone rampart and the clochán (Barry 1981). The earliest feature excavated on the site was a shallow ditch overlain by the stone rampart, demonstrating that there had been some form of settlement here in the period from 797-539 cal BC (2530±35 BP, UB-2216). The reminder of the radiocarbon dates suggest that the main thrust of settlement was in the period from the 8th to the mid-11th century AD (anyone interested in the recovered finds and the dating evidence from the site should see the Appendix).

My original intention at this point was to publish a number of photographs of the Dunbeg site, taken by the late William Dunlop in 1982. However, I was hardly into writing the first paragraph when saw that I had been comprehensively beaten to the punch by Colm Moriarty, who shared a number of his photographs of the site, taken in the summer of 2013, on his blog: here. Colm’s photos are beautiful, clear, and give a great impression of the site as it so recently was. My first inclination was to scrap my post for fear of being seen as just jumping on the bandwagon. However, after discussing it with Colm, I'm going to press ahead on the twin understandings that 'great minds think alike' and 'imitation is the sincerest form of flattery'. In fairness, I do think that these posts are mutually complimentary and present the site at two different points in its recent past and can be fairly viewed together.

Billy was many things [here | here | here], but a consistently good photographer wasn’t really one of them. On the other hand, he did take an awful lot of photographs of interesting sites and important excavations. Even if only for their ‘taken back then’ value the collection is full of interesting gems and have well worth a look. As a means of sharing this material with the wider world, I started a project to scan Billy’s original prints and make them available on the internet [Facebook | Website]. Unfortunately, work and family commitments (read: laziness) have meant that this project has stalled, but I may just restart it at some time in the future. In the meantime, I give you some of Billy’s photographs of the site from over three decades ago:

View from inside clochán, through doorway, along flagged path, to entrance through stone rampart

Large stone rampart

External (landward) face of stone rampart on left with earthen and stone bank in foreground

Exterior view of clochán from the stone rampart

Exterior view of clochán from inside the defended area

Interior of site with stone rampart (left) and clochán (right).
Note the degradation to the cliff face to the left and centre of the image.

Overview of site, looking out to sea

Other images from the same excursion, including Glenfahan Bee Hive Huts; Milltown Standing Stone; Dunmore Head; Ogham Stone at Dunmore Head; Promontory Fort at Dunmore Head; Cross in Killiney Graveyard; Gallarus Oratory are available to view: here.

A brief appendix, dealing with the excavated finds from the site and the radiocarbon chronology is available: here.

UB-2216: the determination of 2530±35BP is given by Raftery (1994, 230) and Waddell (2000, 277). However, Kerr (et al.)(2010, 365) give it as 2535±35BP.

I would also direct the reader to the excellent Virtual Reality tour of Dunbeg by Voices from the Dawn: here. Since the original post, Howard has reworked his VR tour for Head Mounted Display (HMD) ... it's pretty amazing & can be found here.

Barry T. B. 1981. ‘Archaeological Excavations at Dunbeg Promontory Fort, County Kerry, 1977Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy 81C, 295-329.

Kerr, T., Harney, L., Kinsella, J., O'Sullivan, A. & McCormick, F. 2010 Early Medieval dwellings and settlements in Ireland. AD400-1100. Vol. 2: Gazetteer of site descriptions. Dublin. [Volume 1 available: here]

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