Friday, November 14, 2014

People and Their Worlds | UCD Archaeological Research Seminar | Part II

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< Part I | Part III >
Loughmoe Castle, Co. Tipperary (Source)
Welcome back to Session 2, of UCD’s Archaeological Research Seminar People and Their Worlds, dedicated to Medieval Europe. Suitably refreshed after a cup of warm, nourishing coffee we were immediately into the first of the session’s papers on Loughmoe Castle and the end of the middle ages by Prof. Tadhg O’Keeffe. He began by noting that Loughmoe Castle, near Templemore, Co. Tipperary, is quite familiar to passengers on the Dublin-Cork train, as the railway passes quite close-by. He described the structure as ‘the most spectacular example in Ireland of an early modern incastellated house incorporating a late medieval tower-house.’ Despite it being a National Monument in State Care, it has received relatively little research attention and there is no available analysis of its design, nor its importance in understanding the transitional phase from the middle ages to the early modern period in Ireland. And that's just what he intended to do! Just so we’re quite clear: this is no small task that O’Keeffe has set himself, and all the more impressive that he intended to get it done in the allotted quarter-hour! He describes it as not medieval and, yet, not post-medieval. He sees the structure as somewhere in the middle between the two and will go so far as to call it ‘transitional’, but stipulates that it must be with a small ‘t’ and in inverted commas! The site has two main phases, the first is a tower house and the second is the incastellated house added to the front of the earlier building. In terms of date, the tower house is probably of the late 15th century and, in many respects, is typical of Munster tower houses. The later house is more difficult to date as there are no surviving architectural records etc. However, O’Keeffe dates it, on stylistic grounds, to the middle of the first half of the 17th century, c.1620-30. An examination of the inside of the house shows that all the floors were of timber and are now gone, leaving the thin-walled structure in danger of collapse. At around the same time as the building of the house, a new, inscribed, fireplace was inserted into the tower house.

Taking Graystown Castle, Co. Tipperary, as his example, O’Keeffe noted that at the end of the Middle Ages the layout of Irish castles was typically one where the room at the top of the structure was a private space and that an adjacent building was used as the public hall. By c.1600 we see a new architecture that is without precedent in Ireland (e.g. Mallow Castle, Co. Cork – probably the first Elizabethan house in Ireland). This is, essentially, the start of the Georgian architectural order and encompasses ‘integration’ – where the hall is brought back into the main building; ‘symmetry’ – a word that should really be a palindrome!; and ‘exteriority’, a concept O’Keeffe explains in terms of the placing of, say, windows with more of an interest on how they will appear on the exterior of the building, rather than where they are necessary on the inside. At Loughmoe there is the evidence for all of these three aspects, but it is the ‘exteriority’ that is key to understanding the structure. For example, stringcourses are used to clearly demonstrate to the viewer the number of stories in the structure. The putative ‘back’ of the building is actually a display façade while the ‘front’ is slightly asymmetrical. O’Keeffe notes that this form of asymmetry is not found in any similar structures either before or after this time. He argues that this may be a deliberate attempt to create a ‘new great chamber’ for an audience familiar with the old architectural order. As such, Loughmoe may be seen as a truly ‘transitional’ building – looking back as well as forward to bridge the gap between the medieval and the modern.

Then it was the turn of the magnificent and wonderful Aidan O’Sullivan (Heritage Council/INSTAR) (then just Dr. – now Prof.) to talk about: Early medieval Ireland in northwest Europe, AD 300-1100 - or, what’s next for the Early Medieval Archaeology Project (EMAP)? His stated aim was to reflect on seven years of research and where we should go next. He was quick to point out that this latter point was extremely significant and that decisions made now could take another seven years to fulfill – potentially a significant portion of a researcher’s career. Going back to the pre-Celtic Tiger days, O’Sullivan noted that we had knowledge of c.47,000 raths/ringforts & cashels, c.2,000 crannogs, c.5,500 Early Christian church sites, and a general understanding that something extraordinary was going on in Ireland from the 6th century onwards. Since then we have carried out literally thousands of excavations of Early Christian sites of one kind or another, though most were unpublished and only available as grey literature. By 2007 a looming publication crisis had been identified by a UCD foresight committee, in conjunction with the Royal Irish Academy etc, and was part of the genesis of the INSTAR approach. EMAP was the first INSTAR project and was a collaboration between UCD and Queen’s University Belfast that produced 12 PhD scholarships, c.28 peer reviewed papers, and 52 conference papers. Nine major EMAP reports have been published online and O’Sullivan stressed the project’s commitment to open access and their firm belief that open access does not harm formal publication. In 2008 they made available a database of c.3,300 Early Christian sites. In the following year they published a detailed bibliography for the topic, followed in 2010 by a 2 volume synthesis of the entire period. In 2011 they published an account of the archaeology of livestock and cereal production, with a volume in the following year on rural secular sites. In 2013 they published on the economy of Early Medieval Ireland. In 2014 they have published one vast volume with the RIA: Early Medieval Ireland, AD 400-1100: The Evidence from Archaeological Excavations and another volume in the BAR International Series: Early medieval Dwellings and Settlements in Ireland, AD 400-1100, BAR S2604. If that weren’t impressive enough, there are a further three volumes due to be published with BAR [see here for the reports, and here for a list of the publications].

With this truly significant body of publications as its basis, O’Sullivan believes that we are ready to start formulating new sets of research questions. The first of his questions that could drive the future direction of Early Christian research is: who were the people of Early Medieval Ireland? … and more importantly … who did they think they were? Such a research pathway would take in their understandings of religious beliefs, along with other notions of identity, including gender and ethnicity. Next on the list is how did people live together? Our understanding now is that the vast majority of people lived in enclosures and that the large numbers of unenclosed settlements have never been found because they don’t exist. The third potential question is: do we see the emergence of ‘villages’ in the 9th century? … and how do such entities relate to the economy? Related to this is O’Sullivan’s argument that much work remains to be done on our understanding of the Viking towns. Next on his research shopping list is: how was agriculture organised? We now know that dairying existed in Ireland in the 6th and 7th centuries and is not the revolutionary introduction it was once thought to have been. Other aspects that could be examined are the ways in which people interacted with natively produced and imported wares (including Gaulish E ware). Other models that could be examined include the agencies of entrepreneurial merchants or coastal communities. He also suggests looking at what’s being exported from Ireland at this time, including shoes, slaves, and butter – the last attested in a letter that complains of the sudden scarcity of the commodity in Bobbio, in north-western Italy. Thus, we should be looking to Europe for distinctively Irish artefacts and evidence of exports. While we are mulling over which of these interesting and exciting avenues to pursue, O’Sullivan notes that current projects include a large-scale review of the various Viking excavations and another of Liam dePaor’s excavations at Inis Cealtra. The overall feeling from O’Sullivan’s presentation was that we’ve done so much important work to collect the material together and we’re now at a point where some really interesting and fundamental questions can be framed, that simply could not have been conceived of in the pre-Celtic Tiger world.

With the presentation tight up against it for time, we broke for lunch and I think I’ll leave my review here for the present.

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