Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Claire Foley: Fermanagh's rich antiquarian and archaeological Crannóg record | Drumclay Conference 2014 | Review

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Following from Jackie McDowell’s presentation on the Deer Park Farms excavation Session Chair, Dr. John O’Keeffe, next introduced Claire Foley to the podium. She is the co-author (with Ronan McHugh) of the Archaeological Survey of Co. Fermanagh and is Senior Inspector with the NIEA. To set the scene, Foley noted that there are approximately 2,000 crannogs known from the island of Ireland. They are mainly to be found in inter-drumlin lakes and are thus concentrated in a dense band through south Ulster and north Connaught. They are also well known in Scotland, where there is a similarly long history of research and investigation. There are also a number in north Yorkshire, but only one in Wales. While crannogs can be domestic dwellings, they can also function as Royal Sites. For example, the famous sites of Lagore, Co. Meath, and Ballinderry, Co. Westmeath, were all possibly Royal residences or retreats. Within Northern Ireland there are approximately 300 known crannogs, with some 142 of these being in Co. Fermanagh. Owing to the interest of the antiquarian William Wakeman, Fermanagh was particularly famous for its crannogs in the 19th century. Although Wakeman was interested in many aspects of Fermanagh’s history and archaeology, he is particularly remembered for his publication of the crannogs, which included field visits, detailed measured plans and artefact illustrations. He also carried out extensive ‘excavations’ on several sites, though by today’s standards Foley is correct in describing it as closer to ‘poking around’ than archaeological investigations as the term is understood today. She is also quick to point out that, while an acceptable weekend pursuit in the 19th century, it is currently illegal to search for archaeological objects without an excavation licence issued by the NIEA. As an example of the quality of Wakeman’s work – quite exemplary for the time – Foley showed one of his drawings of Ballydoolough crannog with a measured plan of the site and a house foundation at its centre. She also noted his particular interest in recording the woodworking joints on the timbers he discovered. Wakeman recovered hundreds of artefacts from his various investigations of these sites, and illustrated many in his published works. As examples, Foley showed Wakeman’s illustrations of a decorated piece of Crannog ware pottery (now referred to as Ulster coarse ware) and a wooden vessel carved from a single piece timber.

Moving on to the Lough Eyes, near Tempo, Co. Fermanagh Foley notes that there are six crannogs in the lake, though only two are currently visible above the waterline. However, she visited all six in 1977 as part of her crannog survey, and by Wakeman a century earlier. She makes the point that the records made for both forms of survey were predicated on the idea that the amount of the site visible above the waterline was representative of the site as a whole. However, due to the excavations at Drumclay, significant revisions have to be made to that understanding. For example, Wakeman’s drawings imply relatively shallow sites with simple building phases. Instead, Drumclay has shown that such sites are much deeper and significantly more complex than had been previously believed.

Distribution of crannogs (Source)
Returning to the distribution of the Fermanagh crannogs, Foley notes that the principal concentration in the county is around the Enniskillen area, in upper and lower Lough Erne. The location of Drumclay is at the heart of this dense distribution pattern. There are also scatters to the west, in the direction of Belcoo, and a significant distribution exists in the smaller lakes of the south of the county. The preference is for small, isolated lakes that are regularly difficult to access and provide excellent defensive retreats. At the present time, no crannogs have been identified in the open waters of the major lakes of Lough Erne. By 1977 the fieldwork of the Archaeological Survey (started in 1972) was drawing to a close, but the crannogs still remained to be visited. By chance, this coincided with a spectacular drought and the chance was taken to initiate the crannog survey. Assisted by a strong rower, Foley acquired a rubber dingy, flares, and lifejackets and set off onto the lakes. Pre-fieldwork research, using six-inch maps and other sources, had increased the number of possible crannogs from around 39 to 120, and the plan was to visit every island of any size, whether it was thought to be a crannog or not. The aims of the 1977 survey included the following:

Confirm the presence of crannogs by direct observation of archaeological features: including timbers, artefacts (including crannog ware etc.), butchered animal bone etc.
Measure the diameter of the site
Sample timbers
Establish presence of causeways
Dating – dendrochronological and radiocarbon

Plan and details of material from Ballydoolough, Co. Fermanagh by William Wakeman. (Source)
With regard to the presence of causeways, Foley notes that there exist significant bodies of modern folk stories where people claim to have visited sites using causeways submerged just below the water surface. However, her research failed to locate a single positive example. Again, Foley notes that there are 142 crannogs currently known from Fermanagh (one even identified in the period since the excavation of Drumclay). Of these, some 65 show no surface indication, but are otherwise convincing; only two were marked by the Ordnance Survey; 21 from documentary sources; and 3-4 were mentioned in the Irish Annals. Foley describes some of these aims, most especially the attempt to measure surface diameters and timber sampling as, in retrospect, quite ‘innocent’. Considering the volume of crannogs that may be below the surface, Foley suggests that any data regarding site diameter should be disregarded as she was (to use her own phrase) ‘barking up the wrong tree’.

Looking at the date ranges from the sampled timbers, Foley notes that the vast majority of the dates are in the period from the 15th to the 17th centuries. Thus, in the light of Drumclay, she was keen to say that this bias towards medieval dates only represents the accessibility of these later layers to the researcher arriving in the summer of 1977 and not anything resembling the true age of the site. Foley notes that the significant separation of the dates recovered from the crannog at Lough Barry may hint at the true story of long occupation of these sites and their reoccupation during the disturbed times of the late medieval period. In my recent combined interview with Rodney Moffett of Amey and rebuttal to Declan Hurl’s deeply flawed and deliberately misleading Apologia, I expressed the view that the dating results of this 1977 survey could have led Hurl to the unwarranted belief that Drumclay was – as he claimed – a shallow, late medieval site with no earlier features. While he strongly argues against this assumption, at least Foley has the ability to emend her views in the light of additional data and new information. Turning to the earliest dating evidence, Foley notes that the single Late Bronze Age date from Lough MacNean indicates that there was prehistoric activity at these sites, and it’s not all confined to a single period. Taken together, she is now of the opinion that attempting to date any such crannog site on a single sample is insufficient and ‘out the window’. Nonetheless, there remains the question for researchers of whether or not crannogs were still being constructed in the later medieval period, or are we looking at the reoccupation of much older sites?

Example of Ulster coarse ware from Ballydooloug by Wakeman (Source)

Lough MacNean
6th C (570 AD)
Ross Lough
7th-8th C
8th-9th C & 1367 AD
Lough Barry
9th C

13th-14th C
11th-15th C
15th-17th C

17th C

In looking at the value of crannogs, Foley wished to emphasise (as did McDowell before her) the importance of wetland environments for archaeological preservation of the full spectrum of organic material that simply does not survive elsewhere. Together with the ‘hard’ materials that survive on dry land sites, we can achieve a much fuller picture of site activities and development. The 1977 survey also facilitated the discovery of several quern (grinding) stones (now all housed in the Fermanagh County Museum). It has been suggested by Prof. Seamus Caulfield that their presence on the surfaces of these crannogs may be related to the Corn Laws (1815-1846) where people turned to secluded islands to grind cereals, away from the prying eyes of the establishment. While the 1977 survey was of the utmost importance in finding and identifying sites, the research has not ended. Foley reports that earlier in 2014 the Centre for Maritime Archaeology, Ulster University carried out some research on a number of Fermanagh crannogs. Working on the theory that crannogs may have been deliberately sited in lakes on the boundaries of townlands, six south Fermanagh lakes were selected for investigation with a shallow-water sonar system, mounted on a small boat. The work was carried out by Dr Wes Forsythe, Kieran Westley, & Sandra Henry. The lakes included Moorlough, Kilturk Lough, Derrymacrow, and Friars Lough. The detailed, systematic survey unfortunately found no new crannogs, suggesting that the long-held theory has failed. However, the project allowed the opportunity to explore the environs of two known crannogs and enabled the production of a finely detailed image of the true extent of the Moorlough site. Foley explained that the small, circular area to the south-east of the scanned area is the only portion of the site currently above the water, and that this would have been the only portion of the site that she could have measured back in 1977. However, the new scan indicates that the site is significantly larger and more complex. The scan is of sufficient detail that two vertical posts may be identified at a significant remove from the core site and indicating that the outworks may originally have been much more extensive. The key takeaway from this latest research is that underwater, non-invasive survey techniques can add significantly to our knowledge of these sites, particularly in terms of the understanding of their extent.

Sidescan from Moorlough Lake showing the submerged part of a crannog (FER246:062) superimposed on an aerial photo. Shows nicely the full size of the crannog. (© Centre for Maritime Archaeology. Reproduced by kind permission)
From her brief overview, Foley notes that there are many well-preserved crannogs in Fermanagh, and that the reason they have been preserved is that they’ve not been subject to large-scale incursion and development. So long as the water-levels remain stable, there is every reason to expect that they will endure and maintain the excellent preservation of organic materials. She hopes that, by the end of the day conference, the audience will have a full appreciation of their archaeological value and why they should only be excavated as a last resort.