Thursday, April 7, 2016

Jackie McDowell: On dry ground. An early medieval settlement at Deer Park Farms, Co. Antrim | Drumclay Conference 2014 | Review

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As part of the public outreach campaign surrounding the excavation of the crannog at Drumclay, Co. Fermanagh, the NIEA organised a one-day conference on the site. This followed on from the two very successful open days where the public were allowed to visit while the excavation was ongoing and see the work in progress, get up close to some of the astounding artefacts, and hear of the progress directly from those on the site [here]. The point of the conference was to present the findings of the excavation and its research context to a broad, non-specialist audience; chiefly the local population of Enniskillen and Fermanagh.

The first session was chaired by Dr John O’Keeffe, Principal Inspector, who welcomed the attendees and introduced the format that the day was going to take. After the obligatory requests to turn off mobile phones and the directions to the emergency exits, O’Keeffe noted that Fermanagh has a tradition of antiquarian interest in crannogs, stretching back into the 19th century. He noted that although it had been over a year since the conclusion of the excavation, work had been progressing behind the scenes on the preparation of a preliminary Data Structure Report, along with the planning for the extensive programme of post-excavation research. At this point, O’Keeffe introduced Jackie McDowell, the first speaker of the day. McDowell is an Inspector of Historic Monuments with the Department of the Environment, and was co-author (with the wonderful C. J. Lynn) of the Deer Park Farms excavation monograph, and her topic was On dry ground. An early medieval settlement at Deer Park Farms, Co. Antrim. She began by nothing that the excavation of the iconic Deer Park Farms began 30 years previously, in September 1984, and how it was very much a classic site for its generation of archaeologists, in the same way that Drumclay is emerging for the current generation. Speaking generally of Early Christian settlement, McDowell provided a little context by explaining that crannogs and raths are just two of several forms of contemporary settlement that include cashels, unenclosed settlements, and (from more recent excavations) ‘settlement cemeteries.’ Raths (or Ringforts) are circular enclosures defined by a bank and ditch and there are something in the region of 45,000 probable sites on the island of Ireland, of which some 700 are known from county Fermanagh. Univallate (single-banked) raths are, on average, 20-40m in diameter and would have enclosed a group of houses and outbuildings. Fermanagh also has a number of bivallate (two-banked) raths, along with ‘Platform’ or ‘Raised Raths’. This latter type could have been constructed through one of a number of means, including scarping a suitable landform, allowing the gradual build-up of a site over time, or even as a single, planned event. It remains a matter of debate as to why people wished to live on an elevated site and what that means. This latter point was one of the questions that the excavators wanted to address when they came to publish the Deer Park Farms book.

Structure Zeta and western side of Structure X from south. Note the collapsed section of wall on the west of Structure Zeta and the southern bedding area (C1291) within Structure X. Source Deer Park Farms book, via EMAP blog.
The Deer Park Farms site lies on a north-facing slope in the Glenarm valley and was excavated from 1984 to 1987. The mound as it appeared at the time of excavation was the end point in a long evolution of a monument that began around the seventh century AD. At this time it measured 4.5m in height and 25m in diameter at the top. During its lifetime, the occupants had access to woodland, heathery mountain pasture, moorland, and probably arable land too. What made Deer Park Farms unusual for a dry land site was the waterlogging of the lower levels, coupled with the rapid burial of these deposits, which led to excellent preservation of the remains. It is this degree of preservation at Deer Park Farms that allows close comparison with a number of aspects of the Drumclay crannog. Even where the upper layers at Deer Park Farms were not waterlogged, their rapid burial ensured admirable preservation of settlement evidence. All this is in stark contrast with other sites of similar date where perishable elements quickly decayed and the interiors were frequently cultivated, removing all but the deepest cut features.

Although the rath phase of Deer Park Farms began in the seventh century, earlier evidence was recovered in the form of a number of Bronze Age pits. Within the corpus of the excavated artefacts there were a number of struck flints and Neolithic polished stone axe heads. McDowell notes that, in the same way that modern people find and collect items from the landscape, so too the people of this site picked up and retained interesting items they found from earlier times. Underneath the rath was a circular ring-ditch (c27m in diameter) with an east-facing entrance. No bank survived associated with this feature and none of the internal features could be definitely linked to this phase of activity. The bank of the succeeding rath was unusual in that it possessed a neat stone revetment. McDowell noted that the fact that the rath entrance faced east, along a break in slope, appears to have contributed to some of the problems that the occupants experienced during the lifetime of the site. Essentially, the on-site drainage was poor, which contributed markedly to the preservation of so much material. However, during the lifetime of the site it would also have created issues for people attempting to live here.

Throughout the duration of the settlement at the site there appears to have been a relatively uniform plan of occupation and layout of houses within it. Most usually, there was a large central house (sometimes of a figure-of-eight shape) with other houses on the northern and southern peripheries, all joined by interconnecting pathways. During the lifetime of the rath the occupants appeared to have focused much attention on the entrance. This came to a head during the final phase when they created a long, in-turned entrance way of impressive proportions. McDowell noted that when the team first encountered the entrance way, it appeared to point towards a ‘cone’ of gravel and soil at the centre of the site. Early speculation by the crew included visions of uncovering tombs or other spectacular discoveries. Instead, they excavated the remains of a series of well-preserved domestic structures that may have lacked some of the romance and mystery of gold-packed tombs, but were nonetheless of vast importance and interest. The excavations showed that the elaborate in-turned entrance way led directly to the central house. The layout of these elements was such that no one entering the rath could access the rest of the site without first coming to the door of the central house. This illustrates the way in which the occupants wanted visitors to approach and experience the site – no one could come in and wander about without making yourself known to the owners.

External view from the east along the partially excavated entrnceway (C1259). The gravel mound (C1258) that filled structure X after it was abandoned can be seen in the background. Source Deer Park Farms book, via EMAP blog.
Before the end of the eighth century the inhabitants were being forced to continually remake and elevate their paths because of the wetness and waterlogging. They took a particularly drastic option and decide to heighten the entire mound by the addition of up to 3m of gravel and stone. In doing so, they filled in the elaborate entrance way and covered over the houses. The new mound was faced with large stones and boulders, and was obviously a significant expenditure in time and labour in itself, on top of all that invested in the creation of the raised mound. The final acts of settlement on the site included the construction of two souterrains, or artificial caves. Interestingly, these were constructed using two different methods. One was cut into earlier layers of habitation material, while the other was constructed on the surface of the mound and piling material around it and buried as part of the heightening of the mound. With the creation of this new, level surface they began again to build houses. The pattern was similar to that used during the rath period with a single, large, centrally placed house (some of which were figure-of-eight in plan) with smaller examples in other parts of the interior. Some 40 houses of various kinds were identified at Deer Park Farms, over some twelve distinct phases of occupation. In the lower, waterlogged portions of the site their wicker and wooden elements were preserved, while in the upper portions of the site they were identifiable only as collections of stake-holes in the gravel. McDowell showed an illustration of a pair of large pits representing the former positions of the door jambs that were dug out and recycled elsewhere on site. In the lowest portions, the best preserved houses retained their original wicker walls, wooden doorposts, and internal fittings. The houses were, for the most part, circular in plan with only two examples of rectangular houses being recovered. Neither of the rectangular structures appear to have been used as domestic buildings. To keep the houses warn and draft-proof they employed a double-wall technique, where the cavity between the inner and outer layers was packed with moss, heather, and straw etc. In this earliest phase of the site, the walls of some houses survived to up to 3m in height where it had collapsed onto the ground surface. The primary wood used for the walls was hazel, which indicated that the occupants must have coppiced and managed large areas of woodland to ensure a reliable supply for housing, fencing, basketry etc. McDowell estimates that the houses had an average lifespan of between 15 and 20 years. Close study of the walls has shown that the weaving technique was not the simple ‘in and out’ technique that may be imagined, but was more akin to basketry, but on a house-size scale. The resulting walls were much stronger and sturdier than the archaeologists would have imagined beforehand. Turning to the question of how the houses were roofed, McDowell notes that analysis of the environmental remains identified the larvae of click beetles which are sometimes associated with turves. Thus, they may have had some form of sod roofs on their buildings. However, large bundles of heather and associated insects were discovered on the site, so this appears to have been another roofing option. While hazel was commonly used for the walls, oak was the preferred material for the door jambs. McDowell showed an image of a complete pair of jambs and accompanying lintel from the site which had been buried when the site was developed from a rath to a raised rath. While partially damaged by the dump of later material, the jambs clearly showed long grooves which would have fitted around the ends of the hazel walls. Radiocarbon dating shows that the site was occupied from the seventh through to the tenth centuries. The door jambs shown by McDowell were dated by dendrochronology to 648 to 649 AD, making them approximately a century earlier than the house into which they were inserted. It appears that valuable resources, such as the dressed oak jambs, would have been salvaged from decaying buildings and recycled into later structures while they remained viable.

Using the data collected at Deer Park Farms, a reconstruction of one of these forms of houses was attempted at the Navan Centre, Navan Fort, Co. Armagh. That reconstruction went with a conical roof shape that was found to require additional support from internal posts. However the Deer Park Farms houses did not appear to possess or require additional support, suggesting that a different roof shape was employed. McDowell noted that The UCD Experimental Archaeology programme were, at that time, beginning on a new reconstruction of a Deer Park Farms-style house that would try to adhere more closely to the excavated evidence and use a more domed roof. McDowell noted that although it would have met with opposition from modern Health & Safety busybodies (my term, not hers), the linteled doorway at Deer Park Farms would have been just over one metre in height. Indeed, the reconstructed example at Navan Fort had to be raised significantly to allow tourist traffic. She noted that a number of the houses retained evidence of a small clay bank running round the bottom of the wall to act as a draft-excluder. This feature was visible up against in situ walls on the lower, waterlogged houses and on the upper, ‘dried out’ houses where only stake-holes survived. Having painted a vivid picture of these double-walled, low-doored, conical roofed houses, McDowell next attempted to examine what had been going on inside them. Inside the houses there were bedding areas defined by wattle surrounds. These were formed with larger branches at the base and smaller, finer branches over these. Presumably this was augmented with moss, fleece or other soft materials and covered with blankets. She showed images of one bedding area that was partially defined by a wooden plank that had a number of holes in it, to carry a partition or screen to provide some degree of privacy. The bedding area contained evidence of parasites along with a number of small finds. One bedding area produced a number of beads, while another contained a rather lovely brooch pin.

There was a substantial number of artefacts recovered from Deer Park Farms, the majority of which show parallels with other sites in Ireland and western Britain – some may even be paralleled with the assemblage from Drumclay. For example, the wooden shoe last from Drumclay is remarkably similar to one recovered from Deer Park Farms. The latter example was recovered from a wooden trough on the floor of a house where the wall had collapsed and buried it. The same trough also contained a number of leather offcuts, presumably the detritus associated with cobbling. Surviving iron objects included rush-light holders to relieve the gloom of the interiors. Many of the iron objects were retrieved from burnt layers on the site. While none of the lower, waterlogged layers (rath phase) showed evidence for burning, there were three distinct phases in the upper mound (raised rath) where buildings had been destroyed by fire. However, there is no evidence as to the origins of these fires, be it accidental or the result of raiding/warfare. As these events appear to have been unplanned, there was no time to vacate the houses in an orderly manner, with the occupants taking all their belongings with them. Thus, the houses associated with these phases of burning are particularly rich in artefacts. For example, McDowell notes the recovery of a complete souterrain ware pot discovered on one of the banks of the houses. The house had been rapidly covered over and the site rebuilt on for another house.

The inhabitants of the Deer Park Farms site operated a mixed farming economy and this is reflected in the recovered tools. Evidence for woodland management comes in the form of a variety of axes and bill-hooks, while a number of plough socks indicate that some tillage was also undertaken. The animal bones from the site indicate that (similar to other sites of the period) cattle dominated the assemblage, but sheep and goats were also present, along with some evidence for horses. The occupants would have used every aspect of these animals in their economy from consumption of meat, milk, fleece and hides, as well as creating items from their bones. These latter artefacts include a variety of bone combs. The iron shears recovered from the site could have been used for sheep shearing as well as for personal grooming. A very rare example of human hair from the site was neatly cut at both ends. Although there were few remains of cultivated plants recovered during the excavation, analysis of the pollen indicates that cereal cultivation was ongoing in the vicinity. The inhabitants also collected and gathered wild plants, including heather, bracken, mosses, hazelnuts, blackberries, raspberries, rowan, and sloe. As noted previously, the direct evidence of cereal cultivation in the form of actual grain many have been lacking, but it is evidenced by the presence of a millwheel hub, indicating that they had either had access to a mill or the site was the home of skilled millwrights who created such intricate pieces. The broad range of objects that appear to have been manufactured on the site is testament to the talents of the inhabitants, who appear to have been able to turn their hands to pretty much every skill necessary to ensure their survival. Apart from the glass beads and lignite armlets, there is little direct evidence for items being traded into the rath that could not have been sourced and created in the locality. While they may have been largely self-sufficient, McDowell is quick to point out that they were not unaware of the broader world beyond their glen. As evidence of this she shows a small sharpening stone, decorated with an animal head and a contraction for the word ‘Domini’, or ‘[The] Lord’. Thus, while they may have lived in small, damp, wooden houses with small doors and lice in the beds they were still connected to the broader religious and social society – as she say’s ‘It wasn’t all doom and gloom – the finer things in life were also there’.

In closing, McDowell notes that while Deer Park Farms was excavated 30 years ago and was regarded as an exceptional site, it is still an important lynchpin in our understanding of this period as much of the work on the Drumclay site builds on and develops on the analysis of these discoveries. Also, many of the speakers at this conference were heavily influenced in the early parts of their careers by the Deer Park Farms excavation and her expectation is that Drumclay will now act as a similar catalyst for the next generation of researchers.