Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Dr. Nóra Bermingham: Weaving together the excavation results | Drumclay Conference 2014 | Review

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After a short break to grab a cup of coffee and check out the living history displays, we were back in the conference hall for the second session, this time chaired by the incomparable Prof. Aidan O’Sullivan. The first speaker of this session was Dr. Nóra Bermingham, who completed her undergraduate degree in archaeology at UCD School of Archaeology, followed by a Master’s degree at Sheffield, and a PhD at Hull. These qualifications, together with her exemplary experience in the field of wetland excavation, made her the perfect choice as director of the Phase 2 excavations at Drumclay. Bermingham has spoken previously about the excavation of Drumclay, including to the Ulster Archaeology Society. Her stated aim was to present a ‘quick run through’ of the findings at Drumclay and to bring the audience ‘inside the crannog’.

In thinking about how to approach giving this presentation, Bermingham said that she was struck by how, prior to the excavation of Drumclay, there was a certain amount known about how crannogs were built, but it was far from extensive. She admits that it wasn’t a question that she had particularly addressed, instead accepting the conventional wisdom of earlier archaeologists and antiquarians. However, the findings at Drumclay have forced a wholesale re-examination of these ideas, and her hope was that the audience would come away with a flavour of these new discoveries and insights.


Drumclay crannog under excavation. (Source)
The crannog at Drumclay was situated in a small inter-drumlin lake, about 1.5km to the north-east of Enniskillen. The lake was roughly triangular in plan, measuring about 200m long and 200m at its widest. The location was first mapped by the Ordnance Survey in the middle of the 19th century and the locality was visited by the antiquarian William Wakeman in the 1870s. Unfortunately, at that time he was unable to physically get onto the crannog as drainage works had turned the lake into a ‘dangerous swamp’. Before the excavation all that was really known about the site was that it was a low mound, about 15m in diameter. Turning to the local landscape setting, Bermingham noted that the crannog was within 30m of dry ground that would have been perfectly suitable for building a rath or similar enclosure upon. This echoes a point made earlier by Claire Foley who observed that crannogs are not always associated with adjacent ringforts or raths, and this certainly appears to be the case here.

Excavation director, Dr. Nora Bermingham (centre), with archaeologist Andrew Cunningham (left), and (then) Minister for the Environment, Alex Attwood, MLA (Source)
At the beginning of the Phase 2 excavations the crannog was surrounded by a ring of ‘rock armour’ to prevent it from collapsing. Declan Hurl’s Phase 1 ill-starred excavation took place above the level of the rock armour, but the Phase 2 investigations necessitated the gradual removal of this layer as the excavation descended. One of the technical difficulties of the excavation was that the boggy marsh, though drained, was still being fed by a series of over-ground and underground streams that attempted to turn the excavation back into a natural lake. Bermingham, with wonderful understatement, describes it as a ‘logistical challenge to say the least’. While the crannog may have initially appeared as a low mound, about 15m in diameter, it got wider and larger as the excavation continued down. At the lowest level investigated, the crannog measured about 26m by 18m and was carried out in a 80m wide hole in the ground that was only accessible via ramps and had to be continually pumped to allow work to progress. But rather than dwell on the significant logistical issues, Bermingham wanted to talk about ‘how to build a crannog’, or more specifically ‘how to build this crannog’. The lowest layers of the crannog were built directly into the fine, dark, homogeneous lake muds. The first part of the construction process involved dropping piles of oak, alder, and birch into the lake bed. These piles were inserted in groups of between two and four poles and would have been inserted vertically, but over time they had been pushed over to approximately 45 degrees by the weight of the crannog structure. This movement of timbers is a feature of the crannog and Bermingham explained that the crannog always appeared to have been in motion to some extent. On top of these pile groups the crannog builders formed a series of interconnected platforms that acted as the ‘skeleton’ of the site. There was a large, central platform surrounded by a number of smaller satellite platforms. We don’t yet know the sequence in which these platforms were constructed, but they were all around 10-12m in diameter and they varied in thickness. The occupation evidence indicates that as soon as the piles and the platforms were in place people immediately started living on it. Bermingham emphasised the large volume of timber resources required to create each of these platforms. Showing a section through one of the platforms, she noted that each would have required hundreds of logs, laid in overlapping layers and retained by wattle walls. These were mostly alder, and all would have been gathered locally. We don’t yet know the exact building sequence and whether, after the vertical piles were inserted, the platforms were laid down and the retaining wattle walls built later; or if the basket-like wattle retainers were constructed first and the platform logs inserted within them. Interestingly, the platforms show a variety of construction styles, suggesting that they were created by different groups. Bermingham showed an image of one platform where the logs were carefully arranged in a geometric shape to create a circular platform, about 10m in diameter. A further example had logs laid parallel, with the longest ones at the centre, getting smaller towards the edges. A further type appeared to have been constructed with an open central area, about 2m square. These central areas are of significance, as this is where the hearths were located in the successive phases of houses built on the platforms.  At least 53 of these platforms were recorded during the excavation and whether they were single, double, or triple-layered, they were being stacked ‘like pancakes’ as the crannog grew and developed. Each of these platforms were intended to take houses or other form of occupation. Two different house types have been recovered from the excavation: rectangular and round. The majority of the houses are round, and there are a number of examples of figure-of-eight houses, similar to those from Deer Park Farms. These are in the form of a large ‘front’ house and a small roundhouse extension on the back of it. Again, the post-excavation analysis is still attempting to pick apart the building sequence. This is of importance as there may be important implications for when rectangular houses may have been introduced on the site and into Irish archaeology generally. Although 18 houses have been positively identified, it is certain that this is not the full number of structures that stood here. Bermingham is of the opinion that in the lowest levels, where there are lots of wooden platforms and occupation evidence, that the occupants did a thorough job of dismantling the houses. At this level, we are simply not getting the evidence of superstructures that would be expected. The evidence may not have been there, but they must have had shelter! Either the occupants completely dismantled the structures, brought in more sediment to build up the ground, so they could build new houses or we’ve got to rethink how they were creating shelter on the crannog in the early phases. Either way, it is abundantly clear that the site was inhabited from the moment they started putting wood on the lake. The amount of waste also indicates that the occupants were very intensive and the people here were very busy. She says: ‘I don’t think this was a holiday home for three weeks in the summer when the midges weren’t bad. These guys were here and they were really seriously living, and working … all their everyday life was happening on that crannog’. We know that the houses were continually rebuilt on the same location and their distribution pretty much follows the layout of the platforms. This is because the hearths were central to the platforms and the houses were built around the hearths! While the hearth remained in the same location, the houses only moved marginally about the platform site. Unfortunately, we still don’t know how many houses were standing on the site at any one time, but Bermingham is of the opinion that we’re not talking about having one principal house surrounded by a series of out-buildings. Instead, she sees that it is more likely that we’re talking about a series of houses – perhaps between three and five – simultaneously occupied on the crannog. Perhaps these houses would have had different functions – we don’t know who lived where on the crannog. At Deer Park Farms the main path that led to the central house gives the impression that it was the resident of the most important person on the site and the same is probably true at the central house at Drumclay. In showing a series of images of the circular and rectangular houses from Drumclay, Bermingham remarked that the same survival of high-quality door jambs that was observed at Deer Park Farms is not replicated here, perhaps because the valuable oak timbers were more effectively reused and recycled. In common with Deer Park Farms, there is little evidence for internal roof supports. Several houses show evidence for internal sub-division, so it is clear that the internal spaces were demarcated for different reasons and different tasks. Again, more research is required to fully understand how these spaces operated and what they were used for, including identifying where the occupants slept. One of the most common features on the site are the heaths. There are a number of rectangular, stone-lined examples, typically with clay bases. Others have stake-holes, indicating the locations of a spit or frame for suspending a pot. Bermingham illustrated a number of unusual timbers termed ‘slotted-beams’ where a large pole has a series of stakes jammed through it and into the ground surface. At Deer Park Farms it was suggested that these may have been used in the production of flax, though a number of other possible uses are also possible. As the Drumclay examples are always found in association with hearths, it is possible that they were used in some way to regulate heat from the heath.

The crannog was pretty much crammed with structures and activities of all types. To make your way from one part of the site to another, the occupants created a series of pathways. Bermingham showed an image of a particularly finely-made example in the south-west of the crannog, constructed from silt and stone, though the majority appear to have been built of wood. As the mound evolved and became a ‘great big muddy compost heap’ the occupants tended to use less wood to provide solid foundations. Instead, the occupants used more clay to build up floors and platforms and in so doing they created a much drier and more stable place.

Not only was Drumclay a home for the living, but in time it also became the home for one set of human remains. Analysis suggests that the skeleton was that of a young woman, about 18 years at the time of death, who was buried in a shallow pit adjacent to a house. The skeleton has been radiocarbon dated to 14th to 15th centuries (1309-1439 cal AD). At the time this woman lived, people were most usually buried in consecrated ground, so finding an irregular burial tucked away like this is intriguing and unusual. Initial investigations by Dr Eileen Murphy at QUB indicate that the young woman had suffered a number of periods of stress in her life, but much more work remains to be done on this individual.

Roundhouse with log underfloor (Source)
In terms of dating, Bermingham notes that there are an initial set of radiocarbon dates that provide a coarse chronology of the site. Dates from three of the platforms indicate that the site was established in the late 6th to 7th century (676-866 cal AD, 695-887 cal AD, and 695-942 cal AD), but these are not from the earliest levels and these remain to be dated. However, we can be sure that Drumclay was thriving at the same time as the nearby monastery at Devenish. It was flourishing during the 9th century when the ambo sculptures were carved at White Island. One house dates to the late 10th to 12th century (995-1153 cal AD) which is significant as this was a particularly turbulent period in the local area characterised by frequent warfare and burnings as local dynasties fought for supremacy. This, essentially, continued until the Maguries emerged as the dominant power in the area in the 13th century, and Drumclay has a house of similar date (1213-1279 cal AD). The house adjacent to the skeleton (& is broadly contemporary with it) dates to the 14th to 15th century (1326-1443 cal AD) and indicates that the site was intensively occupied during this relatively late period. This would make the occupation here contemporary with the establishment of the Maguire stronghold at Enniskillen, and probably with the construction of their castle in the early 15th century. But the story does not end there as above the layers dated to this period was another metre of archaeological layers and features that include further structures, hearths, artefacts etc. Thus, the crannog was probably in use and a focal point of the local landscape until well into the 16th century.

Turning to acknowledgments, Bermingham thanked the fantastic site crew for doing a remarkable job in particularly trying conditions. In particular, she thanked the public – both those who attended the conference and visited the site – for their interest in and support of the site and the excavation.