Monday, July 23, 2018

Further new discoveries in the Knock Iveagh landscape

Knock Iveagh is a hill, near Rathfriland, Co. Down. It was chosen as the site of a prehistoric burial cairn around 4,000 BC and continued into later times as the inauguration place of the Magennis chiefs. It has long been known that the hill sits at the centre of a significant ceremonial and ritual landscape. However, it is only now becoming apparent that the area has been significantly under-studied and under-appreciated. I recently contributed a short note on the possible external ditch visible around part of Lisnacroppan Barrow to the south-west of Knock Iveagh [here]. At that time I noted that the aerial photographs that had been made available to me, although very beautiful, were not of much archaeological use as some fields had recently been cropped and there was no vegetation differential that would appear as cropmarks.

The Friends of Knock Iveagh, undeterred, resolved to get a drone out and looking for further potential archaeological features as soon as possible. To be fair to them, they didn’t even have to wait for a drone! A local man, Mr David Ross, took to Google Maps and spotted an intriguing cropmark, approximately 1.1km to the north of the Knock Iveagh hill. He passed it on to the Friends of Knock Iveagh, who then made me aware of it. Although somewhat difficult to make out, it appears to be an oval, ditched enclosure. At a rough estimate, it would appear to measure c.57m (sw-ne), by c.42m. A darker portion of an arc to the north-east may suggest that the site was enclosed by two ditches. Given the size and shape, it's likely that this was a rath or ringfort - a defended homestead of the Early Medieval period. It would also appear that the site was, at some stage, tied into the local field ditch system as linear features can be seen radiating to the north-west and north-east. Other, similar features may exist along the southern portion of the site but are too ill-defined to be certain. This site is not marked on the SMR and appears to be a completely new discovery. About 190m to the north-east there’s an Early Medieval rath in Ballynafern townland (DOW 034:056), while an interesting site lies some 220m to the south-west in Ballybrick townland (DOW 041:015). This site is described in the SMR file as a ‘massive enclosed area’ and quotes the Ordnance Survey report: ‘… in Ballymeilbricktownland [sic.] which is a perfect ellipse. The transverse diameter 630 feet, conjugate 550 feet.’ The SMR file adds that ‘This was probably a very strongly defended large enclosure and must have served as an important ‘Royal’ centre or Assembly site.’ While portions of the enclosure appear in various editions of the OS maps and it appears to account for the curving bend in the road to the south, little if any of it appears to be upstanding today. Although some initial discussion centred on the possibility that our ‘new’ site was actually DOW 041:015, it is now clear that they are two different sites.

Aerial photo of newly discovered possible rath site
DOW 041:015 with several potential sets of ditches showing

In a wonderful example of ‘research in action’ that would do any university proud, the Friends of Knock Iveagh flew a drone in this area later the same day. One of the images they captured is quite remarkable and clearly shows the newly discovered site. The same drone flight went over the area of DOW 041:015 and, though slightly blurry, a still image from the video feed appears to have captured evidence of the large, curving outer ditch mentioned in the SMR (in the south-western portion of the enclosure). Inside this there appears to be evidence for several sets of curving ditches, apparently based on a single focus. Other photography released since, shows these 3-4 ditches quite clearly, with the tantalising possibility of a further rather gigantic ditch enclosing the whole. On this basis we can estimate that the site measured approximately 173m (nw-se), by c.140m – not terribly far off the approximate measurements given in the SMR file.

Overview of DOW 041:015 with several potential sets of ditches visible as cropmarks

That would be fine and lovely – new site confirmed and detail added to known enclosure – except that in that video there was a slight ‘OMFG! WHAT THE HELL IS THAT?’ moment. I first noticed a cropmark in the shape of a large, flat-based U-shape to the north-west of DOW 041:015. But that was the least impressive thing to be seen there. This field is awash with cropmarks of various kinds, but it seems clear that we can pick out a coherent sub-rectangular structure with a projecting circular corner. Right now there are several possibilities as to what this dense complex of features could represent. I don’t want to prejudge the outcome of any eventual archaeological excavation nor am I willing give too many hostages to fortune, but I think it should be recorded that the indefatigable Anne Harper has noted that the early 17th century patent rolls note that Sir Art Magennis had ‘a great Irish house’ in the proximity of Ballynafern/Ballybrick townlands. Simply put, this could well be a 'Bawn' or defended settlement and, at the moment and for want of a better term it has been delightfully described as 'Bawnesque'. My initial instincts, although buoyed up with adrenaline and the general thrill of discovery, are to say that finding one historically-recorded structure from cropmarks would seem unlikely. It may even be irresponsible to offer the connection without fuller and more comprehensive proof. But, dash it all, I would really love if it was right!

Video still showing flat-based U-shape feature

The serious point here is that a group of non-specialists, aided and encouraged by a small coterie of professionals and recovering archaeologists, have made some startlingly significant discoveries in this quiet corner of Co Down. As I said at the start of this piece, it is a landscape that has been significantly under-studied and under-appreciated until very recently. I can but hope that this new research and these further discoveries shifts a serious research focus onto the Knock Iveagh landscape and heralds a a new appreciation of this special place.

Field with 'Bawnesque' enclosure. The flat-based U-shape feature is visible at the top of frame

The Friends of Knock Iveagh continue to campaign against the breaches in planning process that led to a wind turbine being constructed on the top of the hill. I would urge anyone with a love for archaeology and a care for our shared heritage to go to their page, give it a ‘like’ & give it a ‘share’ [here]. These new images are copyright of the Friends of Knock Iveagh and PAK Aerial Media and I am forever in their debt for being given early access to them and for their permission to report on their discoveries here.

Ann Harper is keen to note that the Magennis house idea was a product of several minds within the Friends of Knock Iveagh group. Either way I thank them all, not least for introducing me to the concept of a feature being ‘Bawnesque’.

While I (and others) see a 'sub-rectangular structure with a projecting circular corner', at least one commentator on the internet has suggested that they see a penis shape ... I don't feel able to comment further on this ...