Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Lusus Naturae or the real thing?: Cropmarks in Shannaragh & Cornamucklagh, Co Tyrone


As many readers of this blog are aware, I run a small project where I collect radiocarbon &dendrochronology dates into a single catalogue. Back in 2006 it started out as a personal resource for my own research needs, but I found that other people also saw value in it and it has been publicly downloadable since 2010. I’m currently in the process of updating the catalogue for release (hopefully) later this year. One innovation I introduced a few years back was to provide a geolocation (as decimal Lat/Long) for every date. The work of getting the geolocation and then checking its accuracy is painstaking, hugely time consuming, and frequently boring. But sometimes, just sometimes, it reveals a gem.

Cropmarks in Shannaragh
I use a number of sources to get the geolocation that include data provided in the original paper or report, or (more frequently) the information supplied by the wonderful excavations.ie site. However I get it, I always end up checking it by putting it into Google maps. While it’s not fool proof, it can sort out some easy errors like ensuring that the site isn’t in the wrong county or off the coast of Madagascar (this happens more frequently than I’d care to admit). The other evening, as I was making my way through the backlog of unread printed works that sit like a Kubrickesque sentinel in my office, I happened upon a paper in Archaeology Ireland by Walsh & O'Regan (2016) on excavations at Shannaragh, Co. Tyrone. It’s a lovely article, the dates were gorgeous – all that was left was to check on the location … no bother, right? Popped it into Google maps and the ubiquitous red pointer appeared. All fine! But then my eye moved out and I noticed a group of six or seven fields, noticeably different from the rest of the surrounding landscape – an off-white to grey colour rather than the usual greens and browns. I’m not entirely sure what makes these fields different – perhaps they were recently tilled or harvested? In any case, they’re clearly different from their neighbours and the appear to contain a series of crop marks that I can now confirm are not on the Northern Ireland Sites & Monuments Record.

Close up of the 3-C complex
To my mind, the most obvious cropmarks (in black) are in the central portion of this group of fields and appear to comprise a circular enclosure (approximately 30m across) with some form of central feature. A second curvilinear feature appears to be appended along the north-west edge (also c. 30m across), with another outside it again (c. 30m across). There’s even a hint of a feature at the centre of the ‘middle’ ring. Together, they form a group that is somewhat reminiscent of the logo for Canterbury sportswear or the triple ‘C’ of ‘Comber Commercial Centre’ and frequently seen across Northern Ireland – though, most usually on the sides of vans and not embedded into the landscape.

Cropmarks in Shannaragh: an interpretation
The second area is in the southernmost field and my interpretation (in green) is that these is a central circular/sub-circular feature (c. 18m across), with a larger sub-circular feature outside this. It takes the ‘eye of faith’ but there’s just a hint that there is a curvilinear feature appended to the northern edge of this large enclosure (c. 77m across). Beyond these two areas I think I can see some other features, but nothing particularly clear or striking (in indigo).

Close up of the 77m structure
I sometimes find looking at possible cropmark images like those ‘magic eye’ pictures that were so popular in the 1990s – look at them long enough, relax your eyes, and you’ll eventually see something … probably. Does it mean there’s anything actually there? Not always. I’ve tried to rationalise what these might be, if they’re not archaeological. My first thought was that they might be (especially the 3-C complex) tractor turning circles, but they just don’t appear to line up with any of the obvious wheel lines. I may not be the most expert of tractor drivers, but even in my youth I could manage a tighter turn that 30m diameter! I’m reluctant to offer any solid suggestions as to what these features might represent or to when they might date (if genuine). I will say that my first response was that we’re looking at a large barrow cemetery, possibly dating to the Bronze Age, but the size of these features is well beyond what one would expect for a ring-ditch. Perhaps we’re looking at one large defended settlement and a smaller enclosure, extended over several occasions. Put in some test trenches and prove me wrong!

Google Streetview image of the Shannaragh field from the south-west
I’ve looked at the same area on the current versions of Bing maps and the OSNI Orthophotography available on the Historic Environment Viewer and in both cases the area presents as an ostensibly uninteresting green field. Even the Google Streetview imagery currently available (dated June 2015) shows the area as open grazing land and nothing to indicate any difference from the surrounding landscape, large numbers of tractor tyre marks, or any indication of underlying archaeology. Indeed, looking at these features on Google Earth Pro indicates that although there is imagery going back to 2009, these features only appear on the most recent version, taken on July 17 2017.

Cornamucklagh cropmark enclosure
Although I don’t fully understand the reason for these fields being of a lighter colour, I did think that there may other potential sites to be identified in similar areas in the locality. While I found occasional areas that might have something in them, all were unconvincing. That was right until I found THIS in Cornamucklagh Townland! There are some features that require the ‘eye of faith’ to see, some that are pretty clear … and then there’s this! If what I’m seeing is correct, this black (peaty?) area contains the majority of a circular/sub-circular enclosure that measures c. 60.5m from south-west to north-east. The main external ditch appears to be around 4m across, though this varies. As this curvilinear feature is the same grey/off-white as the soil in the vicinity, this might represent the remains of a bank rather than a ditch. Either way, there appears to be a defined entranceway to the south-west (c. 5.3m wide) and (possibly, but I’m not convinced) to the north-east. Inside this clear curvilinear is a somewhat less distinct light band that may represent a second bank or ditch (c. 4m wide). Although clearest in the northern half of the enclosure, it can still be traced around the majority of the interior.

Close up of the Shannaragh enclosure
A small number of white specks suggest internal features of some sort, but they’re too slight to make any pronouncement on. As an aside, I must remark that there is something so charming about the seemingly fragile lattice of later drainage ditches that cover the entirety of this field. Seen from this remove they appear wholly insufficient for their intended task. In terms of function and dating, my initial feeling was that, with two banks and/or ditches, this was likely to be a rath/ringfort (enclosed farmstead) of the Early Medieval period … but at over 60m across (twice the average diameter of this site type) part of me is really reluctant to be drawn on this. However, another part of me is jumping up and down, shouting ‘It’s a really big, f*$#ing important rath ... oooh! or a Henge! maybe it's a henge!!!!!’ … again, want to put some trenches through this and prove me wrong? Like the previous sites in Shannaragh, there is nothing either on Google Streetview or Bing maps that gives any corroborating indication. Also similar to the previous, Google Earth Pro has imagery going back to 2009, but these features only show up on the most recent available, also taken on July 17 2017.

I would sound one slight note of caution as this potential site is particularly close to the route of the Great Northern Railway Portadown to Londonderry branch line. In fact, the former railway works form the northern boundary of the current field system. While everything about these sites in general, and this enclosure in particular, screams to me of our prehistoric and early historic past, I’m still prepared that these may be but the remains of much more recent times or just what the late Etienne Ryne used to describe as ‘Lusus Naturae’ … just an illusion of nature. Again, why don’t we put some trenches in (or better yet, some geophysics) and see what’s really there?


Reference:
Walsh, F. & O'Regan, C. 2016 'Getting to the Point' Archaeology Ireland 30.4, 14-15.


Notes:
As I mentioned at the beginning of this piece, I’m currently in the process of updating the IR&DD catalogue and while it now has over 9,000 entries, I’m still always after more and if you have any radiocarbon or dendro dates you can share from Irish sites, I’d love if you could make contact and discuss it. Thank you!


Finally - if you like this post, please feel free to share it where others will like it too. If you really like it, please feel free to drop the price of a pint in The Tip Jar, even if I'll only spend it on books!

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Fear & loathing in Texas: The robes of a Grand Dragon of the KKK & some passing thoughts on statues of Queen Victoria

In the past while I’ve published two pieces on this blog about some of the exhibits on display at The Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin, TX [here | here]. For some time I’ve wanted to ‘round out’ the series with a third post about another exhibit that made an impression on me. I have, however, hesitated to tackle this piece and – on a few occasions – scrapped the draft post, considering it a topic best left alone. The reason for my hesitation is obvious enough from the photos – the exhibit that caught my attention was a set of Ku Klux Klan robes, specifically those worn by the Grand Dragon, the highest KKK official in Texas. Previous to walking into the space where they’re displayed, my closest encounter with Klan robes was seeing them on TV and in movies like Alan Parker’s Mississippi Burning and the Coen’s O Brother, Where Art Thou? I’ll admit that coming ‘face to face’ with these robes was quite an experience – it knocked the wind out of my sails and I came to something of an abrupt halt. In an era when such artefacts are almost universally regarded as egregious and offensive, it was a shock to see them displayed. Perhaps it is because there is a face mask to the robes with eye holes (windows of the soul, and all that) that I reacted to it in a way that’s different from any other form of displayed costume. When we see historic garments on display they are most often presented on faceless or headless mannequins. This was different. It felt that it had a personality - that some malevolence radiated from it. Of course, these were projections from inside my own imagination onto the garment. The robes themselves are, of course, blameless and no more evil than, say, Hitler’s lederhosen or Mussolini’s hat. The question instead comes from whether it’s right to display such an item and to what end?



I spoke with the docent on duty in the room and she outlined the museum’s policy and thought processes. The robes had been discovered by the donor during a house clearance of a deceased relative. After some consideration, they were donated to the museum who held them for several years, but did not put them on display. When they were eventually exhibited it was with the clear intention of confronting the racist past and not ignoring or marginalising any aspect of the State’s history. I probably spent longer at this exhibit than any other in the museum. Not just looking at it, but also noting the reactions of others. From what I could observe, opinions seemed to be divided between displeasure at its presence (up to and including vocal revulsion) and acknowledgement that it was an item - and part of a wider history - that still had to be negotiated.



I can only applaud The Bullock Texas State History Museum - they have created a poignant and though-provoking exhibit that confronts the realities of a racist past head on. At the time I saw this exhibit, I felt that this was no small thing, as it frequently seemed easier to remove statues, take down flags, and rename buildings than it was to deal with the historical issues and realities they represented. Until that point I had felt that many of these removals represented attempts - under whatever guises - to excise the uncomfortable historical past from public places. It made me uneasy as my thought process at that time was that any historical narrative that leaves out the difficult bits is no longer a true history, but something closer to myth. What I have come to understand in reading around this topic is, of course, that I'm not from any group that has suffered under these examples, so it may be easier to feel detached and analytical than I might otherwise be.

I also think that the key difference between the examples given above and the Klan robes is that the Bullock Museum's display is within a curated, educational space where questions like this can be sensitively handled. To clarify - these robes would have a completely different meaning and emotional resonance if they were worn in the centre of town than they do displayed on a museum mannequin. I don't pretend to have the answers - I'm still grappling with the questions - but I think that The Bullock Texas State History Museum have achieved something really special here in using a symbol of fear and hatred and creating place for discussion and contemplation of complex and painful histories.


All this may seem a little outside of my usual orbit of concerns and interests and, to some extent you’d be correct. However, it reminded me of the case from my childhood where the Irish government decided to part with the statue of Queen Victoria that had originally sat outside the Irish parliament buildings at Leinster House, Dublin. In 1908 the statue of Victoria by John Hughes – depicted as Irish Queen rather than British Sovereign – was unveiled to commemorate her visit in 1900. Following Irish independence in the 1920s there was a feeling that the statue should be removed, though this did not come about until 1948. After some time in storage at the Royal Hospital Kilmainham, the statue was quietly moved to what Wikipedia describes as ‘a yard behind a disused children's reformatory at Daingean, County Offaly’ in 1980. In all probability, there she would have remained, languishing in the Offaly sunshine and rain had it not been for a request from the Lord Mayor of Sydney, Australia, for the statue to be relocated to decorate the Queen Victoria Building in central Sydney. At the time it was seen as an expedient means of dealing with a painful piece of the Colonial past. I think that the statue and the robes became cemented together in my mind as about a month or so after I returned from Texas, Irish Cabinet papers relating to the statue were released under the 30-Year Rule. The papers showed that while the Taoiseach (Prime Minister) of the day, Garret FitzGerald, supported the plan to transport Victoria, he was opposed by two prominent individuals: the director of the National Museum of Ireland, John Teahan, and Minister for Finance, John Bruton. The latter argued that “The monument is representative of one of the many traditions of Irish history. It is part of our heritage in no less a way than Norman or Viking remains”. The text of Teahan’s memo to the cabinet is particularly eloquent: “If we are deemed not to be mature enough to distinguish between the art-historical merits of Hughes’ Victoria, for instance, and a symbol of authority, which does not or at least should not apply, I advise that such a figure be retained and protected until we have grown up sufficiently to look that Queen, long dead, straight in the eye”. The arguments presented by the Johns did not win the day and Victoria was sent on her merry way to the other side of the planet. I see resonances of both sides of this argument in my own reaction to the Klan robes and the comments surrounding some of the other examples given above – remove something considered to be painful and oppressive from sight vs retain it as part of the larger historical narrative of a place and time. It strikes me that another thing that these robes, statues, and commemorative buildings all had in common is that, in their day, they were considered appropriate (however one might like to define the term) by people in various positions of power. They themselves haven’t changed – times and attitudes changed … the world turned and these were left behind. The same goes, of course, for statues that came down in more violent/less structured circumstances in post-Soviet countries, post-Sadam Iraq, and not forgetting Dublin’s own Nelson’s Pillar


This brings me to another thought … what happens if our ‘safe’ statues of today fall victim to the crime of surviving into another era? In the shadow of Brexit, the possibility of Northern Ireland amalgamating with the Republic of Ireland has raised its head again. In such an alternate future, how long would the statue of Edward Carson (that stalwart of Ulster Unionism) at Stormont resist? How about Seán Russell, IRA leader and Nazi ally? His statue has already been vandalised and there have been calls for its removal. Times are changing in Ireland and the grip of the Catholic church continues to erode. As part of this process, is it not at least possible that we could foresee a time when the statues of clerics are moved and removed - Fr Theobald Mathew dismantled? Fr Michael Griffin put into storage and his road in Galway renamed? We can’t deny that the Far Right has made considerable political gains in both the UK and the US – in such a world could we not see the statue of Trade Unionist, Jim Larkin being lifted by his giant hands and placed on the back of a waiting truck? Such scenarios may seem far-fetched, but not so long ago the idea of removing a statue of Jefferson Davis from The University of Texas at Austin would have seemed outlandish too.




I realise that I’ve strayed much further than I ever intended from the topic of the Klan Robes. They set me on a mental ramble that has led me towards providing personalised contexts for how I might perceive attempts to alter public places and statues (some I would be in favour of retiring, others less so). I can claim no specialised insight other than to reinforce the view that there is a complexity of emotional and intellectual responses where these competing ideas and histories intersect. Again, I do not pretend to have anything approaching an answer to how we go about negotiating our interactions with contested heritage assets. But, a first step must be an acknowledgment that a variety of competing views exist and that no single group has exclusive ownership of the history of such artefacts. In this context, the museum’s approach in displaying these robes (although logistically simpler than, say, displaying a larger-than-life-size equestrian statue) is a particularly valuable step in seeing what can be achieved by an institution committed to telling the fullest story possible, not just the easy-to-digest bits. I still feel the we should not excise painful or shameful pieces of our history, but we don't need to preserve them in places of honour where the values they represented continue to cast an oppressive pall. For this reason, I think it's time we tapped the Australians on the shoulder and asked for our statue back ... perhaps it's time to 'look that Queen, long dead, straight in the eye'.


In many of my posts I ask that, if you like my writing & think it's worth supporting, you consider throwing something in the Tip Jar. While I won't object (and would be very grateful), I would ask in this instance that you put something in the direction of The Bullock Texas State History Museum - they do fantastic work in educating people about the history of their State and their donation page can be found [here].

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Co Armagh: Archaeological Objects at The British Museum

The British Museum holds 35 items identified as coming from Co Armagh, along with one item assigned to either Armagh or Meath. The majority of these (14) are assigned to the Neolithic/Bronze Age, followed by the Early Medieval period (12). The most common object type represented are axes (11), followed by penannular brooches, pins, and ringed pins (4 each). The most common material types are represented in this assemblage are: Metal (19) and Stone (13).


Neolithic/Bronze Age: Stone items
Armagh
axe
19151208.281
Flaked flint axe with flat, slightly angled butt.

Armagh
axe
20050501.289
Flaked stone axe.

Armagh
axe
20050501.3
Large polished stone axe with rounded butt, dappled colour.

Armagh
adze
20050501.296
Polished stone adze with tapering butt, damage to butt end of one side.

Armagh
adze
20050501.295
Large polished stone adze with missing butt.

Armagh
adze
20050501.294
Large polished stone adze with missing butt.

Armagh
axe
20050501.293
Polished stone axe with uneven blade.

Armagh
axe
20050501.292
Polished stone axe with rounded butt.

Armagh
axe
20050501.291
Polished stone axe with flat angled butt.

Armagh
axe
20050501.290
Polished stone axe with flat butt, possibly due to damage.

Armagh
axe
20050501.298
Polished stone axe with slightly damaged butt.

Navan, rath
axe
18510717.200
Polished stone axe with slightly tapering, rounded butt.

Ahorey
end-and-side scraper
19641206.228
Flint end-and-side scraper.


Neolithic/Bronze Age: Wooden item
Armagh
mallet
St.923
Wooden mallet.


Neolithic (?)/Bronze Age (?)/Iron Age (?): Bone items
Navan, rath
pin
18510717.130
Bone pin shaft.

Navan, rath
needle
18510717.120
Two fragments of bone needle.


Bronze Age: Metal items
Armagh
axe
19890301.179
Copper alloy short-flanged axe; cast.

Armagh
axe
18620617.300
Copper alloy flanged axe; cast.


Late Bronze Age: Metal items
Crif Keran Castle
penannular ring
18620617.200
Gold small penannular ring. The circular body is decorated in the outer surface with small round punch marks. The terminals are very close and plain.
1150BC-750BC (circa)

Cadey
sleeve fastener
18620617.100
Gold sleeve fastener. The small crescent-shaped body is decorated with longitudinal incised grooves on the outer surface. The ends are decorated with a diamond pattern located between two bands of three horizontal incised grooves.
1150BC-750BC (circa)


Iron Age: Metal item
Bondville
brooch
18620617.400
Copper alloy brooch. Broad, hammered leaf-shaped bow. Two longitudinally grooved arcs, each open to edge of bow.
1 - 100 (circa)


Early Medieval: Metal items
Armagh (near)
penannular brooch
18531117.400
Copper alloy penannular brooch with long pin and coiled terminals.
5thC-11thC

Armagh (near)
penannular brooch
18531117.300
Copper alloy penannular brooch with long pin and coiled terminals.
5thC-11thC

Armagh
ringed pin; ring brooch
18620617.800
Copper alloy ringed pin with ribbed ring with circular setting opposite hinge partly filled with yellow paste (amber or enamel ?).
5thC-10thC

Armagh
pin
18620617.110
Leaded brass crutch-headed pin of circular section, somewhat corroded.
10thC-11thC

Armagh
ringed pin
18531117.600
Copper alloy spiral-ringed pin with baluster head and shank of oval section and rectangular section towards top.
5thC-9thC

Armagh
ringed pin
18531117.500
Copper alloy spiral-ringed pin with baluster head and shank of oval section.
5thC-9thC

Navan, rath (near)
pin
18620617.100
Leaded gun metal pin with bevelled square head, an arc incised across corners and dots punched on top and sides; four rows of dots on stem.
5thC-11thC

Navan, rath (near)
penannular brooch
18620617.600
Copper alloy penannular brooch with lightly grooved hoop and small hollow circular terminals with similar knobs on hoop nearby.
5thC

Cairn of Vanaghan
ringed pin
18620617.500
Copper alloy spiral-ringed pin with baluster head; shank of oval section; ring transversely ribbed.
5thC-9thC

Legher Hill
ringed pin
18620617.700
Copper alloy ringed pin; top of shank pierced and incised diagonally with three lines below; rectangular section with flattened hook.
5thC-10thC

Kilmore, churchyard
pin
18531117.110
Copper alloy crutch-headed pin with three ring-and-dot motifs on either side of head.
10thC-11thC

Navan, rath, east side
penannular brooch
18680709.190
Copper alloy penannular brooch with grooved hoop; expanding terminals with spiral decoration, rebated for inlay; cylindrical pin-head.
6thC-7thC


Medieval: Leather item
Armagh, bog
shoe
18890930.200
Shoe; one piece of leather; thong fastening up front and back; slits near heel and either side of instep.
14thC


Medieval: Metal item
Armagh
finger-ring
AF.1875
Finger-ring; gold, slender hoop thickening towards bezel, which is an oval setting with a sapphire held by four short claws.


The following item is listed in the museum catalogue as coming from either Armagh or Meath:
Bronze Age: Metal item
Navan (Armagh)/Navan (Meath)
spear-head
18510717.140
Copper alloy socketed spearhead, side-looped.