Monday, March 18, 2013

How to dig holes and alienate people. Archaeological protest in early 21st century Ireland

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Stuart Rathbone  

The public face of 'Save Tara'

This paper has had a rather long gestation. It began as a brief presentation at the WAC 6 conference in Dublin in 2008 entitled, 'On Becoming the Bad Guy. Recent experiences in Irish Archaeology'. Later that year an expanded version, 'The View from the Bottom of a Ditch', was given as part of Achill Field School's evening lecture series [Facebook | Website]. Subsequently ever more elaborate versions were presented to the different groups of students that attended the field school during my four years of tenure there. A popular part of the course reserved for occupying part of a rainy day, it became known as 'the Hippy' lecture, presumably because of my passionate anti-protestor rhetoric. In the tradition of every good bigot I feel compelled to explain that I am not 'anti-hippy' in general terms, and indeed, some of my best friends are hippies...

Events that took place in 2012, and which are still ongoing at the time of writing, provided a reason to revisit this work, and an excuse to come up with a third title. I want to thank Robert Chapple for his generosity in allowing me to finally commit this cathartic work to paper and hopefully I will feel better now I've finally got this off my chest! I should also point out that what follows is a highly personal and essentially quite unbalanced take on a very complicated series of events and reactions. In no way has this been authorised either by the National Roads Authority or by ACS Ltd, the contracting firm at centre of much of the discussion.

Once upon a time people liked us...
"Oh wow, you're an archaeologist. That must be so exciting." It's a sentiment most people working in archaeology must be familiar with hearing. There are other reactions of course, but in general I think archaeologists grow to expect positive reactions to their work. "I'd have loved to do that but..." is another common response. I've always assumed the unspoken end to that particular line of thought goes, "... I'm not dumb enough to have tried to make a living in your ridiculous profession. Now can you please complete your unemployment benefit form and get your smelly arse out of my nice clean office." I'm not sure why so many of us fight so hard to make a career in archaeology, although I may one day complete my threatened study on the links between commercial archaeology and mental illness. I am convinced that the feeling that the work is inherently valuable, that we are spending our lives doing something worthwhile, is at least one strong motivational factor.

During the decade I spent working in Ireland there was a strange and often bewildering transformation in how pre-development archaeology was perceived and reacted to. A series of increasingly problematic projects took place that led to wide spread criticism of contract archaeologists. Here I wish to look at some examples of these projects and scrutinise what happened, examining in detail some of the criticism that was levelled at the profession.

The first project that attracted wide spread criticism were the two year long excavations that took place at Carrickmines, Co Dublin, beginning in 2000. In advance of road construction on the edge of Dublin the outer works of an important castle were excavated. Ultimately the Director of the site was so enamoured with what he found he attempted unsuccessfully to campaign for the in-situ preservation of the remains. I am not in possession of enough details to analyse what took place at that particular site, although the situation does seem to have been responsible in a large part for the re-organisation of the way in which archaeology was dealt with on major infrastructure projects from 2004 onwards, with the shift away from individual licenses being held by a contracted individual to the system of consents held by the organisation commissioning the work.

Save Viking Waterford and Woodstown 6In 2003 a second project began which was to eventually attract much criticism in the press, Woodstown 6. I was briefly involved in the fieldwork at that site and followed the ensuing public debate closely. The site was located on the banks of the River Suir a little upriver of Waterford. It was identified during test trenching on the line of a proposed new motorway linked to a new bridge crossing the river and consisted of a series of large ditches defining an elongated semi-circular enclosure with the river shore on one side. Artefacts recovered early in the excavation indicated Viking period activity on the site, immediately bringing forth the question of whether the site represented an example of a Longphort, an over-wintering encampment known to have existed in some number, but which have long remained elusive. As several phases of investigation took place news about the discovery slowly filtered out. Somewhat unexpectedly this led to the foundation of the confusingly titled 'Save Viking Waterford' campaign which triggered tremendous public interest in the site. During the summer of 2004 the newspapers and radio shows were filled with talk of the damage archaeologists were doing to this nationally important site. In a lengthy article in Archaeology Ireland one of the principal activists, Dr Catherine Swift, laid out her complaints about the archaeological work that was occurring, and what the campaign proposed should happen to the site (Swift 2004).
Irish commercial excavation was criticised for a lack of prompt reporting and publication, the burial of reports in the private vaults of the companies and for writing reports in a manner that they could only be understood by a professional. These points are worth reviewing in some detail as they are representative of complaints that have been repeatedly levelled against the Irish commercial archaeological sector (i.e. O'Sulivan 2001).

Criticising the lack of publication is valid, but the situation is not straight forward. We are all aware that there is a massive backlog of unpublished sites, but how many of them are genuinely worth publication and how many are in the process of being published? (see Chapple 2013 for a thought provoking discussion of this issue). In the context of Road Schemes, the NRA has been responsible for a veritable deluge of publications, something Dr Swift explicitly stated she doubted the organisation could manage. Clearly there is a delay between the end of an excavation and the production of a published account. How long should this take? The process is long and complex and it is surely preferable to wait for a properly constructed final publication than receive a rushed account that doesn't realise the full potential of the site. This problem is hardly confined to the commercial sector. Dún Ailinne, Co Kildare, Donegore Hill, Co Antrim and Deer Park Farms, Co Antrim have all been recently published, respectively 32, 24 and 27 years after excavations were completed (Johnson & Wailes 2007; Lynn & McDowell 2011; Mallory, Nelis & Hartwell 2011). A determined effort is currently under way to ensure the Céide Fields research will be published before 25 years will have passed since the fieldwork in Co Mayo was completed (Caulfield et al. 2009).

The claim that reports are buried in private vaults of the archaeological companies is again only partly true. It is of course natural enough that companies maintain an archive of their own work but copies of the reports are also stored in the vaults of the National Museum and the National Monuments Service. In many instances companies will provide access to work once it is completed, it is after all of little or no financial value to them, although having contacts within the company can make this process easier. The passing around of information in PDF form is very common, either done through official channels or otherwise, but the reports should be accessible through the NMI and the NMS, and if that is not happening than it is hardly the fault of the contracting companies. The database provides general summaries of all excavations, and provides the relevant contact details so that enquiries can be followed up, hopefully successfully.

Is there really a problem with the tone of excavation reports? Would it be preferable if excavations were presented as pop-up books, or included the option to colour in your own site plan?  Sarcasm aside, site reports tend to be written in a very dry and dull style, but that doesn't make them difficult to understand, it makes them a tedious read. Tough luck! A lack of professional editing is a problem, and some archaeologists could do with learning how to structure their thoughts more cohesively. However it is within academic archaeology that incomprehensible texts occur in greatest quantity. Anyone familiar with the modern styles of Neolithic or Contemporary Archaeology will be well aware of how dense and impenetrable it is possible to make archaeological texts. It is also worth highlighting that the NRA has gone to great lengths to produce a range of material for different audiences, with the blue monograph series, the magazine Séanda and numerous leaflets specifically produced for non-specialist audiences. Therefore as with the comments regarding lack of publication this criticism is less relevant to road projects.

A more bizarre accusation levelled by Dr Swift centred on her admission that she had been involved in an excavation in Britain where skeletons had been torn out of the ground en mass by a commercial company and that;
“it seems unlikely that unfortunate scenarios such as this are not also happening in the contract archaeological scene in Ireland. If they haven’t happened yet they will undoubtedly do so in the future.”

Here the attempt seems to be to imply that Irish contract archaeologists are simultaneously culpable for poor practices occurring in other jurisdictions and of Philip K Dick style future crimes. Both jurisdictions in Ireland are fortunate to have legislation protecting archaeology that are whole orders of magnitude stronger than those in place in Britain. To date no evidence of licensed directors bulldozing cemeteries in the Irish Republic has come to light. The NRA have now published some extensive excavation reports detailing the careful excavation of numerous cemetery sites, such as Johnstown in Westmeath (Carlin, Clarke & Walsh 2008), and  to be frank, this accusation remains as illogical and offensive today as it did when it was first published.

The stated aims of 'Save Viking Waterford' were also a little strange. A first priority was to divert the road away from the site, a sensible enough suggestion. However they then wished to arrange for the site to be fully excavated (under the direction of Dr Swift perhaps?) to 'research' standards and ultimately for it to be turned into a 'Jorvic' style visitors attraction. Whilst we might expect a protest group to campaign for 'preservation in situ' the stated goal was rather unexpected, and no explanation of where funding for such a massive undertaking was forthcoming. During the excavation it was determined that the topsoil over the site contained a large number of artefacts and a condition was placed on the excavation that all removed topsoil was to be carefully sieved. Such a requirement has a dramatic increase on cost and given the sheer size of the site the cost of full excavation would be unfeasibly large. Additionally the archaeology, apart from the ditches, consisted mostly of shallow and heavily truncated cut features. Such features would be difficult to present to the public without enclosing the site, and even then would not present much of a spectacle. The ongoing difficulties experienced by the visitors centre at Navan Fort, Co Armagh, demonstrate clearly what happens if the archaeology on show, no matter its importance, does not have enough potential to excite the casual tourist. Perhaps the reference to the 'Jorvic' centre was more specific and the plan was to create a disappointing and overpriced historically themed wax work?

In the end the site was declared a National Monument, the new road was redesigned to avoid the site, and a small series of additional works were commissioned in order to complete preliminary investigations of the site. It is the opinion of the sites director that the 'Save Viking Waterford' campaign had no impact on the decision made to preserve the site in situ; the importance of the site was recognised at a very early stage and works proceeded cautiously and thoughtfully towards the inevitable conclusion to divert the road (Ian Russell pers. comm.) Woodstown and the rest of the sites excavated on this road scheme were fully published in 2012 (Eogan & Shee Twohig 2012).

Save Tara and the M3 Motorway
Shortly after the initiation of work on the site at Woodstown a larger and even more controversial project began, the M3 Clonee to Kells motorway. This large scheme involved building a motorway from the edge of Dublin up to Navan and then on to Kells. Unfortunately this meant the road had to deal with the issue of the Hill of Tara, which was located very awkwardly just where the road needed to be built. If Woodstown 6 had caused some concern in the press the work at Tara seemed to trigger a national crisis.

During the testing phase of this project there was a steady rumbling of discussion taking place in the background, but once the excavation phase began all hell broke loose. Whilst 'Save Viking Waterford' was a civilised organisation largely centred on letter writing and organising seminars and lectures, 'Save Tara' was a very different beast.  A confederation of neo-pagans, hippies, enviro-Mentalists and other gobshites utilised all manner of direct action techniques in their attempts to alter the course of the road. This included regular noisy rallies at the entrances to selected excavations, protest camps on the Hill of Tara and at Rath Lugh, mass trespass events, chaining people to construction machinery, and digging and occupying illegally excavated tunnels at Rath Lugh. Sadly my suggestion that sites threatened by mass trespass and other protest events and gatherings could be protected through the simple measure of hanging bars of soap and job application forms along the perimeter fences did not find favour with the NRA, but I remain largely convinced that such an approach is worthy of formal trials. A number of influential archaeologists came out as very outspoken critics of the road scheme and whether through choice or circumstance became allied with 'Save Tara'.

The results of the testing phase had indicated that a large number of sites were present along the route of the road. Given that this was at the height of the economic boom and the NRA were well aware of the sensitivity of the project and the level of scrutiny the work would be under, the subsequent excavations took place with seemingly limitless budgets. Whatever else is said about the scheme it should be acknowledged that the quality of excavation that took place was of the highest order, and that one of the lasting legacies of this project will be a triumphant account of the archaeology that was encountered. An Iron Age timber circle of unprecedented scale discovered at Lismullin has been promoted as the most important site. It was ascribed National Monument status and it is the first site to be have been pushed through to full publication (O Connell 2013). The process of singling out an individual site is a little odd, and I find it is the totality of the archaeology excavated along the whole route that excites the most.

The 'Save Tara' campaign was noticeable for the amount of disinformation that was produced, and for how often spurious claims were published in what might be assumed to be reliable places. For example a small article in the news section of Current Archaeology (Volume 211, September/October 2007) stated that;
“Political protest and legal action failed to halt the motorway. But work nevertheless ground to a halt within 24 hours of the bulldozers moving in when the site of a large wooden henge was found along the route at Lismullin”.
The issue of Current Archaeology that printed factually challenged 'Save Tara' propaganda in the news section.

The second sentence is incredible in that all four of its assertions are factually incorrect; work never halted, bulldozers weren't used to strip the site, it wasn't a henge and it had been discovered several years previously. Remarkably the editors had chosen to reproduce verbatim a factually challenged pamphlet produced by the 'Save Tara' campaign group. It is hard to see how such carelessness could be permitted in a normally well researched magazine, and it is quite at odds with a series of four articles by Brendon Wilkins published in Current Archaeology in 2010 and 2011 which review in quite glowing terms the work of the NRA (Current Archaeology Issues 247 to 250).

A random but widely touted entry into the debate was an official statement by the Massachusetts Archaeological Society;
“The proposed construction of a major motorway through the Tara Archaeological Complex has been brought to our attention by our members. Our board of trustees voted unanimously, at its meeting of September 8th 2007, to oppose this project.”

A careful search of the MAS website at the time revealed no indication that they had carefully reviewed the scheme or that they had digested the complex route selection procedure or decided a preferred alternative route or other solution.

The most contentious contribution was an article in the Journal of Public Archaeology by Maggie Ronayne (2008). This surreal paper reads more like the sort of attack usually limited to ultra left Marxist or Anarchist pamphlets, and many entertaining hours can be spent pulling apart the factual inaccuracies and misrepresentations it contains, as well as boggling at the attempt to link the construction of the M3 to the 'illegitimate' war in Iraq!

She begins with the assertion that her report details the;
"process unfolding in one country, focusing on road development, the corruption upon which it is necessarily founded, and the role of archaeology"

but fails to establish why road building should be considered by necessity a corrupt process. Later she asserts that;
“WAC 6 will be held in UCD in June 2008; this congress will be pivotal because WAC will decide for or against archaeologist’s accountability to communities and their life or death struggle for survival, and for or against embedding the profession with cultural destruction in the private sector.”

This marks a gross distortion of the ideals of WAC, ignores the fact that WAC has absolutely no mandate to decide or enforce anything of the sort, and leaves us to wonder in vain about exactly whose lives were actually under threat? Moving on to factual inaccuracies we can find benign examples such as;
"In 2004 the government changed the heritage law, allowing the minister for the environment to decide what was a national monument, what sort of protection it merited, and what interests to consider – including ‘development’ and ‘progress’ – when deciding whether to order it’s preservation in situ, excavation or demolition."

which simply misrepresents the changes to the legislation in 2004; it always was the ministers prerogative, the legal changes reorganized how some excavations were managed with the introduction of 'consents'. A more malicious inaccuracy was unforgivably included;
“Another highly significant, multi-period site on the route was dealt with in a different way: Barronstown was destroyed by machinery in the middle of the night”

The Ring Fort at Barronstown was widely reported to have been destroyed in the middle of the night. In reality it was immaculately excavated over 6 months by one of the most experienced Directors then working in Ireland at that time, Steve Linnane. This work has been subject to several different forms of intermediate publication, including one that had already been published a year prior to Ronayne's article, and a full strategraphic account that has been freely available on line since 2009 (Deevy 2007; Kinsella & Linnane 2009; Linnane & Kinsella 2009). The origin of this disinformation seems to be that when the excavation was fully completed the spoil from the site was pushed back across the site, a standard procedure that took place at most, if not all, sites on the M3 for health and safety reasons. It has never been clear why Barronstown was singled out in this way.
Images from Barronstown Ringfort. Clearly not bulldozed in the middle of the night!

Sometime in 2007 I was accosted by an angry gentleman in Clarkes Bar in Drogheda who, having found out I was an archaeologist, started telling me what exactly he would do if he got hold of the person who was responsible for destroying the site at Barronstown. He looked quite shocked when I said that he should hold on a minute, as the person in question was out the back having a smoke and I would go and fetch him forthwith. Returning moments later with a slightly confused Mr Linnane I introduced the two of them, informed Steve what the now visibly paler man had recently told me and left them to it. It is my understanding that Steve was subsequently bought a pint.

Whilst that anecdote rather highlights the sort of dick I am in person, it also highlights how much harm was done by the lies that were spread, deliberately or otherwise, in a country where the majority of people care so passionately about their past. When forced to have difficult discussions regarding how the needs of development can be paired to the need to protect or excavate archaeology the least we can expect is for the different parties to act honourably and honestly.

Amalgamated protest groups as seen with the M3 are a peculiar phenomenon, and archaeologist seeking to engage with them must act with the upmost caution if their own integrity is not to be compromised. The Neo-pagan elements in such groups are perhaps the most difficult to understand, although having been active in the UK for a considerable time period there is some useful literature we may turn to. Archaeologist Robert Wallis and Anthropologist Jenny Blain who have studied the eco-pagans in Britain and argue for respectful engagement with the group;

“To an outsider pagan interests in the past may appear laughable, spurious and romantic; and we would agree that some pagans do romanticise the past to bring a missing element into their lives. Yet Pagans are deeply committed to their religious practices and take their interest in prehistoric ‘ancestors’ very seriously”
Holme 2. A photo and plan of the unique Norfolk site that was destroyed by the North Sea to placate Pagan sensibilities.

Even if we accept that they take their interests in the prehistoric past seriously I struggle to see why their opinions hold weight. Most archaeologists take their interest in the past very seriously and, unlike the neo-pagans, they know what they are talking about. I reject the relativist notion that our opinions, formed after many years of serious study and involvement, are of equal value to those held by some van dwelling dreadlocked tax burden called Moomin Troll. In the UK these groups have had considerable success by organising to deliberately skew public consultation processes which take place whilst real people are out working. Before we dismiss the threat as harmless we need to consider the fate of the Holme 2 Circle, the remains of a palisaded barrow found a few hundred metres along the Norfolk coast from Seahenge. That site was allowed to be destroyed by the North Sea, rather than being excavated and conserved, in order to appease some misguided notion of poetic appropriateness held by this noisy, unpleasant and largely unproductive sub group of society (Brennand & Taylor 2003). Do we really wish for archaeological policy to be influenced by people who share the same opinions as Emma Randall Orr, head of The Druid Network;
"As an Oral tradition, Druidry does not anchor itself with scientific or historical facts... attitudes towards the ancient dead are a significant part of the clash between Paganism and the fact searching archaeology. Within Paganism the dead are revered. Where known, their actions are honoured through stories retold, their wisdom remembered. We breathe their breath, singing the same songs, crying the same tears…”
Personally I strongly believe that the Irish public are happy to trust archaeological matters to qualified archaeologists, and in normal circumstances would be horrified to find out that idolatrous heathens were influencing decisions. I suggest this is why there was a requirement to spread so much disinformation, in order to discredit the archaeologists working on the project. If archaeologists are to engage with Pagan groups surely it is relationships with informed and rational bodies such as Pagans for Archaeology [Blog | Facebook] that must be sought out and encouraged.

Ultimately the M3 road was completed on time and in the location that was planned. The information gained from the excavations will take many years to process and our understanding of the landscape of Tara will have been dramatically altered and improved. It would be very interesting to see a survey of the people living in the area around Tara, and of those who use the new road for their daily commute, to see if they think it was worth the damage that was caused. It would also be interesting to see if visitors to Tara find their experience has been negatively impacted by the road, and if so, by how much. I remain impressed with the engineering solution and, as promised, the road is scarcely visible from the Hill of Tara itself. It also has to be stressed that the Tara landscape was not some pristine wilderness whose integrity could be destroyed by a single development. It is a busy landscape not far from the capital, and with its preponderance of stud farms and large scale farming concerns it is not a landscape that had been particularly accessible to the public. My personal opinion is that the road is well designed and that the quality of the excavations that took place will set a standard for other projects to aspire to. Being English I am simply not in a position to comment on the emotional impact of the scheme; Tara isn't the spiritual heart of my country. I suspect the NRA underestimated how much acrimony the road would generate, and how much damage would be done to the reputation of Irish Archaeology as a whole. With hindsight we may wonder if putting the road in that location was really worth the hassle it caused. It seems likely that the experience of the M3 will have a lasting influence on future route selection processes and other similarly large or controversial developments.

Cherrymount Crannog Crisis
In 2012 a very different sort of protest group was formed in response to another site that was threatened by road construction. A substantial and well preserved crannog was being excavated in Northern Ireland, on the line of the new road close to Enniskillen. News of the site broke publically on the 17th and 18th of July  when a brief report and several pictures of the site were unofficially released on Robert M Chapple's blog (Chapple 2012) describing the current state of the site and that the excavation was due to finish on the 20th July, clearly well before the excavations could be satisfactorily completed. Shortly after a Facebook group was established, 'Cherrymount Crannog Crisis'. Vocal members of the group seemed to be largely drawn from the commercial archaeological sector, although some prominent academics and state sector archaeologists were heavily involved.
This protest group was noticeably different from the previous examples in several ways. It had no desire to halt any road building or divert the road. The focus was simply ensuring that the important site was excavated to the standard it deserved and was not butchered over a handful of weeks which, seemingly, had been the original plan. It should be acknowledged that by the time the problem had come to light publically such serious ground works had occurred around the site that in situ preservation was probably not a viable option.

The protest group consisted largely of a coalition of well informed archaeologists, and in many ways the group treated the matter as an internal issue, writing directly to local politicians, communicating with the IAI, and writing to the Minister of the Environment, Alex Atwood. The internet was used to inform the international archaeological community, with articles appearing on Past Horizons and the IAI weekly newsletter for example, and coverage being given in Archaeology Ireland, British Archaeology and Current Archaeology magazines. The mainstream press was involved to some degree, with TV coverage on RTE and UTV and newspaper articles appearing in the Irish Times, the Belfast Telegraph and the Fermanagh Herald. A presentation was made by three principle members at the November 2012 Institute of Archaeologists of Ireland conference in Belfast (Seaver, O’Dowd & Chapple 2012). Due to the level of interest shown about the site open days were held at the site in December 2012, and February and March 2013.

Debate centred on a Facebook page and was kept polite and impersonal. There was clearly an unspoken agreement in place that names of individuals and companies involved would either not be mentioned or only mentioned rarely. When opinions challenging the views of the group were posted these were met by calm, polite and often detailed responses. Attempts at 'trolling' the site were met with quiet indifference. The apparent politeness shown on the site need not be touted as an example of the virtue of contract staff. It seems likely that the current levels of job insecurity prevalent in the contract sector meant there was a certain paranoia about publishing comments that could cause offence.

The group can claim to have made enough impact that repeated extensions have been granted to the excavation team. At the time of writing, a full seven months after the original planned end of the excavations, work at the site continues and the site is clearly as well preserved and as important as had been suspected at the outset of the protest group. It is still not clear if the work can be completed by the current deadline or if a further extension will be required, but if such an extension is required it seems certain the group will become very active again.

The existence of archaeological protest groups is an interesting and important issue for Irish Archaeology to grapple with. We should not forget that it was public protest that led to the proper excavation of the Viking remains at Wood Quay and other locations in Dublin, projects that ultimately laid the foundations of contract archaeology in Ireland. In a country where people invest so much importance and passion to their history we should not be surprised to see strong reactions to the idea that archaeological remains are being illegitimately treated.

The success of the 'Cherrymount Crannog Crisis' protest group is important. Spontaneously formed as a response to an urgent crisis, it established realistic goals and appears to have achieved them. It is noticeable that it is also the protest group that has caused the least amount of collateral damage. The other two protest groups had, perhaps, overly ambitious goals and failed to achieve them, although they have done serious damage to the reputation and credibility of commercial archaeology in Ireland.
The site at Woodstown is once again a quiet pasture on a sleepy stretch of the River Suir. Abandoned by the NRA, the 'Save Viking Waterford' campaign does not appear to be attempting to raise the funds they would need to pay for the excavation and the development of their proposed tourist attraction. If they did ever secure funding would we find out what they meant by excavating to 'research' standards? Presumably they didn't mean the site should be excavated by a load of hung over undergrads more interested in planning their next infidelity than the feature they were working on? Perhaps they are continuing to attempt to protect the site, for instance ensuring the protection of the site from the very real threat of illegal metal detection, but they have apparently been inactive for several years now and the website seems to have last been updated in 2010.

And the fate of Tara? Tara was not saved, so has it been destroyed, or is it still sitting majestically in that same urban/rural periphery it was before the NRA ever drew a speculative line on a map? I've often wondered if the most vocal of the opponents of the project would make a stand and boycott using the results of the excavations that took place? Obviously not, that would be counterproductive to their careers, (see Newman 2011 for example) but it makes you wonder if they ever spared a thought to how their comments may have impacted on the careers of other people?

What seems clear is that we need to establish a better mechanism for dealing with controversial archaeological projects instead of having disagreements played out in public. Alliances with dubious groups from outside the profession and engagement with a media that cares only about newspaper sales and filling airtime has the potential for very serious consequences. It is public interest and support for archaeology that permits such extensive excavations to take place in advance of development. If the process of archaeology becomes devalued then the risk is that the standards of excavation required will be allowed to drop, to the detriment of all involved. Ideally such matters would be resolved quietly, prior to the commencement of a project. At present there is no mechanism through which such discussions can take place. Obviously the public consultation process for the M3 left many archaeologists feeling that they had not been listened to. The IAI aspires to be the place where such discussions could take place, but to many people the IAI is too strongly linked to the contract sector, as was admitted in a 2004 interview by then Chair Eoin Halpin, who went on to confess that no one pays statements by the IAI much attention (Condit 2004). The provision of a more neutral forum for such discussions could easily be established, especially as it need only be convened when it was specifically required. The 'Cherymount Crannog Crisis' group provides a basic model for how such a forum could be organised through the new media. A board of moderators from high levels across all fields of the profession could be used to give such a group legitimacy. Even if certain members of such a forum felt dissatisfied with the outcome of such discussions and decided subsequently to establish protest groups, the forum would still be in a position to issue statements that genuinely could represent the majority opinion of the Irish archaeological community, and further more would be an ideal place through which disinformation and untruths could be swiftly countered. Above all else, that has to stop. It is simply not acceptable for archaeologists, no matter how passionate about their cause, to propagate lies about the work of other archaeologists.

The reader may wonder why I have chosen this time to bring up what is, in effect, already old history, with some of the comments reviewed above being almost a decade old. It seems to me that much of the debate was criticising the fundamental principles of pre-development archaeology, that the notion that sites could simply be removed as required providing they were properly excavated was really what was being challenged. Given that development has all but ceased across Ireland as a whole I would argue that now is precisely the time when such debates should take place, whilst nothing is actually under imminent threat. It is more likely that calm, rational and honest conversations could take place at present, and if we do need to formulate new approaches to how archaeological sites are dealt with, this is exactly the time for that to be discussed and decided.

Brennand, M. & Taylor, M. 2003 'The Survey and Excavation of a Bronze Age Timber Circle at Holme-next-the-Sea, Norfolk, 1998-9' Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 69, 1-84.

Caulfield, S. et al. 2009 Neolithic and Bronze Age Landscapes of North Mayo 2009 Summary Report. The Heritage Council.

Condit, T. 2004 'Glass Half Full?' Archaeology Ireland 18.4, 15-17.

Deevy, M. 2007 'A site visit with a difference' Seanda 2, 18-20.

Johnson, S.A. & Wailes, B. 2007 Dun Ailinne: Excavations at an Irish Royal Site, 1968-1975. University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology.

Kinsella, J. & Linnane, S. 2009  'A preliminary assessment of the social role of an impressive rath at Baronstown', in M.B. Deevy and D. Murphy (eds.) Places along the way: First findings on the M3, NRA Monographs No. 5, 101-122. Wordwell.

Mallory, J.P., Nelis, E. & Hartwell, B. 2011 Excavations on Donegore Hill, Co Antrim. Wordwell.

Newman, C. 2011 'The sacred Landscape of Tara' In R. Schot, C. Newman & E. Bhreathnach (eds.) 
Landscapes of Cult and Kingship, 22-43. Four Courts Press.

O'Sullivan, J. 2001 'Soap Box: biscuits, bread and fishes - a data famine in times of plenty' Archaeology Ireland 15.4, 33-34.

Seaver, M., O’Dowd, J. & Chapple, R. M 2012 'Drumclay, Cherrymount, a crannog in crisis' Blogspot post.

Swift, C. 2004 'Woodstown and the N25 - a reply to Professor Gabriel Cooney' Archaeology Ireland 18.4,  22-25.

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Friday, March 8, 2013

'Wingnut' the archaeology cat

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'Wingnut' in relaxed pose
I recently encountered the story of Migaloo, the black Labrador who has been trained to sniff out human bones several centuries old. Australian dog trainer Gary Jackson, owner of Multinational K9, has pulled off this remarkable feat and discovered a number of aboriginal graves in South Australia, and hopes to assist in the recovery of bodies from WWII battlefields in Europe. Inevitably, Migaloo is now being billed as ‘the world’s first archaeology dog’. I’m sure he is, and I’m very happy for him. However, it will come as no surprise to pet owners that cats got there first … and by quite a while!

When I was younger I did not particularly like cats – I had nothing against them, but I was definitely not ‘a cat person’. That was right up until I was introduced to Wingnut. My wife brought him home one day from a local animal shelter and he immediately set about being furry and cute - and instantly won my heart. In short order, this was followed by him first ridding our student accommodation of its rodent population, and then seeking out every mouse on the entire terrace. We, of course, knew that he was talented – he could form himself into all the various poses of an heraldic lion (rampant, passant, sejant, couchant, etc.) … well, until you took your hand away and he legged it. There was also talk of him starring in a fully-costumed, one-cat production of Les Misérables. Unfortunately, this plan was curtailed by my inability to sew, sing, or operate a video camera without being clawed. Ah! What might have been!

One day I was sorting some finds and, purely as a joke, I held up a piece of struck flint in one hand and a sherd of 19th century pottery in the other. I looked at the cat and asked: “Wingnut, which of these is older?” … he immediately went to the flint and rubbed his head against it – this cat knew his archaeology! Over the coming months the experiment was repeated multiple times with different artefacts and different questions – “which of these is younger” that type of thing. He never once got the answer wrong! This continued for quite some time, becoming something of a party trick and impressing all those who came in contact with it.

I think it was in late 2002, when I was monitoring topsoil stripping at a site in Toome Co. Antrim, I had a few bags of Late Mesolithic flint in the house when an acquaintance called. I showed him the flint to see if he could confirm my dating of the pieces. Somewhere along the way the conversation turned to the fact that, while his opinion was all very nice, it wasn’t necessary as I’d already had confirmation from the cat. I explained that I’d held up a piece of flint to Wingnut and asked: “Wingnut, is this Neolithic?”. He looked at the piece, but came no closer. When I asked: “Wingnut, is this Mesolithic?” he looked again. This time, however, he came up close, sniffed it and then signalled his assent by rubbing his head against it. My visitor was less than impressed and muttered darkly about bias in the sample, the cat taking slight facial cues from me to ‘choose’ the correct answer etc. “Nonsense”, says I … “try it yourself and see”. Once again we went through the tests of ‘which is older’, ‘which is younger’, ‘is this Bronze Age/Neolithic’ etc. Every time he got it completely correct. My visitor, angry and perplexed at his apparent inability to disprove my thesis, and the cat’s obvious talent, suggested a different question: could the cat tell the difference between a genuine artefact and a natural piece of flint. Picking up two pieces of flint, he held them up for feline inspection and asked: “Wingnut, which of these is a real artefact?”. I’d never tried this test, so I was on tenterhooks wondering which way this would go. In what feelt like a glacial expanse of time, the cat looked up, had a bit of a stretch, and sniffed both pieces of flint. My heart was hammering in my chest as he took a second look at both … and then stroked his head against the wrong one! … In that moment, my guest was elated and I devastated … but it is only for a moment as he immediately went to rub his head off the second piece of flint. He’d chosen both pieces, but this was little consolation to me and detracted in no way from the heinous glee of our cynical visitor – the cat was wrong and the 100% track record was shattered. Except … as he placed the two pieces of flint back on the arm of my couch, I notice something … I asked: “Er … that ‘natural’ piece you have there … is that not a bulb of percussion at that end … right beside the striking platform” … Yes, the cat had spotted what we had both missed – both pieces were genuine artefacts. 100% reputation restored!

Fantastic, marvelous Cat: 1
Self-proclaimed flint 'expert' (now with rage issues): 0.

Wingnut passed away in 2007 after a long illness. Typically, he survived for over two years after he’d been given six months to live by the vet, having been diagnosed with both kidney failure and FIV. I wish Migaloo no ill-will, and do not contest the title of ‘archaeology dog’. However, like the acknowledgement that Clément Ader achieved powered flight before the Wright brothers, I think it appropriate that this uniquely-talented feline be given the place he deserves in the annals of our discipline: 'Wingnut'  - the archaeology cat!

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