Friday, December 27, 2013

Drumclay Crannog, Co. Fermanagh. Dr Nora Bermingham | Lecture to the UAS December 9 2013 | Review

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Drumclay crannog under excavation. Source.
Regular readers of this blog may be aware that – to put it mildly – I’ve something of an interest in the Drumclay crannog in Enniskillen [here | here | here | here | here | here]. So, when the Ulster Archaeology Society announced that they had booked Dr. Nora Bermingham to deliver their December lecture on that very site, I was immediately intrigued ... to say the least! By tradition, all UAS lectures are held in the downstairs lecture hall of the Elmwood Building, at QUB. The last time I was in this hall was in December 2012, when I was speaking to the Society on the Middle Bronze Age ritual complex at Gransha, Co. Derry~Londonderry. On that night we were in the grip of flag-related rioting and you could occasionally hear the distant sound of police helicopters in the skies and the intermittent scream of a police or ambulance siren. I had all of 30 people in the audience that night – and was happy to get them![1] But this … this was somewhat different! The lecture theatre has recently received a complete refurbishment and looks superb with new seating and state-of-the-art display systems. However, the main difference was that the space was packed – there was hardly a spare seat to be found. This site has generated huge interest and media coverage and expectations were running high.

Excavation director, Dr. Nora Bermingham (centre), with archaeologist Andrew Cunningham (left), and (then) Minister for the Environment, Alex Attwood, MLA. Source
After an introduction by the great and wonderful Barrie Hartwell, President of the Society, Bermingham began by acknowledging the hard work of the site crew and noting that the site had been funded through the Department of the Environment and the Department for Regional Development. Turning to the site itself, she first provided something of the context of crannogs in Ireland generally. These are artificial (or semi artificial) islands, generally built close to the lake shore. There is thought to be approximately 2000 crannogs known on the island of Ireland. Some 141 known or suspected sites lie within the modern county of Fermanagh. As their distribution is, of necessity, related to lakes, they are found in the ‘lakiest’ (my term!) parts of the island, i.e. mostly in the midlands and western Ulster. Given their complexity, and the attendant expense of investigation, not to mention the logistical difficulties involved in their investigation, very few have been excavated in recent times. Although not exclusively so, the majority have been found to be of Early Christian origin. The Drumclay site lies approximately 2km to the north-east of Enniskillen town in an inter-drumlin lake. It lay close to the shore, no more than 30m from the nearest land. It has been known about since the 1835 when it appeared on the Ordnance Survey 6” maps (it also appears on the 1860 revision) and it was visited by Wakeman in the 1870s (1873, 322). At that time the lake had been partially drained and he described it as ‘rather a dangerous swamp’. He also records that he had been informed that a dugout canoe (‘of the ordinary kind’) had been found in the vicinity and had been reburied. The process of draining the lake appears to have continued throughout the late 19th century, eventually leaving the area as a ‘blind’ or seasonal lake. Certainly, by the 20th century, the area was a difficult-to-access expanse of swampy ground. Diplomatically skipping ahead to August 2012, Bermingham noted that the site had been surrounded by ‘rock armour’ as part of the road stabilisation process. At that time the site measured something in the order of 30m in diameter, though it eventually proved to be approximately 80-100m in diameter.

Bermingham proposed that she would present a chronological account of the crannog, essentially giving the discoveries of the excavation in reverse.  Before there was ever a crannog, there was a shallow lake underlain with deep silts and muds. It was into this material that numerous poles were driven vertically. This process helped to partially drain the area and also created a stable working surface. Directly on top of these poles a series of platforms were created, each made of several overlapping layers of wood. The chosen wood was chiefly alder (Alnus) and Bermingham noted that this was a wise choice, demonstrating considerable woodland knowledge, as alder lasts particularly well in watery environments. Bermingham drew the audience’s attention to the fact that this material would, most likely, have been sourced locally in the landscape immediately surrounding the site. She also noted that the quality of the woodworking displayed on these timbers was extremely basic and devoid of all niceties – just enough rough working to make the logs fit. This is a recurring theme among the structural timbers recoded on the site, each receiving only the bare minimum of working to make any individual piece fit for purpose. When completed, there were at least eight platforms. There was one, large, central platform, surrounded by several smaller examples. The smaller examples were each 10-12m in diameter and all were bounded by low wattle walls. This appears to have – literally – laid down the foundation for the development of the site, as each platform appears to only have been used for one building at any given period and houses were repeatedly built and rebuilt in the same locations over much of the history of the site. Thus, the format of the site was that of a large, central house with a number of satellite buildings and/or open areas. The stratigraphy has yet to be wholly untangled, and it is currently unclear as to which platforms were built in which order, but the central example was by far the largest and deepest. Between the platforms and the buildings evidence was recovered for several pathways that appeared to have been maintained over a considerable period of time. The evidence indicates that these platforms were consolidated and reconsolidated time and again throughout the history of the site, and that the whole was subject to running repairs from the time of its construction. Throughout, the stratigraphy is extremely complex and difficult to untangle. There is a partial parallel to this at Cloneygonnell, Co. Cavan, where Wood-Martin (1886, 197-8, fig. 205) investigated a similarly constructed platform. However, this earlier example was a single large platform, approximately 90ft (27.5m) in diameter as opposed to the several smaller tessellated examples at Drumclay. Bermingham noted that there was a further possible parallel known from Scotland, but that it lacked the depth of stratigraphy and the length of occupation. At Drumclay what is not currently known – though this may become clearer as the post-excavation dating strategy progresses – is how many of these platforms were occupied at any one time. The central house may have been a permanent fixture, but how many of the satellite platforms either housed structures or were left as open areas at any one time is, to say the least, unclear. In all likelihood there were multiple houses and ancillary structures in operation simultaneously. The challenge for Bermingham and her post-ex team is differentiating which ones were contemporary!

Cloneygonnell, Co. Cavan (Wood-Martin 1886, fig. 205)
Bermingham can ascertain that there were something in the vicinity of thirty houses built at Drumclay. As previously noted, these were repeatedly built and rebuilt on the same footprints, though it is currently difficult to ascertain how many were occupied during any given phase. The house types recorded include rectangular, round, and figure-of-eight examples. Up until the excavation at Drumclay the prevailing consensus was that round houses predated rectangular houses in Early Christian Ireland and that the change between the two occurred during the 9th to 10th centuries. The possible reasons for this change are varied and still actively debated, but the chronology appears sound. However, at Drumclay rectangular houses predate round houses, in some cases by quite significant periods of time. Bermingham noted Pat Wallace’s theory, based on his excavations in Viking Dublin, that rectangular houses could be an indigenous development, as opposed to one imposed or adopted from outside. Bermingham is hopeful that the unparalleled opportunity for dating and investigating the genesis of this building tradition can now be investigated in a depth not previously possible. All of the houses investigated were of post-and-wattle construction, with double-skinned walls. Entrances were preserved as were thresholds and door jambs. There was frequent evidence for internal divisions, but very few of the houses showed evidence for internal roof supports.

Example of rectangular house. Source.
Section of post-and-wattle walling during excavation. Source.
As an example of the rectangular houses, Bermingham showed images of one that measured up to 8m long and up to 4m wide. She noted that some houses possessed a central aisle similar to the ‘triple aisled’ Dublin Type I houses. In a number of instances, large logs were recovered from the immediate vicinity of the hearths and may have been utilised as benches. Also near a number of hearths were slotted beams packed with the remains of smaller posts, similar to ones recovered at Deer Park Farms. Bermingham speculated that these may have been used as heat reflectors to direct heat from the fire to other areas of the house.

Roundhouse with log underfloor. Source.
One example of a roundhouse was c. 6m in diameter and was significantly stratigraphically above (and later than) the previous rectangular house –by 1-1.5m! The roundhouses appear to have been built to a similar process, starting with the construction of the walls and the laying out of the hearth. Roughly hewn timbers were then used to create a log under-floor around the central hearth. This floor space was subsequently built up. In some cases this included rough cobbling, though there appears to be evidence that sod floors were deliberately laid down. Bermingham also noted that the arrangement of the log under floor and hearth was such that no room was left for a central post or other internal roof supports. There was also evidence for one figure-of-eight house, and possibly some traces of a second example. It was hoped that careful excavation and recording of these structures would indicate whether these structures were of a single phase of construction or if there was one initial house with a later addition. Unfortunately, the expansive roots of a later alder tree obscured and destroyed the vital ‘junction zone’, so that issue is unlikely to be resolved here. This particular figure-of-eight house was stratigraphically later than the previously discussed roundhouse, lying over 1m directly above it. Above this particular collection of houses there was a layer of made ground, 1m to 2m thick, intended to consolidate the site, which appeared to be suffering from subsidence at this time. Beyond this time all habitation appears to have been concentrated on the northern side of the crannog. With regard to the excavated hearths, Bermingham noted that they could be divided into two broad categories: either slab-lined or clay-lined. Both were rich in finds, including bone combs etc. Again, many bore strong resemblances to those excavated in Viking Dublin.

Stone-lined, rectangular hearth inside house. Source.
Bermingham stressed that the evidence at Drumclay was very different to that from other sites – including antiquarian accounts and even more recent excavations, including John Bradley’s investigation of Moynagh Lough crannog – where at any one phase there was one central house and a small number of out buildings. At Drumclay there appear to have been several substantial buildings in operation at any one time.

The excavation also uncovered a number of workshops. The best one was a rectangular area on one of the satellite platforms. It was quite different in construction to other buildings as it had no evidence for wattle walls, being merely defined by a kerb of logs. This would suggest that these were open areas, as opposed to enclosed buildings. The most artefact-rich of these areas included three consecutive smithing hearths, indicating that a coppersmith had been active here at one point. Lower levels of the workshop indicated that it had previously been dedicated to carpentry as all the recovered waste related to woodworking. A second workshop was discovered on the south-east side of the site, but was not so rich in hearths and associated waste. Bermingham emphasised that one of the aims of the post-excavation phase would be to examine just how people organised living in such a wet, cramped space.

Archaeologist Cathy Moore displaying one of the quern (grinding) stones. Source.
Turning to the finds, Bermingham noted that many were recovered from the south side of the crannog, indicating that material was being thrown out and away from the site, out into the lake. Many artefacts were discovered within the houses. In particular, the association between hearths and recovered items is such that the traditional explanation of them being casual losses appears unlikely. Instead, they may be evidence of deliberate foundation deposits, placed at the time of construction. In all, some 5497 artefacts were recovered from the site. The range of finds is impressive and includes: amber, antler, animal bones, copper alloy, glass, gold, iron, leather, pottery, shale/lignite, stone, textile, and wood. Of these, approximately 3000 were of pottery, making this the finest collection of crannog ware/Ulster Coarse Ware yet excavated.

Sole of leather shoe. Source.
Nineteen examples of shale/lignite bangles were recovered, along with one bead of the same material; Three amber beads were recovered and are thought – on stratigraphic and stylistic grounds – to be pre-Viking. The rarity of amber at this early date is such that it must underline the high status of the occupants. Only six glass beads were recovered, along with a small number of bangle fragments. Bermingham noted that in the case of the glass, it is still unknown whether these were imported as finished objects, or were created on the site begin – another puzzle that post-excavation research may be able to resolve.

Excavation director, Dr. Nora Bermingham, showing off an elaborate glass bead and a copper alloy dress pin. Source.
Upper layers of the crannog under excavation. Source.
Some 34 combs, of different types, were recovered during the excavation. These include a 7th century high backed comb with possible bird-head decoration. Ian Riddler, the well-known small-finds specialist, identified the combs and has suggested that this example may be paralleled with finds from Clonmacnoise, Co. Offaly, and Carraig Aille, Co. Limerick. Bermingham stressed that even with a secure date for the artefact, there are a number of possibilities in its relationship to the structure within which it was found. These include the two being contemporary and the artefact dates the house or it could have been an heirloom, significantly older than the house within which it was found. Among the high-status single sided combs is one ‘Auspicious Comb’, dated by Riddler to the period from 1050 to 1125. This example is 22cm long, and while not the longest on record is certainly among the higher end of the known range. Bermingham also noted that this example appeared to have been deliberately placed in a compartment within the house. The corpus of Drumclay combs also included a number of double-sided single-piece combs, similar in appearance to the ‘nit-combs’ still sold today. The majority of these appear to be of Late Medieval date (post 16th century).
Very large single-sided comb. Source.
Single-sided comb. Source
Portion of single-sided comb. Source.
Double-sided bone comb. Source.
The gold finger ring was described by Bermingham as being very plain and that, if you didn’t know its age and origin, you’d consider handing it back to whoever gave it to you! Four or five pieces of copper alloy wire were recovered from the site and are less than 1mm in thickness. One of the wooden dishes from the site was found to have been repaired using just this form of wire. Some 127 copper alloy dress pins were recovered during the excavation and no two are the same. Most date to the period from the 7th to 9th centuries, and a number may be paralleled to finds from Knowth, Co. Meath. Bermingham also showed an image of a Type 1 pin, dating from the 8th to 9th centuries that may be paralleled with one from Chris Lynn’s excavations at Deer Park Farms. One stone mould was recovered during the excavations. It appears to have been for casting silver ingots, and may be paralleled with finds from significant sites, including Lagore, Ballinderry, and Knowth. A number of iron objects were also recovered from the site. These included an iron axe head with a portion of its wooden handle still surviving. This woodworker’s tool has been dated to the 9th century. A selection of general purpose iron blades were recovered, some of which appear to have been deliberately deposited. Two iron spear heads (and the remains of a possible third) were recovered during the excavation. Bermingham emphasised that these could as easily have been used for hunting or as weapons of war. The same can be said of the carpenter’s axe and the general purpose blades – all could have been used for the most mundane and prosaic of activities, and still served as weapons in times of trouble.

Extremely simple gold finger ring. Source.
Copper alloy dress pin. Source.
Iron shears. Source.
Iron spearhead. Source.
One of the fantastic things about wetland sites is the potential for preservation of wooden objects that simply do not survive elsewhere. In this, Drumclay is no exception as it produced approximately 1000 wooden finds. Bermingham noted that this can be put in context by considering that Pat Wallace at Wood Quay in Dublin, recovered c.600 wooden items, and the extensive excavations at Coppergate in York produced c.1500. That both of these were large-scale, urban, excavations as opposed to a single, rural site merely highlights the importance of Drumclay. To illustrate the diversity of the recovered artefacts, Bermingham used a slide that simply listed the categories of the objects:
Barrels, beater, board, bowls, boxes, buckets, combs, cups, dishes, distaffs, dowels, gaming board, gaming pieces, handle, hoops, ladle, lids, log boat ... tuning key ...
Cross-inscribed cheese-press. Source.
… well, that’s as far as I got before my hand cramped! Bermingham noted that the gaming board and pieces were recovered from the south-western portion of the site, in the same general location as the unusual amber beads. She wondered if the discovery of these two forms of prestige items in the same area had any particular significance. Bermingham displayed an image of one of the carved vessels from Drumclay, decorated with carved interlace and pokerwork, and noting that it is an almost exact parallel to one illustrated by Wood-Martin (1873, 101, fig. 102). Another of the major finds from the site was a cheese press inscribed with a Greek cross. Bermingham noted that crosses were occasionally found on leather objects (including one from the Fishamble Street excavations in Dublin), but this is the first time that one has been found on a wooden object. She noted that the presence of the cheese press itself indicated the importance of dairying. There appear to be no Irish parallels, but there is possibly one known from Oakbank crannog in Scotland. Another potential avenue for research that Bermingham noted was the Irish tradition of using the Christian cross as a charm to ward off bad luck in butter and cheese making. With regard to the wooden spoons, Bermingham mentioned how a number were recovered from Drumclay, but that they appear to be the only known examples from Ireland. Bermingham noted that the volume of finds recovered at Drumclay from secure, well dated, contexts is such that there is now a significant hope that chronologies for various artefact types will be significantly refined.

Decorated wooden vessel (Wood-Martin (1873, fig. 102)
Example of gaming piece. Source.
In terms of dating the site, it appears from the artefacts that the site was in some form of use from the 7th to the 17th centuries. So far, there are five radiocarbon dates available from low levels within the site, but not the lowest levels. These are: 830-1036 cal AD; 773-944 cal AD; 709-937 cal AD; 694-888 cal AD; 677-864 cal AD. The stratigraphy shows that the site was probably intensively inhabited from the 7th to the 10th centuries, but more sporadically inhabited after this point.

Archaeologist Cathy Moore, shows off a remarkable well preserved portion of a wooden keg. Source.
Turning to the historical context in which the Drumclay crannog was built and used, Bermingham suggested that it may have been the property of a local vassal king, though it may have become associated with the church at some stage. Tantalisingly, she pointed out that in the Irish Life of St Molaise (associated with nearby Devinish Island) there is a reference to a place called ‘Drumclay’. It is not yet known if there’s sufficient evidence to link that Drumclay to this Drumclay … but the possibility is distinctly intriguing! In the Irish Life Molaise visits the local king and subsequently receives the residence as a gift, having miraculously saved the place from being consumed in a fire. I hesitate to suggest it, but perhaps the post excavation research should examine the archive for evidence of a partial (but not all-devouring) conflagration on the site … though considering that the saint is believed to have died in 564 AD and the occupation here didn’t begin until the 7th century, it may be a red herring!

At this point, the lecture proper concluded and the discussion was thrown open to the floor. I have recorded a number of the most pertinent answers (you can work out the questions!) to give a flavour:

A: All wooden poles and logs were cut and trimmed with axes – there was no evidence for the use of saws.

A: In the later levels there is evidence for the use of reeds, straw, bracken and even sod flooring, but there appear to have been no ‘finished’ floors in the earlier phases.

A: No evidence for a causeway from the shore to the crannog survived as the site had suffered truncation along the perimeter.

A: We’re not sure what types of games were played on the recovered gaming board, but it may have been related to the Scandinavian game of Hnefatafl.

A: There was a small amount of evidence for post-16th century occupation, but the site had been pretty much abandoned by then.

So, there we have it - A fascinating glimpse into the amazing discoveries at this remarkable site! In what seemed like a very brief hour and a half, Bermingham managed to convey some of the wonder of discovery, the complexity of the remains, and the difficulties of excavating such a well-preserved, multi-period site. She also drew attention to the potentially vast new insights that may be gained as a result of this project, not the least of which are refinements to artefact and architecture chronologies. I should point out that I had no expectation that Bermingham would (or should) deal with what may be euphemistically described as the ‘difficulties’ encountered prior to her appointment as Site Director. Nonetheless, the fact remains that we are still waiting for the publication of Prof. Gabriel Cooney’s review, ordered by the (then) Minister for the Environment, Alex Attwood. I am given to understand that the report has been completed, but has yet to be made public. Until such time as the report enters the public realm, we are left with no official account of the planning process behind the selection of the route, the archaeological advice given, the oversight provided by the NIEA, the actions of the original site director (and his employers), along with those of the consultancy who supplied the archaeological labour. From the currently-available information, it appears that a number of these people have serious questions to answer about their professional behaviour. I truly look forward to the eventual monograph that will be the outcome of the Drumclay excavation. From Dr. Bermingham’s lecture, it is clear that it will be a landmark publication, with significance for Early Christian/Medieval studies not just on this island, but across Europe. However, the publication of Cooney’s report is, arguably, of greater significance as it will potentially speak to systemic issues within the entire process of archaeological legislation, oversight, resourcing, and excavation. I look forward to reading both!

Wakeman, W. F. 1873 'Observations on the principal crannogs of Fermanagh' Journal of the Royal Historical and Archaeological Association of Ireland (4th Ser.) 2 (2), 305-324.

[1] That’s my excuse, and I’m sticking to it!

[general] There was an awful lot to take in during this lecture and I’ve done my best to record the material as delivered. However, if I have deviated in any significant way from the topic, or misheard any point, the error is mine alone.

Update April 2014: An edited version of this post can be found on pages 8-10 of the Ulster Archaeology Society's [Website | Facebook] Newsletter [here]

Friday, December 13, 2013

Iverni: a prehistory of Cork | Review

William O'Brien. The Collins Press, Cork, 2012. 2 Volumes, xii+284pp. ISBN 978-1-84889-149-4. Was €39.99 now €31.99.

Back in November of 2012 I published Archaeological Excavations at Tullahedy County Tipperary. Neolithic Settlement in NorthMunster: Review. I liked the book an awful lot and was lavish in my praise. The post came to the attention of the publishers, The Collins Press [Website | Facebook | Twitter], who were understandably thrilled. They asked me if I’d like to review another of their archaeology titles and, without fully realising what I’d signed up to, I said a hearty Yes! – A free archaeology book is a free archaeology book, after all! At the time, I was unemployed and glad for any archaeology book I didn’t have to pay for … and I certainly had the time – as a middle aged man on the dole, there’s only so many hours a day you can spend reading rejection letters for entry-level positions! Unfortunately, by the time the book arrived, I was gainfully employed and – I’m sorry to say – this beautiful tome was left to languish unopened and unloved in my library. To be completely truthful, I’d largely forgotten about it.

It was, thus, with a sudden, rising sense of panic that I received an email from the lovely people at The Collins Press, enquiring as to whether I’d written the review and if they could have a copy – please. I’m actually slightly horrified to think that I first met the author of this book over 20 years ago. Billy O’Brien started as a lecturer at UCG (now NUIG) – I think – the year after I left, so around 1991/92. It has been years since I saw him, but I remember it distinctly. It was on a very cold, and overcrowded train out of Dublin … sometime before 2002 … he was attempting to make his way up the carriage, carefully negotiating the throng, when he spotted me. With a long, bony finger he prodded me firmly in the gut, declaiming loudly in his broad Cork accent: ‘Well, didn’t you get FAT, bhoy?’ It’s true – there’s no denying it – I’m overweight. I need to lose quite a bit … OK – I need to lose a lot of weight. I call myself fat all the time. But, like someone giving out about a family member – it’s fine if I do it, but if you join in, you’re an asshat! I’m not making myself out to be the good guy here - I muttered something equally complimentary to him. After exchanging a few more similar jibes he continued his meander through the serried bodies packing the train, each of us probably equally relieved to be rid of the other. I give this one example of the timbre of our relationship over all the time we’ve known each other – it was ever thus! As I say, I make no pretence to being the injured party, camped on the cosy moral high ground – I’ve given as good as I’ve gotten. All the same, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I really wanted this book to suck – hard!

I’m just going to be honest here and note that I really tried hard to dislike this book – I tried and tried, but I just couldn’t. At one point I’d actually given the book away to the care of another, in the hopes that they could provide the fair and balanced review that I felt I would be unable to. Unfortunately, fate had other plans and the book was returned to my care, unloved and unreviewed. As it turns out, I should have relaxed ages ago and just given in. It’s an excellent book for everyone from the ‘interested amateur’ up to the ‘serious student’. It’s not a textbook for the professional – and it makes no claims to be such, but even the professional archaeologist will find much to enjoy here.

In the Preface, O’Brien notes the long human presence in what is now the Cork and emphasises the need for a regional archaeology, attuned to the distinctive evidence preserved in the county. At times that evidence indicates that the region was going along with the broad themes of prehistory as seen across the island, but at others there is evidence for a distinct Cork ‘voice’ where a divergent path was taken. In Chapter 1: The prehistoric landscape of Cork, O’Brien sets the scene, with the ubiquitous description of the physical landscape (If I had a pound (or even a Euro) for every time I’ve read ‘X is a region of contrasting landscapes’ I could retire!), followed by an excellent introduction to the history of antiquarian and archaeological research in the county, going from the 1675 sketch of the Labbacallee wedge tomb, up to the scientific investigations of today. Importantly, he highlights the role that the amateur archaeologist can play in the important work of discovery, recording and protection of our ancient sites – an important service, all too frequently overlooked by the professional archaeologist!

After a brief rumination on the possibility of Pleistocene (Ice Age) settlement in the area, Chapter 2: The Age of Stone: Early Foragers and Farmers (7600-2500 BC) gets stuck into the evidence for the Mesolithic. While highlighting a lack of field research for the paucity of known sites, he also identifies the sinking coastline as a potential reason why many sites have disappeared. Essentially, the current coastline only took on its present form in the period from 3000-1000 BC, undoubtedly leaving much of the older evidence either drowned, or destroyed. Nonetheless, there is excavated evidence for Early Mesolithic activity from the county at Kilcummer Lower, and microliths have been discovered during fieldwalking at several locations in the Blackwater valley, including Castlebalalgh, Ballynamona, and Lefanta. Recent excavations, undertaken as part of the NRA programme of road developments, have also revealed material of Early Mesolithic date at Muckridge 1, Rath-Healy 3, and Curraghprevin 3. At the last site the evidence is in the form of a small hearth and three stake-holes, the hearth providing a radiocarbon date of 7330±60 BP (6363-6062 cal BC, Beta-201071) from Scots pine charcoal. The Late Mesolithic also has a relatively sparse showing in Cork, with the majority of finds being recovered during fieldwalking. Again, the author pays close attention to the most recent excavations, including noting the flint flakes and mudstone axehead recovered from a pit at Caherdrinny 3, along with features at Gortore 1b, and Curragh Upper. After a brief introduction to the ‘first farmers’ and the Neolithic in Cork, O’Brien examines the relatively rare Cork portal tombs. Only two definite examples (Arderrawinny and Ahaglashlin), along with a putative third (Rostellan), survive in the county, and each is discussed in a separate case study. Passage tombs are similarly scarce in Cork, with only two (Killickaforavane and ‘The Lag’, Ringarogy) known from the county. Each is discussed briefly, but in sufficient depth to provide real flavour of the sites. This is followed by succinct case studies of a number of the Neolithic houses known for the county, including Pepperhill, Gortore, and Ballinglanna North 3. O’Brien follows this up with a brief, but relatively comprehensive, summation on the introduction of the Neolithic into Cork and how it appears to have lagged behind the rest of the island. The chapter concludes with a short digression into the Late Neolithic in general, and Grooved Ware pottery in particular.  Evidence for these (frequently) line-decorated, flat-based vessels has been recovered from Ballynacarriga 3, Ballynamona 1, and Coole Upper. This may seem like a fairly ordinary progression for a chapter on the Neolithic, until you realise that so much of the evidence O’Brien skilfully marshals to tell the story is from relatively recent, commercially based, excavations, often as the result of the road building schemes from the ‘Celtic Tiger’ years. This is significant and for a number of reasons. Firstly, it illustrates how important the archaeological discoveries from this ‘golden age’ of Irish archaeology really are in giving flesh to the prehistory of Cork – and the island as a whole. The NRA have done a magnificent job in bringing so many of these sites topublication, and disseminating this knowledge to the professional archaeological world in particular. Now O’Brien takes the next step – bringing this new material into the wider realm. Non-specialists, those with an interest in archaeology, the public – call them what you will, but bringing this level of knowledge to ‘the general reader’ is a massively important step in the chain and O’Brien is to be commended for doing it so well.

Until reading this book, I hadn’t realised just how sparse the evidence for the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods are in Cork. True, the large-scale developments of the last decade have added significantly to our knowledge, but the fact remains that Cork is not overly endowed with evidence for these periods. Instead, Cork really is a Bronze Age county. To some extent, this explains my suspiciously raised eyebrow when, on scanning the contents list, I saw that three of the chapters (out of seven) were based around the Bronze Age … four, if you count the relatively short Copper Age or Chalcolithic as more of a ‘metal’ Age rather than a ‘stone’ one. In Chapter 3: The Age of Copper: First Metalworkers (2500-2000 BC), O’Brien plunges directly into this topic, providing a brief, but enlightening, section on ‘The Earliest Copper Metalwork in Cork’, before getting to grips with the Ross Island mine. Although in county Kerry, it is though that this one location supplied all of the copper needs of the island for approximately 500 years. Considering that this site was excavated by O’Brien, and is of the highest significance to our understanding of the Bronze Age in Ireland, he shows admirable restraint in keeping his synopsis so concise and to the point. This is followed by a general statement of our knowledge on what is still termed ‘Beaker culture’, and then an examination of the presence of this distinctive pottery form cross the county. O’Brien then provides an excellent synopsis of the Wedge Tomb monument type, examining origins, economy, and society. However, the heart of this section is his concentration on the excavated tombs, including ‘classics’ like Labbacallee and Island – both excavated by the late M. J. ‘Brian’ O’Kelly – and relatively recent excavations by O’Brien at Altar and Toormore. In each case the evidence is briefly presented in engaging, readable style. The chapter is concluded by an examination of the Early Gold, including the known lunulae and discs.

In Chapter 4: The Age of Bronze: Settlement and Economy (2000-600 BC) O’Brien begins with an examination of the metal and metalworking technology in the Early to Middle Bronze Age. Central to this story is the procurement of the copper and, as the acknowledged expert on the topic, O’Brien devotes a considerable amount of text to the subject, especially the Mount Gabriel mines near Schull. O’Brien then moves on to examine the evidence for the Bronze Age Houses and Settlements. While the Mount Gabriel mines were investigated as part of an academic research strategy, the settlement evidence is dominated by eighty sites discovered through the road, pipeline, and sundry ‘development-led’ projects. Again, O’Brien provides a succinct case study of Ballybrowney Lower1, along with a more general summation of the evidence that includes such sites as Mitchelstown 1, and Ballynamona 2, etc. The majority of these settlements were small-scale farmsteads and the section on Bronze Age Farming attempts to place them in their environmental and economic contexts, followed by a comprehensive exposition of the Ardgroom farmscape on the Beara peninsula. It’s a chapter on the Early Bronze Age and it wouldn’t be complete without a trundle through the evidence for burnt mounds. It’s also an archaeology of Cork, so it definitely wouldn’t be complete without a relatively in-depth examination of O’Kelly’s excavations and experimentations at Ballyvourney 1 which have set the tone for much of the research in the half-century since. O’Brien stands firmly on the side of these sites being used as cooking places, arguing that there’s little evidence to suggest other functions, including tanning, brewing, or metalworking. My personal take on the phenomenon is that they’re relatively long lived as a site type and are found in a number of basic combinations and permutations of troughs, pits, and burnt mound material. My guess is that the only real commonality they share is that they’re capable of producing large volumes of hot water – what that water may have been used for is quite another matter, and I think there’s enough variety in the excavated evidence to support a variety of possible uses. Where I take issue with O’Brien (and all other purveyors of the term) is in his use of ‘fulacht fiadh’ as a means of describing these sites [here | here]. I’m the first to agree that ‘burnt mounds’ may not be the most exact or descriptive term, but I do believe that it is the best currently available. Quite apart from the fact that the term in Irish would probably have been utterly unknown to the people who created and used these features, Ó Néill (2003-2004) has comprehensively demonstrated that the things referred to in Medieval Irish literary sources by this name are definitely not this form of archaeological site. I would also suggest that the reader acquaint themselves with Waddell’s (2008) comments on the topic. If this retrograde nonsense wasn’t enough, I am kindly informed by a number of sources that the plural form most commonly used in the profession (‘fulachta fiadh’) is defunct and should be replaced with the grammatically correct ‘fulachtaí fia’ (which O’Brien uses). I’m sure that no one will be suddenly swayed from their previously-held convictions by my scorn and vitriol, so go have fun – call them what you will, but I’ll not be joining you! As an aside, I would point out that in a rather wonderful Facebook discussion on this topic, alluded to above, I was informed that the term ‘fulachts’ (with an Anglicised plural) has been banned from the publications of the NRA and is seen as anathema. Probably due to some innate perversity in my soul, on reflection, I’m utterly charmed by this hybrid term and think it should achieve widespread adoption. I also realise that I’ve probably just created a position even less popular than before! What’s life without a few windmills to tilt at?

In Chapter 5: Death and Religion in the Bronze Age (2000-600 BC) O’Brien covers the same time period as in the previous chapter, but instead looks at the evidence for the funerary rituals and related evidence. He gives excellent accounts of Food Vessel Burials, with brief case studies of Ballyenahan, Moneen, and Curraghbinny. This is followed by the Urn Burials and cremation cemeteries. The text is, in this section more than others, enhanced by a beautiful combination of modern photographs of the pottery vessels, along with a number of the surviving sites, juxtaposed with older line drawings of the artefacts, excavated sections, and site plans. After that, it’s on to an examination of the stone circles. Here, the visual style is dominated by fewer line drawings and more rather beautiful photographs, many displaying gorgeous landscape vistas behind them. Again, after a general introduction, O’Brien gives concise case studies of Drombeg and Bohonagh stone circles (both excavated by Edward Fahy). This is followed by an introduction to those most Munster of monuments – the Boulder-burials, again followed by summary accounts of the excavations at important sites, including Cooradarrigan and Ballycommane – both excavated in the 1980s by O’Brien. The same basic approach is taken to Stone Rows and Pairs, Standing Stones, Cairns. A short section deals with the chronology of these monuments, before providing a synopsis of Fahy’s excavations at Reanascreena South, something of a hybrid monument, linking traits of both stone circles and barrows. This leads to a general introduction to barrows generally and the Cork examples in particular. This is followed by an all too brief synopsis of O’Brien’s excavation of the magnificent site Knockatreenane. In the Crossing to the Dark Side segment, O’Brien is unconvinced about claims of lunar alignments relating to the wedge tombs, stone circles and related monuments. He baldly states that ‘These ideas had no place in the thinking of Bronze Age people, for whom the orientation of a wedge tomb or stone circle was a religious imperative involving an observance of the setting sun in the darker months of the year’. Instead, he argues for a much more general association – common to many ancient societies – of a connection between the setting sun and the land of the dead to the west. This is an association strengthened in observable alignments on the winter solstice at Drombeg and on the equinox at Bohonagh. In particular, O’Brien draws out the incidence of quartz as a ‘stone of light’ at many of these sites, from the scatter of pebbles at Knocknakilla, to use of large stones at the Ballycommane boulder-burial. I would take issue with O’Brien on one point of this discussion, specifically his use of the term ‘primitive societies’ (p. 194). This is not merely a lefty, politically correct affectation on my part, but a genuine appreciation that any society that was ‘aware of the yearly cycle of the sun, and … held gatherings and rituals to celebrate solar events, such as the midwinter and midsummer solstices and the autumnal and vernal equinoxes’ cannot, in good faith, be deemed primitive. The chapter concludes with a look at the multifaceted way in which artefacts can function in both a mundane, household way, and also in a religious or ritual manner. He cites the recovery of ‘foundation deposits’ at the houses excavated at Ballybrowney Lower and Mitchelstown 1, etc. Other features may be more enigmatic, such as the regularly recovered evidence of deliberately buried portions of domestic waste that may have been ritually placed in the ground. The chapter ends with a meditation on Continuity and Change in Religious Belief, 2000-600 BC. Here O’Brien examines the social role of religious observance and how it changed over the course of the Bronze Age. In particular, he directs the reader’s attention to the use of wedge tombs over several generations, in contrast to the stone circles, which may only have been used for a single burials. The evidence is unclear as to whether this may be interpreted as a differentiation in the role of the ancestors over time, though he certainly favours this interpretation. O’Brien argues that there is also continuity between these two site types as both may be interpreted as foci of sun-worship, specifically a prototypical incarnation of the Celtic god Dagda. He also sees continuity rather than change in the emergence of the stone circle phenomenon around 1500 BC, where this developing solar cult traced its roots from the wedge tombs, eventually diminishing the role of the ancestors within society. O’Brien argues that this can be viewed very much as an organic development of the incumbent society, rather than any particular sudden arrival of new peoples with new and exotic technologies and rituals (though some of this must have happened, too). I’ve noticed something with the photos throughout this book and here is as good a place as any to mention it. It’s the ranging rods in so many of the pictures – these red and white poles that provide scale and appear in so many of the illustrations. I honestly don’t know how to feel about them in this context. My initial feeling was that this is a ‘popular’ book – a very good one, true, but still the market is not for the professional archaeologist. For this reason they should be out – no ranging rods – they spoil the pretty pictures! However, we would be loath to crop a reproduced line drawing of a pottery vessel so as to exclude the scale. Similarly, you wouldn’t do that to a site plan. So why should the photographs be any different? Site after site in this book is illustrated with photos of the sites and all with the ubiquitous presence of the ranging rod. It was only when I saw the image of the ‘three fingers’ stone row (Fig. 210 & the cover photograph on the dust jacket) without the pole that it struck me that this may be a beautiful, artistic image in its own right, but it’s just not an archaeologist’s photograph. I suppose it comes down to the feeling of comfort that comes with the thought that the ranging rod has been placed there – just so – by an archaeologist who has really thought about that monument … or so I would have myself believe! Whatever the truth of the matter, the plates – throughout the book – adhere to my central dictum for archaeological photography: they should be both archaeologically informative and aesthetically pleasing … and they certainly are!

We’ve still not left the Bronze Age as O’Brien wades into Chapter 6: Warfare and Society in the Late Bronze Age (1200-600 BC). He begins with an examination of changes in societal structure, population boom, material wealth, and technological advances. This period is characterised by the use of bronze for everyday tools, along with what is termed ‘elite metalwork’, concentrating on sophisticated weaponry and items associated with feasting and similar displays of wealth. These include cauldrons and buckets, along with the well-known musical horns. In addition, there is the significant corpus of 66 gold objects of Middle and Late Bronze Age date known from the county. What all these items show is that this period was one of growing social division not just across Cork, or even across the island of Ireland, but is seen across many parts of Europe. The concentration on the production of weapons (and their reflection in contemporary rock art) is, in part, taken as evidence for the emergence of a warrior elite after 1500 BC. Another aspect of this phenomena is the increased prevalence of defended settlements during this period. As an example, O’Brien revisits O’Kelly’s 1950s excavation of Carrigillhy, a small oval enclosure defined by a stone bank, protecting a centrally-paced oval house. The author then embarks on a brief introduction to the Irish Hillfort. Only a small number of these large, elevated, enclosures are know from Cork. They include one of known Bronze Age date at Clashanimud, and two of probable prehistoric date at Caherdrinny and Carntigherna. This is followed by a concise, but engaging, description of the site at Clashanimud, along with O’Brien’s own excavations there. From here the author moves on to a more in-depth account of Late Bronze Age weaponry, in particular the swords and spears. In the closing section of this chapter, Cork and the Bronze Age World, O’Brien examines the trading links that developed in the period after 1200 BC in north-west and Atlantic Europe. Chief among these was the demand for metal resources – be it in terms or raw materials or finished products. O’Brien emphasises that to this must be added those less archaeologically visible imports, including salt, furs, exotic animals, and human slaves. In a final, and all too brief, section on the 19th century discovery of the Mullagh Hoard (and Kilmurray Hoard from Kerry) that demonstrates some of the earliest Irish contacts with the European Celts.

Chapter 7: The Age of Iron: Celts and Romans (600 BC – AD 400) begins with a quick run through of the issues and current thinking about The ‘Celtic’ Iron Age and should be mandatory reading for anyone caught guldering on about all things mystical and ‘Celtic’. For example, the lack of direct evidence for La Tène culture in Cork (and other areas, too) may be taken to indicate the continued existence of Late Bronze Age groups that maintained their independent culture and way of life, before taking on iron working as a technology, if not all the cultural baggage that went with it. This is an important distinction to make – a society can be iron using, but not particularly ‘Celtic’ and the terms should not be confused! This is a discussion that has had a relatively long life within archaeological circles, but it is good to see the fruits of this thought and research brought to a wider audience. In terms of archaeological evidence for this period, again much has been added to the picture through the archaeological investigations necessitated by the large-scale infrastructural projects of the ‘Celtic Tiger’ years. O’Brien provides excellent reviews of the evidence within the county for settlement and economy, farming, iron working, and ritual, before concentrating on an in-depth study of Iron Age Farming in the Beara Valley. This latter section is based on O’Briens excellent 2009 monograph Local worlds: earlysettlement landscapes and upland farming in south-west Ireland (also published by The Collins Press), and it again demonstrates the author’s ability and commitment to bringing the fruits of professional-oriented academic labour to a wide, non-specialist audience. In his summation of the Beara Valley research, O’Brien returns again to the question of ‘Celticisation’, and notes ‘that there is no obvious ‘Celtic’ component in the material culture, settlement or religion of Iron Age people living in Cork’. Similarly, his question: ‘Are Cork people, or for that matter the Irish, Celts?’ is met with a resounding ‘No’. This will, of course, come a no surprise to most archaeologists, but may be something of a shock to the wider public and O’Brien is to be congratulated for stating the case so frankly. This is followed by a summation of the relationships between the county and the Roman world, the introduction of the Ogham alphabet, and the settlement and economy of the period. In the latter case, O’Brien provides a case study of Garranes ringfort, where the main thrust of the occupation dated from the late 5th to early 6th centuries. The chapter is brought to a close with the arrival of christianity in the 5th and 6th centuries and a meditation on how the people of the Iron Age would have perceived and mythologised the profusion of monuments from earlier periods that they saw around them.

There are two things that you cannot believe O’Brien on. The first – and most important – is his taste in movies. It’s genuinely terrible. My feelings for the man remain eternally coloured since the day he burst into the post-graduate study rooms at NUIG to deliver his breathless review of AceVentura 2: When Nature Calls‘It’s brilliant!’ he said, ‘dey even play de bongos wit his HED!’ I’m truly sorry, but this is a depth from which no man can recover. The other thing that O’Brien cannot be trusted on is back in the Preface to this book where he claims that the book was ‘written primarily for a Cork readership’ – it may have been his intention, but it is simply not the truth. If you have even the slightest interest in Cork’s heritage, are from Cork, live in Cork, or have just heard of Cork – I commend this book to you. But beyond that? Who should buy this book? The answer to that is, basically, anyone who has an interest in Irish archaeology. It’s well written, it’s engaging, it is (in the best sense) popular – without being bereft of scholarship, or ideas for the more serious student. Throughout, I’ve attempted to highlight the depth that new evidence from the ‘Celtic Tiger’ excavations have been successfully integrated by O’Brien to form a ‘new prehistory’ of Cork. But there is wider significance here too in that O’Brien has placed before us a template that regional archaeologies – not just for a general audience, but for any readership – must now be measured against. And here’s something I hadn’t anticipated in reading this book – it makes me think that while I love and adore John Waddell’s The PrehistoricArchaeology of Ireland and that the Revised Edition includes quite a bit of new evidence that has come into our possession as a direct result of those ‘Celtic Tiger’ excavations, there is still room in the market for another professional-level textbook. On the basis of what I’ve seen here, I’m actually hoping that Billy O’Brien is the one to write it … though I feel it probably won’t be dedicated to me.


Ó Néill, J. 2003-2004 ‘Lapidibus in igne calefactis coquebatur: the historical burnt mound'tradition'The Journal of Irish Archaeology 12&13, 79-86.

Waddell, J. 2008 ‘Monumental beginnings: thearchaeology of the N4 Sligo Inner Relief Road [Review]’ Archaeology Ireland 22.3, 47.