Friday, April 29, 2016

The Archaeology of Atlantic Crossings: Early Explorations, Trade and Migration

For anyone interested, the Ulster Museum is hosting The Archaeology of Atlantic Crossings: Early Explorations, Trade and Migration on Saturday 7th May 2016. As noted in the poster, the day-conference is free, but advance booking is advised. It looks like it's going to be an excellent day, with a collection of great speakers!

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

‘Someone's gotta help me dig’: going deeper & longer into the rise and fall of commercial archaeology in Northern Ireland

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At the end of 2015 I took a look at the financial health of the Northern Irish commercial archaeology sector (Another turn round the plughole? Commercial Archaeology in Northern Ireland in 2014). This, in turn was a follow-on from two previous posts on the topic, chronicling the post 2008 collapse of the market and its sustained failure to recover [here | here]. These posts have made use of the publicly available data submitted by these enterprises as part of their end-of-year accounts and hosted by, for example, Company Check. The available data was time limited, only going back to 2007 – and that only for one Company. For the other three NI Companies, the data only started in 2008, as the crash happened. I’ve long hoped for a means of pushing this back to gain a deeper time context to the rise and fall of the sector. The other point I would make here is that my analyses had been based on four easily accessible KPIs: Cash at Bank; Current Assets; Current Liabilities; and Net Worth. There is an awful lot to be said for working with this rather high-level data, not least of which is that it allows simple and clear understandings, even if it is at the cost of fine-grained detail. Since the last time I took on the task of writing about the financial decline of the Northern Irish commercial archaeology sector I worked closely with the people at CompanyCheck to address both of these issues – time depth and level of detail – to produce a new interactive Tableau dashboard. While the folks at CompanyCheck have been very helpful, this assistance has an attached cost and I would amplify my usual plea for donations: if you like this post and find it useful or interesting, please consider donating via PayPal. The button is in the top-right corner & all assistance would be appreciated! Also, before you continue reading this post, or interacting with the Tableau dashboard, I would suggest that you read ‘The Dashboard’ section of the post dealing with essentially the same situation for the Republic of Ireland [here]. Finally, I would reiterate that although I originally took the position that I did not want to directly identify companies (instead preferring to refer to them by the year of their incorporation) the legal advice I have received is that I should provide some linkage to allow fact checking and allow for meaningful rebuttal. To this end, I have created an appendix [here] where the interested reader can link directly to the underlying company data.

Screenshot of the current state of the Tableau visualisation
What’s new?
The first thing that the reader should note is that the available financial data now stretches back to 1998, when only two companies operated here (the 1990 Co. & the 1997 Co.). Obviously, the number of available sets of accounts increase in the years after the establishment of the 2002 and 2005 Cos. The other point of note is that the Key Financials control now has several additional categories of data. On top of the KPIs I’ve used previously (Cash at Bank; Current Assets; Current Liabilities; and Net Worth), there are Creditors >1y (i.e. Creditors that are not due to be repaid within the current financial year. In many cases these would appear to represent bank loans etc.). This represents a division of the data between long- and short-term company debt. For clarity, the former Current Liabilities KPI is now referred to as Current Liabilities <1y. The other new KPIs are Debtors; Fixed Assets; and Stock/Other (this last category includes the value of work in progress but not paid for etc.). The older Key Financial of Current Assets is seen to be a combination of Cash at Bank, Debtors, and Stock/Other. As a final note, at the time of writing, one company had submitter 2015 accounts, I have chosen to include these too.

1990 Co. Current Assets & Debtors Data, 1998-2011
The 1990 Co.
I’ve written extensively about the financial affairs of the 1990 Co. in the past [here]. Between this and the fact that they haven’t submitted accounts since 2011, I’m not particularly keen to go over the same ground once again. To the best of my knowledge, this company appears to have laid off all its staff and now exists only as a small-scale owner/operator endeavour. Nonetheless, it is instructive to look at the Current Assets and the Debtors data in combination. When the data is examined closely, it is clear that the Current Assets of the company are largely made up of monies owed to them (Debtors). While money owed to you is always a positive commodity, it is hardly a safe one. Anyone familiar with the difficulties of getting developers to pay for archaeological works will be aware of how flimsy an asset this can be. While point-blank refusal to pay and a general inclination to ignore demands for payment have long been standard fare from the clients of archaeological companies, the 2008 economic downturn saw many developers – both large and small – file for bankruptcy and cease to trade. It is for this reason that I have included a ‘tooltip’ of ‘Debtors as a % of Assets’. Hover over any data point when a single company is selected and this percentage will be displayed (because of how Tableau works, competing values from multiple companies will result in an asterisk being displayed). In the case of the 1990 Co, we can see that from 1998 to 2006 Debtors made up a substantial proportion of the company’s assets, but not the entirety of it. This ranges from 52.5% in 2001 to 96.9% in 2003. However, from 2007 the values have been so close that the two lines are indistinguishable, ranging from 99.54% in 2008 to 100% in 2011. In absolute terms, there is a vast drop in the value of debtors from £1.9M in 2008 to £381K two years later. Without access to further data, it is impossible to say if this represents evidence of either the payment of these outstanding debts or them being written off (in whole or in part) as unrecoverable.

1997 Co. All KPIs, 1998-2014
The 1997 Co.
In my past analyses the available data for the 1997 Co only went back as 2008, but with the additional information now available, this can be extended back to 1998. This adds a number of interesting perspectives that had not been previously available. For example, the Cash at Bank in 2008 was £33K, but we can see that this was already falling from £45.9K the previous year. More surprisingly, 2007 appears to have been the first really successful year for this outfit as Cash at Bank totals only rose above £0 in 2001 (£3K) and 2002 (£315). Their 2012 accounts indicate that they had a debt of almost £36K coming due in more than one year. Although the exact nature of this debt is unclear, it was reduced to £31.5K by the following year and appears to have been completely discharged by 2014. A comparison of the Current Assets against the company’s debtors is instructive, especially in contrast with the data from the 1990 Co. Here Debtors made up the Current Assets from between 17% (2001) to 89% (2011). Many of these are substantial percentages of the Assets, but the never ventured into the range of the 90%s, or even the 100% that the 1990 Co. recorded in 2011. Then again, in absolute terms, we’re talking about vastly different figures – in 2007 the Current Assets of the 1997 Co. are listed at £308K, while the 1990 Co. (having a downturn) had Current Assets of £706K. Similarly, the 1990 Co. had total Current Assets of £1.9M in 2007 against £260K for the 1997 Co. We’ve not previously had any insight into the fixed assets of the companies, so it is interesting to now see that in the period from 1999 to 2004 this was in the range from £3K to less than £5K. However, there was obviously some serious investment as over the course of the next three years the value of Fixed Assets soared to £21K (2007) with a rapid decline thereafter. This decline is most probably the result of accounting depreciation, though shedding of assets may also have been a factor. The steady decline to a low of less than £3K in 2013 shows that there had been little, if any, investment over that period. The latest (2014) figures show an uptick to £4.6K but, while significant in the face of a long-term decline, is hardly evidence of a strong recovery.

2002 Co. All KPIs, 2003-2014
The 2002 Co.
Like the 1997 Co., records for the 2002 company were only available as far back as 2008, but now goes back as 2003, the first year where they would have been obliged to produce accounts. We can now see that, judged by the Cash at Bank totals, this company had their two best years in 2006 (£82K) and 2007 (£68K), easily outstripping their previous known best of £51K in 2009. We can also see that the company had a Creditor (>1y) of nearly £8K in 2006, but this was reduced to £3K the following year and appears to have been fully paid back by 2008. Again, comparing the percentage of Current Assets made up of Debtors is instructive as they parallel each other so closely, moving from a minimum of 60% in 2007 to 99.6% in 2008. In absolute terms there is a massive fall off in Current Assets from 2008 (£376K) to 2013 (£27K) that may be the result of Debtors paying their debts, or certain sums being forcibly written off as unrecoverable bad debts. While I can speak with no authority on this point, it would seem likely that in the post-2008 financial landscape one of these scenarios is more likely than the other. Finally, an examination of the Fixed Asset data shows strong investment from £6K in 2005 to just over £37K in 2007, but with continued falls ever since. As noted above, in connection with the 1997 Co., this is more likely due to accountancy depreciation than disposal of assets. While this may be a ‘natural’ practice, the unbroken fall would appear to indicate a 7-year long hiatus in investment. I find little in this to cause anything other than worry for the future.

2005 Co. All KPIs, 2006-2015
The 2005 Co.
The new data adds two further years of accounts to those already available for this company, bringing it back to 2006, the earliest they could have been expected. While this data doesn’t add a vast amount to what we already know about their financial health, they are the only one of the four companies to have submitted 2015 accounts. We can see that they had two very successful years in terms of their Cash at Bank in 2009 (£70K) and 2013 (£86K). I think it is fair to say that the latter cash surplus was – in large part – due to their winning and maintaining the contract to supply archaeologists to a significant and high-profile wetland excavation. However, that amount fell to £24K in 2014 and dipped to under £19K in 2015. The figures also show Creditors >1y with a debt of £3.5K in 2008 and 2010, though this appears to have been completely cleared by 2013. Analysis of the Current Assets against the Debtors shows a much more conservative relationship between the two than in other cases. At best, Debtors made up only 30% of the Current Assets in 2009, and as high as 82% in 2012. According to the 2015 returns, the company has Current Assets of £74K, of which 75% (£56K) is made up of moneys owed. The 2013 returns showed that this operation had accrued Current Liabilities due within one year of £90.5K – presumably in line with their higher operating costs and higher income – and that this had fallen to under £8K the following year. For 2015 Current Liabilities crept up to £35K, again presumably in line with income and increased operating costs. Fixed assets tell a story of sustained and continuing investment in the period from 2007 (£1.5K) to 2010 (£12K), but with generally falling values down to £0.00 in 2015. Within this time period, the greatest single drop was from the £12K noted for 2010 to just £2.2K in 2011. While depreciation of fixed assets is to be expected, this ongoing fall suggests a complete lack of inward investment over recent years. The final KPI I’m going to examine in this post is Net Worth. As discussed in previous posts, this fell from highs of £90K in 2009 to under £10K in 2010. Despite their rise to £62K in 2013 – a peak that bucked the trend for the rest of the sector – they fell back to just under £30K the following year. 2015 has obviously been better and the 2005 Co.’s Net Worth has recovered to £39K. As the only company to have submitted accounts that are available for examination, it remains to be seen if this reflects an industry-wide recovery, or (like 2013) a single-company surge.

Average of all KPIs for all companies, 1998-2015
Overall picture & the future ...
Looking at the average picture for all companies it is tempting to read the 2015 data as an indicator of recovering revenues and improving fortunes for the commercial archaeology sector. However, it is simply too early to draw any such conclusions. However, the additional historical data allows us greater context to see spikes in Cash at Bank in 2001 (£38K), 2007 (£35K), 2009 (34£K), and 2013 (£30K). Average Creditors >1y (i.e. bank loans and interest thereon) have been relatively modest with particular spikes in 2006 (£15K), 2012 (£12K), and 2013 (£11K), though all appear to have been repaid by 2014. As noted before, there is a defined spike in average Current Assets (with a corresponding surge in the value of Debtors) in 2009 that has been generally falling in the time since. While the 2015 values would indicate increases, they are only slight and don’t even match the 2013 values. Average Current Liabilities <1y show a jagged plunge from £19K in 1998 to £0.5M in 2008. The story since then has been of an equally jagged reduction in debt to £35K in 2015. The average values for Fixed Assets shows significant investment from £11K in 2003 to £33K the following year. This, essentially, plateaued until 2007 (£32K), before going into steep decline ever since. While some of these KPIs show significant negative change in 2008 and 2009, this indicates that (at some level) investment in the companies effectively ceased a year earlier. The average Net Worth of the sector is interesting and of vital importance in understanding where commercial archaeology in Northern Ireland is at the moment. As all the previous discussions on this topic have shown, it reached its zenith in 2009 with an average Net Worth of £195K, before plummeting to just £6.4K the following year. Despite some improvement in 2012 (£9.5K), this fell again to -£5K in 2013 (this despite the exceptional year for the 2005 Co.). This recovered to £3.4K in 2014 and, albeit based on one set of accounts, this has increased by more than an order of magnitude into 2015. I can’t repeat it enough that this latest data is from only one company and cannot be relied upon as a reflection of the industry as a whole. Even if this accurately and adequately reflects the reality of the situation, it shows how far below the best years of 2008 and 2009 the industry still remains.

My original point when I started this analysis remains the same as it is today – to assess how robust the sector is and – by implication – how safe the excavated remains of our shared heritage are. Simply put, if one of these companies goes under there are no safeguards in place at a governmental level to ensure that this material – artefacts, ecofacts, along with written and digital archives – do not end up in a skip, being transported to landfill. Despite the apparent return to profitability seen from one set of accounts, there is no greater reason for hope than there has been for some time. I still believe that the long-term safety and security of our excavated past remains hanging by the narrowest of financial threads.

As always, the Tableau visualisation below (or directly available on the Tableau Public server here) is interactive and will allow the reader to drill down into the data for their own analyses.

For the best viewing experience of the Tableau dashboard, I would recommend going to Full Screen mode (F11) … there will be less scrolling needed!

The title of this piece is taken from Father John Misty’s song Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings, from his ground-breaking 2012 album Fear Fun [also: here]. But, of course, you knew that.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Claire Foley: Fermanagh's rich antiquarian and archaeological Crannóg record | Drumclay Conference 2014 | Review

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Following from Jackie McDowell’s presentation on the Deer Park Farms excavation Session Chair, Dr. John O’Keeffe, next introduced Claire Foley to the podium. She is the co-author (with Ronan McHugh) of the Archaeological Survey of Co. Fermanagh and is Senior Inspector with the NIEA. To set the scene, Foley noted that there are approximately 2,000 crannogs known from the island of Ireland. They are mainly to be found in inter-drumlin lakes and are thus concentrated in a dense band through south Ulster and north Connaught. They are also well known in Scotland, where there is a similarly long history of research and investigation. There are also a number in north Yorkshire, but only one in Wales. While crannogs can be domestic dwellings, they can also function as Royal Sites. For example, the famous sites of Lagore, Co. Meath, and Ballinderry, Co. Westmeath, were all possibly Royal residences or retreats. Within Northern Ireland there are approximately 300 known crannogs, with some 142 of these being in Co. Fermanagh. Owing to the interest of the antiquarian William Wakeman, Fermanagh was particularly famous for its crannogs in the 19th century. Although Wakeman was interested in many aspects of Fermanagh’s history and archaeology, he is particularly remembered for his publication of the crannogs, which included field visits, detailed measured plans and artefact illustrations. He also carried out extensive ‘excavations’ on several sites, though by today’s standards Foley is correct in describing it as closer to ‘poking around’ than archaeological investigations as the term is understood today. She is also quick to point out that, while an acceptable weekend pursuit in the 19th century, it is currently illegal to search for archaeological objects without an excavation licence issued by the NIEA. As an example of the quality of Wakeman’s work – quite exemplary for the time – Foley showed one of his drawings of Ballydoolough crannog with a measured plan of the site and a house foundation at its centre. She also noted his particular interest in recording the woodworking joints on the timbers he discovered. Wakeman recovered hundreds of artefacts from his various investigations of these sites, and illustrated many in his published works. As examples, Foley showed Wakeman’s illustrations of a decorated piece of Crannog ware pottery (now referred to as Ulster coarse ware) and a wooden vessel carved from a single piece timber.

Moving on to the Lough Eyes, near Tempo, Co. Fermanagh Foley notes that there are six crannogs in the lake, though only two are currently visible above the waterline. However, she visited all six in 1977 as part of her crannog survey, and by Wakeman a century earlier. She makes the point that the records made for both forms of survey were predicated on the idea that the amount of the site visible above the waterline was representative of the site as a whole. However, due to the excavations at Drumclay, significant revisions have to be made to that understanding. For example, Wakeman’s drawings imply relatively shallow sites with simple building phases. Instead, Drumclay has shown that such sites are much deeper and significantly more complex than had been previously believed.

Distribution of crannogs (Source)
Returning to the distribution of the Fermanagh crannogs, Foley notes that the principal concentration in the county is around the Enniskillen area, in upper and lower Lough Erne. The location of Drumclay is at the heart of this dense distribution pattern. There are also scatters to the west, in the direction of Belcoo, and a significant distribution exists in the smaller lakes of the south of the county. The preference is for small, isolated lakes that are regularly difficult to access and provide excellent defensive retreats. At the present time, no crannogs have been identified in the open waters of the major lakes of Lough Erne. By 1977 the fieldwork of the Archaeological Survey (started in 1972) was drawing to a close, but the crannogs still remained to be visited. By chance, this coincided with a spectacular drought and the chance was taken to initiate the crannog survey. Assisted by a strong rower, Foley acquired a rubber dingy, flares, and lifejackets and set off onto the lakes. Pre-fieldwork research, using six-inch maps and other sources, had increased the number of possible crannogs from around 39 to 120, and the plan was to visit every island of any size, whether it was thought to be a crannog or not. The aims of the 1977 survey included the following:

Confirm the presence of crannogs by direct observation of archaeological features: including timbers, artefacts (including crannog ware etc.), butchered animal bone etc.
Measure the diameter of the site
Sample timbers
Establish presence of causeways
Dating – dendrochronological and radiocarbon

Plan and details of material from Ballydoolough, Co. Fermanagh by William Wakeman. (Source)
With regard to the presence of causeways, Foley notes that there exist significant bodies of modern folk stories where people claim to have visited sites using causeways submerged just below the water surface. However, her research failed to locate a single positive example. Again, Foley notes that there are 142 crannogs currently known from Fermanagh (one even identified in the period since the excavation of Drumclay). Of these, some 65 show no surface indication, but are otherwise convincing; only two were marked by the Ordnance Survey; 21 from documentary sources; and 3-4 were mentioned in the Irish Annals. Foley describes some of these aims, most especially the attempt to measure surface diameters and timber sampling as, in retrospect, quite ‘innocent’. Considering the volume of crannogs that may be below the surface, Foley suggests that any data regarding site diameter should be disregarded as she was (to use her own phrase) ‘barking up the wrong tree’.

Looking at the date ranges from the sampled timbers, Foley notes that the vast majority of the dates are in the period from the 15th to the 17th centuries. Thus, in the light of Drumclay, she was keen to say that this bias towards medieval dates only represents the accessibility of these later layers to the researcher arriving in the summer of 1977 and not anything resembling the true age of the site. Foley notes that the significant separation of the dates recovered from the crannog at Lough Barry may hint at the true story of long occupation of these sites and their reoccupation during the disturbed times of the late medieval period. In my recent combined interview with Rodney Moffett of Amey and rebuttal to Declan Hurl’s deeply flawed and deliberately misleading Apologia, I expressed the view that the dating results of this 1977 survey could have led Hurl to the unwarranted belief that Drumclay was – as he claimed – a shallow, late medieval site with no earlier features. While he strongly argues against this assumption, at least Foley has the ability to emend her views in the light of additional data and new information. Turning to the earliest dating evidence, Foley notes that the single Late Bronze Age date from Lough MacNean indicates that there was prehistoric activity at these sites, and it’s not all confined to a single period. Taken together, she is now of the opinion that attempting to date any such crannog site on a single sample is insufficient and ‘out the window’. Nonetheless, there remains the question for researchers of whether or not crannogs were still being constructed in the later medieval period, or are we looking at the reoccupation of much older sites?

Example of Ulster coarse ware from Ballydooloug by Wakeman (Source)

Lough MacNean
6th C (570 AD)
Ross Lough
7th-8th C
8th-9th C & 1367 AD
Lough Barry
9th C

13th-14th C
11th-15th C
15th-17th C

17th C

In looking at the value of crannogs, Foley wished to emphasise (as did McDowell before her) the importance of wetland environments for archaeological preservation of the full spectrum of organic material that simply does not survive elsewhere. Together with the ‘hard’ materials that survive on dry land sites, we can achieve a much fuller picture of site activities and development. The 1977 survey also facilitated the discovery of several quern (grinding) stones (now all housed in the Fermanagh County Museum). It has been suggested by Prof. Seamus Caulfield that their presence on the surfaces of these crannogs may be related to the Corn Laws (1815-1846) where people turned to secluded islands to grind cereals, away from the prying eyes of the establishment. While the 1977 survey was of the utmost importance in finding and identifying sites, the research has not ended. Foley reports that earlier in 2014 the Centre for Maritime Archaeology, Ulster University carried out some research on a number of Fermanagh crannogs. Working on the theory that crannogs may have been deliberately sited in lakes on the boundaries of townlands, six south Fermanagh lakes were selected for investigation with a shallow-water sonar system, mounted on a small boat. The work was carried out by Dr Wes Forsythe, Kieran Westley, & Sandra Henry. The lakes included Moorlough, Kilturk Lough, Derrymacrow, and Friars Lough. The detailed, systematic survey unfortunately found no new crannogs, suggesting that the long-held theory has failed. However, the project allowed the opportunity to explore the environs of two known crannogs and enabled the production of a finely detailed image of the true extent of the Moorlough site. Foley explained that the small, circular area to the south-east of the scanned area is the only portion of the site currently above the water, and that this would have been the only portion of the site that she could have measured back in 1977. However, the new scan indicates that the site is significantly larger and more complex. The scan is of sufficient detail that two vertical posts may be identified at a significant remove from the core site and indicating that the outworks may originally have been much more extensive. The key takeaway from this latest research is that underwater, non-invasive survey techniques can add significantly to our knowledge of these sites, particularly in terms of the understanding of their extent.

Sidescan from Moorlough Lake showing the submerged part of a crannog (FER246:062) superimposed on an aerial photo. Shows nicely the full size of the crannog. (© Centre for Maritime Archaeology. Reproduced by kind permission)
From her brief overview, Foley notes that there are many well-preserved crannogs in Fermanagh, and that the reason they have been preserved is that they’ve not been subject to large-scale incursion and development. So long as the water-levels remain stable, there is every reason to expect that they will endure and maintain the excellent preservation of organic materials. She hopes that, by the end of the day conference, the audience will have a full appreciation of their archaeological value and why they should only be excavated as a last resort.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Archaeology in Social Media | Chronicles 11

Books (Source)
Once again, I'm back with a selection of reading materials - mostly on Irish archaeology - from the holdings. They are a collection of papers and chapters that caught my attention and I reckoned would be of wider interest, if you've not already encountered them. However, before you dive into any of these, I would ask you to take a look at the new book by Stuart Rathbone: Archaeological Boundaries. Discussions, Experiments and Unprovoked Attacks. Go take a look & then come back to these!

Even if you're not immediately ready to commit to a book length offering from Stuart, there's always a select collection of his papers to start you off!
Stuart Rathbone: A Middle Bronze Age stone head from Slievemore, Achill Island, Co Mayo

Robin Bendrey, Nick Thorpe, Alan Outram, & Louise H. Van Wijngaarden-Bakker: The origins of domestic horses in north-west Europe: new direct dates on the horses of Newgrange, Ireland

M. McClatchie, A. Bogaard, S. Colledge, N.J. Whitehouse, R.J. Schulting, P. Barratt, & T.R. McLaughlin: Neolithic farming in north-western Europe: archaeobotanical evidence from Ireland

George Eogan, Elizabeth Shee Twohig, & Ken Williams: Containing the dead in Irish Passage tombs

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Jackie McDowell: On dry ground. An early medieval settlement at Deer Park Farms, Co. Antrim | Drumclay Conference 2014 | Review

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As part of the public outreach campaign surrounding the excavation of the crannog at Drumclay, Co. Fermanagh, the NIEA organised a one-day conference on the site. This followed on from the two very successful open days where the public were allowed to visit while the excavation was ongoing and see the work in progress, get up close to some of the astounding artefacts, and hear of the progress directly from those on the site [here]. The point of the conference was to present the findings of the excavation and its research context to a broad, non-specialist audience; chiefly the local population of Enniskillen and Fermanagh.

The first session was chaired by Dr John O’Keeffe, Principal Inspector, who welcomed the attendees and introduced the format that the day was going to take. After the obligatory requests to turn off mobile phones and the directions to the emergency exits, O’Keeffe noted that Fermanagh has a tradition of antiquarian interest in crannogs, stretching back into the 19th century. He noted that although it had been over a year since the conclusion of the excavation, work had been progressing behind the scenes on the preparation of a preliminary Data Structure Report, along with the planning for the extensive programme of post-excavation research. At this point, O’Keeffe introduced Jackie McDowell, the first speaker of the day. McDowell is an Inspector of Historic Monuments with the Department of the Environment, and was co-author (with the wonderful C. J. Lynn) of the Deer Park Farms excavation monograph, and her topic was On dry ground. An early medieval settlement at Deer Park Farms, Co. Antrim. She began by nothing that the excavation of the iconic Deer Park Farms began 30 years previously, in September 1984, and how it was very much a classic site for its generation of archaeologists, in the same way that Drumclay is emerging for the current generation. Speaking generally of Early Christian settlement, McDowell provided a little context by explaining that crannogs and raths are just two of several forms of contemporary settlement that include cashels, unenclosed settlements, and (from more recent excavations) ‘settlement cemeteries.’ Raths (or Ringforts) are circular enclosures defined by a bank and ditch and there are something in the region of 45,000 probable sites on the island of Ireland, of which some 700 are known from county Fermanagh. Univallate (single-banked) raths are, on average, 20-40m in diameter and would have enclosed a group of houses and outbuildings. Fermanagh also has a number of bivallate (two-banked) raths, along with ‘Platform’ or ‘Raised Raths’. This latter type could have been constructed through one of a number of means, including scarping a suitable landform, allowing the gradual build-up of a site over time, or even as a single, planned event. It remains a matter of debate as to why people wished to live on an elevated site and what that means. This latter point was one of the questions that the excavators wanted to address when they came to publish the Deer Park Farms book.

Structure Zeta and western side of Structure X from south. Note the collapsed section of wall on the west of Structure Zeta and the southern bedding area (C1291) within Structure X. Source Deer Park Farms book, via EMAP blog.
The Deer Park Farms site lies on a north-facing slope in the Glenarm valley and was excavated from 1984 to 1987. The mound as it appeared at the time of excavation was the end point in a long evolution of a monument that began around the seventh century AD. At this time it measured 4.5m in height and 25m in diameter at the top. During its lifetime, the occupants had access to woodland, heathery mountain pasture, moorland, and probably arable land too. What made Deer Park Farms unusual for a dry land site was the waterlogging of the lower levels, coupled with the rapid burial of these deposits, which led to excellent preservation of the remains. It is this degree of preservation at Deer Park Farms that allows close comparison with a number of aspects of the Drumclay crannog. Even where the upper layers at Deer Park Farms were not waterlogged, their rapid burial ensured admirable preservation of settlement evidence. All this is in stark contrast with other sites of similar date where perishable elements quickly decayed and the interiors were frequently cultivated, removing all but the deepest cut features.

Although the rath phase of Deer Park Farms began in the seventh century, earlier evidence was recovered in the form of a number of Bronze Age pits. Within the corpus of the excavated artefacts there were a number of struck flints and Neolithic polished stone axe heads. McDowell notes that, in the same way that modern people find and collect items from the landscape, so too the people of this site picked up and retained interesting items they found from earlier times. Underneath the rath was a circular ring-ditch (c27m in diameter) with an east-facing entrance. No bank survived associated with this feature and none of the internal features could be definitely linked to this phase of activity. The bank of the succeeding rath was unusual in that it possessed a neat stone revetment. McDowell noted that the fact that the rath entrance faced east, along a break in slope, appears to have contributed to some of the problems that the occupants experienced during the lifetime of the site. Essentially, the on-site drainage was poor, which contributed markedly to the preservation of so much material. However, during the lifetime of the site it would also have created issues for people attempting to live here.

Throughout the duration of the settlement at the site there appears to have been a relatively uniform plan of occupation and layout of houses within it. Most usually, there was a large central house (sometimes of a figure-of-eight shape) with other houses on the northern and southern peripheries, all joined by interconnecting pathways. During the lifetime of the rath the occupants appeared to have focused much attention on the entrance. This came to a head during the final phase when they created a long, in-turned entrance way of impressive proportions. McDowell noted that when the team first encountered the entrance way, it appeared to point towards a ‘cone’ of gravel and soil at the centre of the site. Early speculation by the crew included visions of uncovering tombs or other spectacular discoveries. Instead, they excavated the remains of a series of well-preserved domestic structures that may have lacked some of the romance and mystery of gold-packed tombs, but were nonetheless of vast importance and interest. The excavations showed that the elaborate in-turned entrance way led directly to the central house. The layout of these elements was such that no one entering the rath could access the rest of the site without first coming to the door of the central house. This illustrates the way in which the occupants wanted visitors to approach and experience the site – no one could come in and wander about without making yourself known to the owners.

External view from the east along the partially excavated entrnceway (C1259). The gravel mound (C1258) that filled structure X after it was abandoned can be seen in the background. Source Deer Park Farms book, via EMAP blog.
Before the end of the eighth century the inhabitants were being forced to continually remake and elevate their paths because of the wetness and waterlogging. They took a particularly drastic option and decide to heighten the entire mound by the addition of up to 3m of gravel and stone. In doing so, they filled in the elaborate entrance way and covered over the houses. The new mound was faced with large stones and boulders, and was obviously a significant expenditure in time and labour in itself, on top of all that invested in the creation of the raised mound. The final acts of settlement on the site included the construction of two souterrains, or artificial caves. Interestingly, these were constructed using two different methods. One was cut into earlier layers of habitation material, while the other was constructed on the surface of the mound and piling material around it and buried as part of the heightening of the mound. With the creation of this new, level surface they began again to build houses. The pattern was similar to that used during the rath period with a single, large, centrally placed house (some of which were figure-of-eight in plan) with smaller examples in other parts of the interior. Some 40 houses of various kinds were identified at Deer Park Farms, over some twelve distinct phases of occupation. In the lower, waterlogged portions of the site their wicker and wooden elements were preserved, while in the upper portions of the site they were identifiable only as collections of stake-holes in the gravel. McDowell showed an illustration of a pair of large pits representing the former positions of the door jambs that were dug out and recycled elsewhere on site. In the lowest portions, the best preserved houses retained their original wicker walls, wooden doorposts, and internal fittings. The houses were, for the most part, circular in plan with only two examples of rectangular houses being recovered. Neither of the rectangular structures appear to have been used as domestic buildings. To keep the houses warn and draft-proof they employed a double-wall technique, where the cavity between the inner and outer layers was packed with moss, heather, and straw etc. In this earliest phase of the site, the walls of some houses survived to up to 3m in height where it had collapsed onto the ground surface. The primary wood used for the walls was hazel, which indicated that the occupants must have coppiced and managed large areas of woodland to ensure a reliable supply for housing, fencing, basketry etc. McDowell estimates that the houses had an average lifespan of between 15 and 20 years. Close study of the walls has shown that the weaving technique was not the simple ‘in and out’ technique that may be imagined, but was more akin to basketry, but on a house-size scale. The resulting walls were much stronger and sturdier than the archaeologists would have imagined beforehand. Turning to the question of how the houses were roofed, McDowell notes that analysis of the environmental remains identified the larvae of click beetles which are sometimes associated with turves. Thus, they may have had some form of sod roofs on their buildings. However, large bundles of heather and associated insects were discovered on the site, so this appears to have been another roofing option. While hazel was commonly used for the walls, oak was the preferred material for the door jambs. McDowell showed an image of a complete pair of jambs and accompanying lintel from the site which had been buried when the site was developed from a rath to a raised rath. While partially damaged by the dump of later material, the jambs clearly showed long grooves which would have fitted around the ends of the hazel walls. Radiocarbon dating shows that the site was occupied from the seventh through to the tenth centuries. The door jambs shown by McDowell were dated by dendrochronology to 648 to 649 AD, making them approximately a century earlier than the house into which they were inserted. It appears that valuable resources, such as the dressed oak jambs, would have been salvaged from decaying buildings and recycled into later structures while they remained viable.

Using the data collected at Deer Park Farms, a reconstruction of one of these forms of houses was attempted at the Navan Centre, Navan Fort, Co. Armagh. That reconstruction went with a conical roof shape that was found to require additional support from internal posts. However the Deer Park Farms houses did not appear to possess or require additional support, suggesting that a different roof shape was employed. McDowell noted that The UCD Experimental Archaeology programme were, at that time, beginning on a new reconstruction of a Deer Park Farms-style house that would try to adhere more closely to the excavated evidence and use a more domed roof. McDowell noted that although it would have met with opposition from modern Health & Safety busybodies (my term, not hers), the linteled doorway at Deer Park Farms would have been just over one metre in height. Indeed, the reconstructed example at Navan Fort had to be raised significantly to allow tourist traffic. She noted that a number of the houses retained evidence of a small clay bank running round the bottom of the wall to act as a draft-excluder. This feature was visible up against in situ walls on the lower, waterlogged houses and on the upper, ‘dried out’ houses where only stake-holes survived. Having painted a vivid picture of these double-walled, low-doored, conical roofed houses, McDowell next attempted to examine what had been going on inside them. Inside the houses there were bedding areas defined by wattle surrounds. These were formed with larger branches at the base and smaller, finer branches over these. Presumably this was augmented with moss, fleece or other soft materials and covered with blankets. She showed images of one bedding area that was partially defined by a wooden plank that had a number of holes in it, to carry a partition or screen to provide some degree of privacy. The bedding area contained evidence of parasites along with a number of small finds. One bedding area produced a number of beads, while another contained a rather lovely brooch pin.

There was a substantial number of artefacts recovered from Deer Park Farms, the majority of which show parallels with other sites in Ireland and western Britain – some may even be paralleled with the assemblage from Drumclay. For example, the wooden shoe last from Drumclay is remarkably similar to one recovered from Deer Park Farms. The latter example was recovered from a wooden trough on the floor of a house where the wall had collapsed and buried it. The same trough also contained a number of leather offcuts, presumably the detritus associated with cobbling. Surviving iron objects included rush-light holders to relieve the gloom of the interiors. Many of the iron objects were retrieved from burnt layers on the site. While none of the lower, waterlogged layers (rath phase) showed evidence for burning, there were three distinct phases in the upper mound (raised rath) where buildings had been destroyed by fire. However, there is no evidence as to the origins of these fires, be it accidental or the result of raiding/warfare. As these events appear to have been unplanned, there was no time to vacate the houses in an orderly manner, with the occupants taking all their belongings with them. Thus, the houses associated with these phases of burning are particularly rich in artefacts. For example, McDowell notes the recovery of a complete souterrain ware pot discovered on one of the banks of the houses. The house had been rapidly covered over and the site rebuilt on for another house.

The inhabitants of the Deer Park Farms site operated a mixed farming economy and this is reflected in the recovered tools. Evidence for woodland management comes in the form of a variety of axes and bill-hooks, while a number of plough socks indicate that some tillage was also undertaken. The animal bones from the site indicate that (similar to other sites of the period) cattle dominated the assemblage, but sheep and goats were also present, along with some evidence for horses. The occupants would have used every aspect of these animals in their economy from consumption of meat, milk, fleece and hides, as well as creating items from their bones. These latter artefacts include a variety of bone combs. The iron shears recovered from the site could have been used for sheep shearing as well as for personal grooming. A very rare example of human hair from the site was neatly cut at both ends. Although there were few remains of cultivated plants recovered during the excavation, analysis of the pollen indicates that cereal cultivation was ongoing in the vicinity. The inhabitants also collected and gathered wild plants, including heather, bracken, mosses, hazelnuts, blackberries, raspberries, rowan, and sloe. As noted previously, the direct evidence of cereal cultivation in the form of actual grain many have been lacking, but it is evidenced by the presence of a millwheel hub, indicating that they had either had access to a mill or the site was the home of skilled millwrights who created such intricate pieces. The broad range of objects that appear to have been manufactured on the site is testament to the talents of the inhabitants, who appear to have been able to turn their hands to pretty much every skill necessary to ensure their survival. Apart from the glass beads and lignite armlets, there is little direct evidence for items being traded into the rath that could not have been sourced and created in the locality. While they may have been largely self-sufficient, McDowell is quick to point out that they were not unaware of the broader world beyond their glen. As evidence of this she shows a small sharpening stone, decorated with an animal head and a contraction for the word ‘Domini’, or ‘[The] Lord’. Thus, while they may have lived in small, damp, wooden houses with small doors and lice in the beds they were still connected to the broader religious and social society – as she say’s ‘It wasn’t all doom and gloom – the finer things in life were also there’.

In closing, McDowell notes that while Deer Park Farms was excavated 30 years ago and was regarded as an exceptional site, it is still an important lynchpin in our understanding of this period as much of the work on the Drumclay site builds on and develops on the analysis of these discoveries. Also, many of the speakers at this conference were heavily influenced in the early parts of their careers by the Deer Park Farms excavation and her expectation is that Drumclay will now act as a similar catalyst for the next generation of researchers.