The Ballingowan Avenue: All in the Mind?

During the archaeological excavations which were undertaken by Rubicon Heritage Services in advance of the construction of the N22 Tralee Bypass, many fascinating sites were identified. By far the most enigmatic of these monuments was a possible ritual avenue that was uncovered in the townland of Ballingowan, which is just east of Tralee town.

The features discvoered at Ballingowan

The features discovered at Ballingowan

Two parallel alignments of pits which appeared to form an avenue were identified at the extreme south of the Ballingowan site on an alignment which was 80south of an east-west axis. The distance between the two rows of pits was 8.6 m at the eastern extent of excavation. It increased to a maximum of 9 m just to the west of the limit of excavation and gradually narrowed to a minimum of 5.1 m at the western end of the avenue. Within the excavation area the row was 30 m long but extended to the east beyond the road-take. A geophysical survey undertaken outside of the road corridor on the east side appeared to indicate that both alignments continued to the east. The spacing between the pits was on average 1 m (roughly a pace). No datable artefacts or material suitable for radiocarbon dating was retrieved from the pits and no comparable site has previously been identified in Ireland. These pits are likely to have functioned as post-pits, as there was evidence in a number of the features for post packing and post-pipes (marks showing where the wooden post had decayed).

The post-pit alignment as it appears in plan

The post-pit alignment as it appears in plan

A small oval arrangement of six post-holes was located 10 m north of the avenue. The area enclosed by these features measured 4 m north/south by 1 m east/west and did not seem to have the size and shape practical for a domestic structure.

What is it?

It is difficult to find comparable Irish sites to the pit defined avenue, particularly as neither datable artefacts nor material suitable for radiocarbon dating were recovered from the post-pits. Parallel lines of pits / post-holes have been identified in association with Late Neolithic timber enclosures at Ballynahatty and Newgrange, although these were elements of complex ritual monuments whereas the Ballingowan avenue appears to be a ‘stand alone’ example. A circular enclosure at Lugg, County Dublin also had a possible avenue formed by large posts which led to the entrance of the enclosure. This has been dated to the Late Bronze Age. Circular post-built enclosures reappear as a monument type around c. 100 BC during the Iron Age and have been excavated at Site B, Navan Fort (Emain Macha), Co. Armagh; Dún Ailinne, Co. Kildare; Raffin, Co. Meath and at the Rath of the Synods, Tara, Co. Meath. However none of the above are comparable with the Ballingowan avenue.

An aerial view of the Ballingowan post-pit alignment

An aerial view of the Ballingowan post-pit alignment

Parallels for post-defined avenues are available in the UK. A double pit alignment was excavated in 1998-9 at Thornborough in North Yorkshire, England. Here eighty-eight pits were excavated along a 350 m length. Post-pipes and post-packing were noted in the pit fills indicating that the pits originally held upright timbers. Double pit alignments in the UK are generally dated to the Early Bronze Age and the Thornborough example was consistent with this chronology, with two radiocarbon dates in the Early Bronze Age together with lithics and pottery typical of the period. The Ballingowan avenue has many similarities to the Thornborough example. Both monuments appear to have comprised two parallel lines of posts and would have had the same visual appearance in the landscape. The alignments were similar distances apart and both curved near the terminus. The Thornborough example is the largest of four in the Ure-Swale catchment area of North Yorkshire but other examples are known elsewhere in England and also in Scotland. Avenues of this date are believed to have had a ritual function relating to processions through sacred landscapes. In Ballingowan no ritual monuments are known (so far) which would constitute such a ritual landscape. The small oval-shaped structure identified immediately to the north of the west terminus of the avenue may have been related to the activities associated with the avenue. It is believed that similar pit alignments in Cambridgeshire defined ‘vast ceremonial spaces’ related to large-scale gatherings of people during the Bronze Age. Interestingly the Cambridgeshire pit-alignments were located on the edge of a flood plain as is the case with the Ballingowan example.

Oblique view of the Ballingowan post-pit alignment

Oblique view of the Ballingowan post-pit alignment

The possibility also exists that the avenue may have aligned on a celestial body at a significant time of the year. For instance the sun rises along the centre line of the avenue on the 21st March and in September the Sun, Moon and Mercury all break the horizon at this point around the 16thday of the month. The moon would have risen at this point on the horizon on the 1st November at the beginning of the second millennium BC which is an important date in the pastoralist calendar. This point marked the end of the grazing season when flocks and herds were brought together and animals that could not be maintained through the winter months were slaughtered and consumed through feasting.

Ballingowan- a possible interpretation? (Jonathan Millar)

Ballingowan- a possible interpretation? (Jonathan Millar)

Taking all the available evidence it would seem that the Ballingowan avenue is morphologically similar to a number of Early Bronze Age British examples. This would suggest that a hitherto unrecognised prehistoric sacred landscape may survive to the east of Tralee, elements of which may still be detectable through further archaeological investigation.

Posted in Bronze Age Ireland, National Roads Authority, Rubicon Heritage | Tagged , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Cally Forest Motte Survey: A Lovely, Shady, Lump!

A 12th-century motte castle was the subject of a challenging topographical and geophysical survey that was recently conducted by Rubicon Heritage Services within the policies of Cally Palace near Gatehouse of Fleet, Galloway, in south-west Scotland. The work was undertaken for the Forestry Commission Scotland in what was a truly beautiful setting. Rubicon surveyor Enda O’Flaherty fills us in on the details…

The picturesque wooded landscape at Moat Park motte, which rises beneath the bracken in the centre of the photograph.

The picturesque wooded landscape at Moat Park motte, which rises beneath the bracken in the centre of the photograph.

Motte castles can be described as a flat-topped earthen mound whose summit would have originally carried timber buildings and defences. This settlement form was initially introduced into Scotland in the early 12th century, with the greatest concentrations found in Galloway where the feudal system was first introduced. During the early 12th century, Galloway represented a separate kingdom in the south-west of Scotland. In 1124, David I invited Norman nobles to Scotland to help quell the rebellious chiefs of Galloway. It was during this period that these frontier settlements were constructed in the region. Towards the end of the 12th century, many of those Normans who had settled in the area during the preceding decades, and the settlement sites they had constructed, became the focus of local disputes and hostilities, with many motte castles being destroyed during this time.

The challenging survey terrain at Moat Park motte.

The challenging survey terrain at Moat Park motte.

The site comprises a well-preserved earthen mound situated in the undulating mixed woodlands of Cally Palace. The dense woodlands that are encroaching on the site today, presented a challenge for our survey team whose aims were to record the nature and extent of the archaeological features at Moat Park motte, and to provide information which could be used in the conservation and management plan for the monument. A series of geophysical surveys were also conducted on the summit of the mound to identify possible buried features at the site.

The Moat Park survey did present the opportunity for some 'arty' photographs as well!

The Moat Park survey did present the opportunity for some ‘arty’ photographs as well!

The topographical survey of Moat Park motte demonstrated that this site was constructed by cutting a substantial ditch around the summit of a low ridge which occupied a strategic position on the landscape. It was clear that the natural topography was utilised to create a defendable earth and timber castle. Defensive earthworks such as the counter-scarp on the southern and western sides may have carried other defensive features such as a wooden palisade.

A digital terrain model (perspective projection) produced as part of our Moat Park motte survey.

A digital terrain model (perspective projection) produced as part of our Moat Park motte survey.

The results of the geophysical survey suggested that the summit of the mound was occupied by some structural features. The electrical resistivity survey did not reveal evidence for substantial ditches or walling on the summit of the mound. However, given that motte castles were most commonly constructed of earth and timber, it is not surprising that no substantial structures were detected on the summit of the mound by this survey method. Nonetheless, the results of the fluxgate magnetometry survey identified subsurface magnetic anomalies associated with human activity on the mound.

Topographic grey-scale contour based plan of Moat Park motte produced for our survey.

Topographic grey-scale contour based plan of Moat Park motte produced for our survey.

Areas of high-magnetic responses can be associated with substantial structural features such as masonry walls, or substantial ditches. However, as we know, such features are not common in 12th century motte castles. Another explanation of this magnetic response may be an episode of burning at this location which would be easily detected by the fluxgate magnetometer. The irregular form and substantial size of the area suggested that this magnetic response does not represent a hearth and may perhaps be associated with a once-off conflagration event. Given that the majority of mottes supported substantial timber buildings, similar in dimension to the anomaly identified during the fluxgate magnetometry survey, and also the historical evidence for turbulent events involving those Normans who settled in south-west Scotland during the 12th century, it is plausible to consider that the timber buildings which once stood on the summit of Moat Park motte may have been destroyed by fire.

The results of the magnetometry survey draped over a digital terrain model of Moat Park motte

The results of the magnetometry survey draped over a digital terrain model of Moat Park motte.

Posted in Archaeological Geophysics, Archaeology Scotland, Medieval Archaeology, Rubicon Heritage | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Rubicon’s Quality Assurance Recognition

Rubicon Heritage Services were recently confirmed as a Registered Organisation by the Institute for Archaeologists, the first Irish based company to be admitted to this quality assurance scheme. Following a rigorous assessment process, the IfA have determined that Rubicon have demonstrated the requisite skills to provide informed and reliable advice; execute schemes of work appropriate to the circumstances, minimising uncertainty, delay and cost; and that we subscribe to codes of professional conduct and practice. We have always prided ourselves on our professionalism, standards and efficiency- now we have the   cert to prove it!

Certificate of Inclusion for Rubicon in the IfA Register of Organisations

Certificate of Inclusion for Rubicon in the IfA Register of Organisations

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The Breathtaking Caherduggan Belt: Rubicon’s Best Ever Find?

Some readers may recall one of last year’s posts about a find from our excavations for Cork County Council at Caherduggan Castle, Co. Cork. A medieval well produced a seemingly complete leather belt with what we thought were ‘metal studs’ along its length. Now conserved, these ‘metal studs’ have been revealed as heraldic shields, placed on what must surely rank as one of the greatest surviving secular medieval leather objects from medieval Ireland.

The leather belt following its discovery by Hubert Ficner in the Caherduggan Castle Well

The leather belt following its discovery by Hubert Ficner in the Caherduggan Castle Well

When Susannah Kelly of UCD completed the belts conservation she passed it to leather specialist John Nicholl who is currently analysing it. The condition and quality of the belt has surpassed all our wildest expectations, and it truly ranks as a ‘Museum Piece.’ John has kindly allowed us to share some of his photographs of the item with our readers; these shots were taken yesterday as he continues his work on the analysis. You will note that the hinged Heraldic shields appear to carry a Lion Rampant as a motif!

A detail shot showing the stunning condition of the belt, replete with hinged heraldic motifs (Photo: John Nicholl)

A detail shot showing the stunning condition of the belt, replete with hinged heraldic motifs (Photo: John Nicholl)

John’s initial thoughts are that it may be a scabbard belt of possible 14th or 15th century date, though analysis is at a very early stage so this interpretation may change. The buckles have been cut down and reused on the object, which would undoubtedly have been a valuable item when it was discarded. It is unclear if the heraldic symbols represent a nobility affiliation or if they serve a purely decorative function, but it is hoped heraldic analysis will clarify some of these issues.

One side of the Caherduggan belt showing the buckle and Heraldic motifs (Photo: John Nicholl)

One side of the Caherduggan belt showing the buckle and Heraldic motifs (Photo: John Nicholl)

The excitement in the Rubicon office today is palpable, as everyone waits with bated breath to find out more about this exquisite find. It certainly ranks as one of the greatest archaeological objects we have ever encountered, and as we learn more about its remarkable story we will be sure share that with you ‘as it happens’ on the blog.

The other side of the belt with the second buckle and full view of the hinged Heraldic motifs (Photo: John Nicholl)

The other side of the belt with the second buckle and full view of the hinged Heraldic motifs (Photo: John Nicholl)

Posted in Cork County Council, Medieval Archaeology, Medieval Ireland, Rubicon Heritage | Tagged , , , , , , , | 24 Comments

Hobbys and Hobelars at a Medieval Village in Co. Kildare

Rubicon Heritage’s Faunal Specialist Claudia Tommasino Suarez describes work she has been carrying out on a highly significant horse assemblage from Mullamast, Co. Kildare, which may provide evidence for the breeding of the animals that gave rise to the Hobelar cavalry of the medieval period.

From the 13th century onwards Ireland made an important contribution to medieval warfare, particularly in the conflicts in and between England, Scotland and Wales. However this contribution was not typical- it came in the form of a small, light, swift and maneuverable horse: the hobby or hobin.

The Connemara Pony. Although the Irish Hobby is now extinct, it is thought the Connemara Pony may be similar to how it once appeared.

The Connemara Pony. Although the Irish Hobby is now extinct, it is thought the Connemara Pony may be similar to how it once appeared.

The secret of this four-legged warrior’s success was determined by its performance in difficult terrain. The animal’s attributes led to the rise of a form of light-mounted soldier known as a ‘hobelar.’  These troops became proficient at roles such as scouting and patrolling in environments like mountains, bogs and woodlands, where heavier armoured knights mounted on destriers struggled to operate.

The hobby or hobin was a native horse (or pony) species from Ireland that were first encountered by the English during the Anglo-Norman invasion. The Normans later decided to incorporate the animal into their own forces; James Lydon in his Irish Sword paper noted that they provided a middle ground between mounted archers and armoured knights.

As a result this horse, that did not exceed 12-14 hands (121- 142 cms.) became a highly valuable Irish contribution to the English army in the 13th century, and was widely used during the Wars of Scottish Independence. Lyons has found references in the 14th century for up to 500 hobelars being transported from Ireland to take part in military campaigns.

Given the historical references to these horses it is clear they were of significant military value, and the English administration must have endeavored to insure their continuing availability. But where were these horses acquired? Could there be archaeological evidence of such demand? Excavations carried out by Rubicon Heritage Services at the deserted medieval village of Mullamast, Co. Kildare might provide such evidence. Excavated on behalf of Kildare County Council and the National Roads Authority, the site’s faunal assemblage was dominated by one species of animal: small horses.

Rubicon Heritage's Excavations at the Deserted Medieval Village of Mullamast, Co. Kildare

Rubicon Heritage’s Excavations at the Deserted Medieval Village of Mullamast, Co. Kildare

Zooarchaeological assemblages from medieval excavations in Ireland usually produce very small quantities of horse bones, often not exceeding 1% of the total number of bones. However, at Mullamast a staggering 28% of the animal assemblage could be identified as horse. Coupled with this, the Mullamast horses were small individuals. The adult specimens did not exceeding 130cms (12.8 hands), measurements that would correspond to hobins or hobbys. The evidence suggested that they were bred on the site, an interpretation confirmed by the presence of neonatal and infant specimens in the record. These animals were not being consumed, though some of them were used for ploughing or other activities which could cause serious injuries to their bones.

It is not possible for us to conclusively state that the inhabitants of Mullamast raised these horses to satisfy the military demand. Even if this was one reason for their breeding, it is clear from the evidence that the horses were being exploited for local labour activities. However, the sheer number of animals suggests that the Mullamast site may well have been an important breeding centre, where hobbys were produced in a well-controlled region to provide not only for the agricultural needs of the Anglo-Norman colony in Ireland, but also its ever-increasing military requirements.

Posted in Deserted Medieval Village, Faunal Remains, Kildare County Council, Rubicon Heritage | Tagged , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

The Hackness Gun Battery in Orkney: Napoleon, Pirates, Sir Walter Scott and Fenians!

Some of the staff at Rubicon have a particular interest in conflict archaeology sites, which often provide us with an intriguing insight into how people and communities lived and dealt with conflict in the past. Here Rubicon Managing Director Colm Moloney tells the story of the Hackness Gun Battery in Orkney, which he excavated in the 1990s.

Aerial view of the Hackness Gun Battery as it appears today

Aerial view of the Hackness Gun Battery as it appears today

The Hackness gun battery is tucked away on the southeast tip of Hoy, an island in the Orkneys archipelago overlooking the infamous Scapa Flow. I spent two seasons excavating the site in 1997 and 1999. Historical research for the project revealed an incredible sequence of events which caused this site to be constructed and maintained in one of the most isolated spots in the United Kingdom.

The High Island

Hoy is a fascinating place. The name is derived from Norse Haey meaning ‘high island’. It is the second largest island in the archipelago with an area of 143 square kilometres. The southern end of Hoy was originally a separate island but has been connected by a causeway. The gun battery was situated on this southern area known as South Walls.

Hackness Martello Tower

Hackness Martello Tower

The history of the gun battery

The battery was constructed in the early 19th century along with two associated Martello towers as a response to potential threats from privateers due to British conflicts with Napoleon of France and the USA. Following heavy shipping losses around Scotland including 42 ships in Longhope sound at Hoy in July 1810, it was decided to defend a harbour which would allow ships to gather safely and await armed escort. The construction of the battery was confirmed in June 1813 and work commenced in July due to the imminent threat from privateers to the very lucrative Baltic trade. Sir Walter Scott visited the site in 1814 and commented that eight guns were present but the defences had still to be built. The battery, complete with two Martello Towers, was finished in 1815. The only other Martello tower in Scotland was built at Leith, the harbour of Edinburgh. By the time the battery was complete Napoleon had been defeated at Waterloo and the Treaty of Ghenthad been signed to end the conflict between the US and Britain. The 1815 battery therefore never saw action.

Artist's Impression of how the Gun Battery would have looked in 1815 (Illustration by Mike Middleton)

Artist's Impression of how the Gun Battery would have looked in 1815 (Illustration by Mike Middleton)

Following a failed invasion of Canada by the Fenian Brotherhood in 1866, it was decided by the Admiralty to redevelop the Hackness battery in case of invasion from the USA. The Fenian Brotherhood comprised Irish exiles who had served in the American Civil War and gained a wealth of experience of military know how. Their attempt at invading Canada was intended to gain ports from which they could invade Britain and win independence for Ireland. As a result the eight 24-pounder guns at the Hackness gun battery were replaced by four 68 pounders. Again this threat never materialized and the guns were never fired in anger. In fact the only reference to the use of the guns was one day of drill by the Orkney Volunteer Artillery in 1890.

The Barracks at Hackness Gun Battery (geograph.org.uk)

The Barracks at Hackness Gun Battery (geograph.org.uk)

My excavations at Hackness

I led a team of archaeologists on two seasons of excavation at Hackness; 1997 and 1999. Here is what we found out:

Season 1 – November 1997

Our first season of excavation involved the excavation of the magazine. The magazine was a massive building set into a deep depression in the ground. We had no access to mechanical diggers in our remote location so it was hard physical work. Nothing is wasted in Orkney, so the magazine had been used to store ‘useful’ stuff. We removed everything from tractor wheels to anti-submarine netting from the building. The magazine was an incredible structure with walls surviving to a height of four or five feet. The walls were designed, through variations in thickness, to direct an explosion to the rear of the battery away from the accommodation should the munitions explode. The magazine could hold up to 350 barrels of powder so this was a considerable worry for the gunners. Internally the floor was raised on low brick foundations which allowed air to flow beneath the powder store which kept the powder dry. All the fittings were brass, as brass doesn’t spark. A small room at the rear of the building also served as the entrance. This was known as the ‘shifting room’ which was used to move powder kegs safely.

The Excavated Powder Magazine at Hackness Gun Battery

The Excavated Powder Magazine at Hackness Gun Battery

Season 2 – June and July 1999

Our second season of work focused on the gun platforms and the external defences. The gun platforms were located behind massive defences which consisted of a large rampart with an internal retaining wall and an external glacis. The large foundations for the 1866 guns had largely destroyed evidence for the 1815 emplacement. However the remains of parts of the foundations of the two southernmost gun emplacements were identified. This evidence suggested that the 24 pounder guns were mounted in wooden traversing carriages which rotated on a central pivot at the front and which were set on wheels at the rear which moved along semi-circular tracks. The guns would have fired en barbette (over the rampart rather than through embrasures).

The 1866 guns were much larger than their predecessors. They were also mounted on wooden carriages which had wheels front and back. The trenches for the stone foundations which held the tracks for the wheels were identified during excavation but unfortunately the foundations themselves had been removed. The rampart was remodeled at this time to take embrasures through which the guns could fire while giving a great deal of cover for the gunners. Large blocks of stone which still sit on the ground adjacent to the gun platforms served as anchors for ropes used to move the guns.

The Artillery Piece atop Hackness Martello Tower

The Artillery Piece atop Hackness Martello Tower

We also investigated the perimeter defences on the landward side. This consisted of a six-foot high wall with an external two foot deep ditch. This was interesting as it could be easily scaled. The barracks block which was located centrally within the complex had gun slits and would have been the only refuge in case of an attack from the land, as the large guns could not be rotated. However the Martello towers at Hackness and Crockness would have provided a significant deterrent to a land based assault.

Our post-excavation research identified two admiralty charts at the National Archives which clearly depict the 1815 battery and the 1866 battery. These are incredible full-colour documents which set out the original plans for the battery. The surviving building and the results of the excavations indicate that the plans were followed almost flawlessly by the 19thcentury builders.

General view of the Battery interior

General view of the Battery interior

The Battery Today

Following on from our excavations the gun battery was partially restored by Historic Scotlandand the site is well worth a visit for anyone travelling to Orkney. A working gun has been mounted on a traversing carriage on the Hackness Martello tower while the barrack room has been refitted to 1866 standard and the magazine and defences are all accessible.  The site also has fantastic views over Scapa Flow and is a great location to get a feel for Orcadian life.

The reconstructed Barracks interior

The reconstructed Barracks interior

Posted in Archaeology Scotland, Post Medieval Archaeology, Rubicon Heritage | Tagged , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

Tudor and Stuart Conference in UCD

Neil Johnston of UCD School of History and Archives has asked us to pass on to our readers news regarding an upcoming Conference in UCD. The call for papers for the Tudor and Stuart Ireland Conference (University College Dublin, 31 August – 1 September 2012) closes on 27 April. Proposals for papers and panels on any aspect of society in the Tudor and Stuart eras are welcome. Postgraduates are particularly encouraged to offer papers. UCD are also pleased to announce that the conference plenary address will be delivered by Professor John Patrick Montaño (University of Delaware), author of The Roots of English Colonialism in Ireland (Cambridge University Press, 2011).

For further information, please visit the conference website at www.tudorstuartireland.com or contact the organisers at info@tudorstuartireland.com.

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