Happy Imbolg! A Mysterious Festival in the Celtic Calendar

St. Brigid or the Goddess Brigit

Imbolg falls on the first week of February. The Celtic calendar had two principal festivals, Samhain in November and Bealtaine in May. Separating these two main festivals were two lesser celebrations, Imbolg (in February) and Lugnasad (in August). Of all of these seasonal festivals we know the least about Imbolg. It is believed to mark the beginning of lactation in ewes and it corresponds with the Feast of St. Bridget in the Christian Calendar. It seems most likely that the feast was a celebration of fertility which coincided with the end of winter and the beginning of spring and new life.

Would the real Brigit please stand up?

It is also believed in some quarters that St Bridget was a Christianised version of a Celtic fertility god, Brigit, who was the daughter of one the principal Celtic gods, the Dagda. She is supposed to have had particular attributes in the fields of learning and healing. Brigit had two sisters, both of whom were also imaginatively called Brigit! This would appear to relate to a trend common amongst Celtic deities where they appear in triplicate. Triad Goddesses appear in numerous Romano-British sculptures in Britain, where it may indicate that the Romans adopted some of the local deities as their own.

A traditional St. Bridget's Cross

Brigit’s name can also be detected in numerous place names on continental Europe which suggests that she was part of ritual practice across the Celtic world. The Brigantes, a Celtic tribe in Britain, worshipped the goddess Briganti, who some authors also link with Brigit.

So if your kids are making their St. Bridget’s Cross this week, spare a thought for your pre-Christian ancestors and what they might have been getting up to at this time of the year!

Posted in Festival Origins, Imbolg, Pre-Christian Ireland, Rubicon Heritage | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

To Draw or Not To Draw? Finds Illustration in a Digital Age

One of the most important roles of any archaeologist is to communicate their findings to others, be they fellow archaeologists or members of the public. The strongest and most direct method of imparting information is by visual means, be it site plans, reconstructions, artefact photography or illustration. Rubicon prides itself on its graphics department, which is one of the largest and most accomplished in Europe. One of the most technical and challenging aspects of archaeological graphics is artefact illustration, a technique discussed by AAI&S board member and Rubicon Illustrator Sara Nylund.

3D Imagery is one tool in the archaeological graphics armoury, but it cannot always reproduce the detailed information imparted in a technical illustration

The archaeological profession and its sub discipline of archaeological illustration have seen astonishing leaps in technology over the last number of years. The realm of archaeological graphics is now dominated by the computer, on which the vast majority of work from the site plan to 3-D flythrough takes place. One could easily be led to believe that all the traditional methods of recording finds are being replaced with new techniques. Yet even though new, sometimes mindboggling technologies are available, archaeologists turn to one traditional method time and time again for a record of their finds – Artefact illustration.

Artefact illustration – just a pretty finds drawing?

So what is an artefact illustration when it really comes down to it, and why has it not been replaced with 3-D scanning or a straightforward photograph? Surely the first would give much more information on the object and in a 3-D environment to boot, and the second would represent a huge saving in both time and expense?

The archaeological illustration conveys more information on the fabric of this composite medieval bone comb than the photograph

Ultimately it all comes down to one thing, the trained illustrator’s ability to interpret the object requiring drawing. The purpose of an artefact illustration is to act as a true record of the object and its material condition, to show any diagnostic features and manufacturing techniques present. A drawing of this type is interpretative; it contains information on size, shape, decoration, manufacturing techniques, thickness and appearance of fabric, and shape in section. To achieve this, artefact illustrations often contain several views as well as sections and projections of the artefact. Finally, the finished illustration must convey to the viewer any aesthetic qualities inherent in the object.

Illustration of this prehistoric stone axe highlights the difference between the 'rough' and 'polished' texture on the objects surface

This is why a scanner or camera cannot replace the illustrator. These techniques will document the find “objectively” (however, most digital software and hardware have inherent problems which although viewed as producing objective and precise reproductions will introduce misinformation or distortions, but these are a topic for another day).

When reviewing a finds illustration, here are some straightforward guidelines in recognizing a good artefactual drawing. The general layout of the drawing will be set out in an organised and logical manner, and the drawing will be clean and tidy in appearance. The light source is always placed in the upper left hand corner, and the main view of the artefact is depicted straight on, with accompanying secondary and section views (generally at a 90° angle to each other). Depending on the type of find, the illustration will be rendered in different ways using stippling and lines where appropriate. Finally the illustration should show original features as clearly distinguished from damaged areas.

This illustration conveys both the decoration on this prehistoric pottery sherd as well as its profile and section

Archaeology will always require illustrators who can produce a visual record suitable for publication of the finds uncovered. Artefactual drawing requires a more scientific approach than a pictorial study would, while still demanding the same skills required from a traditional artist. In this, computers have yet to replace the human touch. But then again who knows what the future will bring?

Digital illustration allows for additional information to be included on 'traditional' illustrations. This example highlights the presence of glaze on this medieval pot.


Posted in Archaeological Graphics, Rubicon Heritage, Specialist Analysis, What We Do | Tagged , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Under the Covers with Rubicon Archaeologists!

This week we were delighted to welcome News Talk’s (106-108 FM) Henry McKean of Under the Covers fame to one of our on-going excavations in Galway. Henry was on site to get a clearer understanding of what exactly archaeologists do and was keen to talk to everyone involved.

Some of the Rubicon crew dive 'Under the Covers'

The excavation is split into two distinct areas and Henry was first drawn to the excavation of the human remains in the newly discovered cemetery. He started by interviewing our on-site osteoarchaeologist who explained our techniques of recording and recovery. The other members of the team were happy to oblige Henry as he quizzed them about the remains they were carefully exposing.  He also met our on-site faunal remains specialist Claudia Tommasino Suárez who began by first showing Henry some of the animal bone recovered from site. Claudia then went on to explain the scientific processes undertaken for the analysis of the bones recovered and what this data would show about human activity on this site. Later our metallurgical specialist showed Henry a number of the interesting small finds that we have recovered during the course of the excavation to date.

Henry McKean tries out some licensed metal detection

Henry was unable to dig on site due to health & safety considerations, but we were able to let him loose (under supervision) on our soil heap to carry out some licensed metal detection. During Henry’s two minutes with the detector we discovered one medieval iron nail which will be added to the archive of materials recovered from the site.

All the Rubicon archaeologists enjoyed their time ‘under the covers’ with Henry, and hope that he enjoyed his foray into Irish field archaeology! Henry McKean’s radio show Under the Covers is broadcast each Saturday between 09.00 and 10.00 and will feature his adventures with Rubicon on Saturday 22nd January. If you miss the show, you can listen back online by clicking here.

Posted in Galway, Media, Rubicon Heritage, What We Do | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Headstart at Rubicon: Student Work Placement in Archaeology

As part of our outreach policy at Rubicon Heritage Services we agree each year to accept a number of transition year students for work placement in our offices. They generally spend between 1-2 weeks with us, learning about both archaeological practice and how a commercial business operates. Aged between 15 and 16, these students are at an early stage in their decision-making process regarding potential career-paths, and often want to discover if the reality of professional archaeology matches their expectations. One such student was Ina Ruckstuhl, who came to Rubicon from Mount Mercy College, Model Farm Road, Cork. She has since gone on to study archaeology and anthropology at the University of Oxford. In a recently shared her thoughts on her experience at our office, and how it helped her in deciding on her future career.

Rubicon Heritage's Office in Little Island, Co. Cork

An office complex in a Cork City business park may not be the romantic landscape that archaeology usually brings to most minds. In reality, however, I would wager that at least half, if not more of an archaeologist’s year is spent here, replacing the outdoors with an office and abandoning the adventuring fieldworker (yes, there is a hint of Indiana Jones in all of us!) for anything ranging from a pottery specialist to a digital database expert or an academic analyst. It was this impressive variety of expertise that I was allowed to witness and be a part of for a week of transition year work experience at Rubicon Heritage Services, a week which no doubt helped me in successfully shaping my academic path towards a career in archaeology.

To begin with, shadowing an osteoarchaeologist as well as a member of the team whose interest lay in the prehistoric information obtainable from excavated animal remains, confirmed the applicability and future value of biology as a subject choice for my Leaving Certificate. A practical laboratory subject is generally advised to all students, however, witnessing archaeobotany and microscopic pollen analysis consolidated the need for these skills in my case. No less interesting was a more hands-on demonstration of pottery analysis, while some complicated digital mapping hours showed me the diversity of specialisation opportunities the field of archaeology truly offers. In fact in retrospect some of the most invaluable conversations for me were regarding the various academic backgrounds and choices of the employees themselves. I received insights on courses at University College Cork, Trinity College Dublin and Queens University Belfast (to all of which I later applied) not merely from prospectuses but from experience of past pupils. As the title transition year student already suggests, I was at an important time of academic change, faced with choices which could only be made into informed decisions through the insights work experience at Headland offered me. Of course such decision making was accommodated not least by some welcome interjections of more regular tasks such as artifact washing, numbering and recording tasks!

Conchuir Hornibrook of Coláiste an Phiarsaigh, Glanmire, Co. Cork; one of Rubicon's 2011 Transition Year Students

I would, however, like to return to that concept of analysis which I mentioned in the opening. Although an increasing number of Leaving Cert courses are beginning to incorporate a requirement for active and individual personal analysis on the part of student, it is in my opinion not a skill which the curriculum allows enough time for. Nevertheless, it is the case that it is a skill universities expect their students to command from the outset. It is therefore evident that students are required to compensate for this outside the realms of academic life. Work experience is undoubtedly an opportunity to do this, but personally my time at Rubicon Heritage Services was crucial in this respect. Despite working in the comfort of the office, actual artifacts formed the basis of discussion, interpretation and documentation. Even being shown for instance a photograph of a trench cross section and attempting to draw some conclusion offered a stimulating and refreshing manner of active learning. In fact, during my interview process at the University of Oxford, it was precisely this capacity to interpret and analyse a variety of objects and artifacts out of context which was the most challenging. For me this was certainly the most direct manner in which I came to a realisation of the value and significance of my Rubicon experience.

The physical techniques of excavating are ones interested students can learn on digs as volunteers or pay for the experience at a field-school. A commercial company however, not only offers an insight in the reality of a sizable proportion of archaeological work but in addition at Rubicon a large wealth of expert specialists work at one location. Specialisation is unquestionably important, but such a combination of information and knowledge is priceless, allowing well balanced interpretations of prehistory. Certainly a motivating environment for any budding archaeologist. Needless to say I would advise all students to participate in work experience in the area they are enthusiastic about prior to making critical school subject decisions. Crucially, however, if the career direction in question is, like archaeology, not covered in the curriculum, even a week in the midst of an expert team offers an invaluable and perhaps decisive opportunity. For me, Headland Archaeology undoubtedly provided such a stimulating experience, influencing the choices and paths I have taken and for this I am extremely thankful.

Posted in Careers, Education, Outreach, Rubicon Heritage | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

From Cradle to the Grave in Middle Bronze Age Co. Kildare

Sixteen metres is not exactly a long distance. It is probably equitable to an average 1980s bungalow, yet the residents of a house in Mullaghmast Co. Kildare, sometime around 1350 BC, appear to have been interred in a penannular ring-ditch only sixteen metres from their home.

Rubicon’s Nial O’Neill excavated the house and penannular ring-ditch on behalf of the National Roads Authority and Kildare County Council as part of archaeological works on the N9/N10 Kilcullen to Waterford Scheme during the autumn of 2007. We knew we had discovered a Bronze Age house when we found a circle of postholes with some recognisable internal features- these included a fireplace, partitions and storage pits. The house itself was some 6.5m wide. We were able to use environmental material from one of the postholes to obtain a radiocarbon date of 1530-1300 BC.

The Bronze Age house during excavation

We also discovered some indications of the daily life of the prehistoric people who once lived here. In one of the storage pits we found concentrations of hazel and oak. Hazel is well known for lighting quickly, while oak burns slowly while producing high temperatures- all that was needed for a quickly lit and long lasting fire. The pit also contained cultivated barley, wheat, oat and rye along with wild species. Both the cultivated grain and the wild grain was processed and ready for use. The fact that wild grain had also been collected and processed could indicate that the previous harvest may have been a poor one. The radiocarbon date from this pit was very similar to the one we achieved from the posthole, coming in at 1530-1310 BC.  In addition, Middle Bronze Age pottery was recovered from some of the postholes at the site, supporting the radiocarbon dates.

The Bronze Age ring-ditch under excavation

The ring-ditch was discovered 16m away from the house.This monument type is associated with burial; cremated human remains are often found either in or around the ditch itself or within its interior- sometimes both. This example survived as a circular ditch in the ground, some 5.5m in diameter. It had a 1.5m wide entrance way facing southeast, with the discovery of some stakeholes suggesting there may have once been an entrance feature there. This may have been used to control movement in and out of the interior of the ring-ditch. The ditch was found to contain numerous stakeholes, further indication that some form of structure or barrier once stood here. Although on this occasion the ring-ditch itself contained only a small amount of burnt bone, several of the features inside, immediately outside and cut through the ring-ditch produced considerable volumes of human bone. Material recovered from the ring-ditch was dated to 1500-1210 BC, suggesting it may have been contemporary with the house. Further evidence for the people who once lived here was uncovered when a burial containing cremated bone was located a short distance outside the ring-ditch. This was radiocarbon dated to 1440-1190 BC, tying in very closely with the other results.

All the evidence indicates that these domestic and funerary monuments, located only 16m apart, were contemporary or near-contemporary with each other. Were those individuals interred in and around the ring-ditch also those who built and lived in the house? Were they the same people who had made and used the pottery, collected the wood and planted, cultivated, harvested and processed the grain? We will never know for sure, but it is certainly a possibility. If it was the case, these prehistoric people chose to live their lives beside the final resting place of their family, indicating the close bonds the living felt with the dead in Bronze Age Ireland.

Plan showing the proximity of the two monuments; the ring ditch to the west and house to the east, only 16m apart

Posted in Bronze Age Ireland, Kildare County Council, National Roads Authority, Rubicon Heritage | Tagged , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Lost and Found: The Rediscovery of a Deserted Medieval Village

Sometimes archaeology fleshes out history allowing us to touch, feel and interact with historic objects and features. But sometimes the relationship goes the other way, with history allowing us to associate people and events with historic objects and features. Sometimes history allows us to identify important archaeological sites and sometimes, following the discovery of a new archaeological site, significant, related, historical records come to light.

Excavation at the deserted village at Mullamast, overlooked by the ‘Royal Site’ of Maistiu

As part of the archaeological investigations in advance of the N9/N10 scheme in county Kildare, archaeological excavation was undertaken in the townland of Mullamast on behalf of the National Roads Authority and Kildare County Council. The townland takes its name from the ‘Royal Site’ of Maistiu, an upstanding ringfort or rath, located on a ridge of high ground to the west of the motorway route (hence Mullach Maistiu – the summit of Maistiu).

However, this is not the only archaeological site within the townland. The Down Survey map of the townland (compiled by William Petty in 1655-6) shows a ‘castle’ located generally to the east of the ‘Royal Site’ close to the current location of Prospect House. This castle did not survive much longer and its exact location is not known, as all surface remains of the site had been lost by the time the Ordnance Survey compiled their initial series of maps in the 19th century.

As the likely site of the castle was close to the route of the N9/N10 motorway, a lot of investigation was undertaken along this section of the route. Analysis of aerial photography and geophysical survey indicated the presence of an extensive archaeological site. This was confirmed by test excavation. As a result a large archaeological excavation was undertaken in advance of the motorway scheme, encompassing an area measuring 23,024 m². The investigations at the site uncovered multiple phases of activity ranging in date from the prehistoric period through to the post-medieval period. The main focus of activity at the site, however, dated to the later medieval period (c. AD 1200-1500), indicating that the site was occupied by a substantial medieval village settlement for most of the later medieval period. This is probably the largest excavation ever undertaken in Ireland of a deserted medieval village, though similarly sized investigations have occurred in Britain. The excavated section of the manorial village was laid out around an axial routeway (Road 1) with residential plots or ‘Building Compounds’ aligned on either side of Road 1. However, the features excavated form only part of the overall site; it is likely that the majority of the village remains in situ to the east and west of the motorway.

Building Compound 1, under excavation

Looking for the missing ‘castle’ shown on the Down Survey map led to the discovery of a much larger and more complex archaeological site. The excavation of the deserted medieval village also led to further historical research to see if any records of the settlement survived.

The townland of Mullamast lies generally within the lands originally granted to the Anglo-Norman Walter de Ridelsford in the late 12th century, but is not referred to in the surviving documents relating to his estates. Interestingly the Down Survey provided the link that led to the identification of medieval references to the settlement. The ‘castle’ at Mullamast is listed as being in the hands of a member of the Fitzgerald family (the Earls of Kildare) in 1655-6. Reviewing the published records of the Earls of Kildare threw up references to the manorial village. The Red Book of the Earls of Kildare preserves the ‘quit claim’ of John Wolf, yielding up his property in the manor and village of Mullamast. The village is also listed in 1540 in the records of the lands confiscated from the Fitzgeralds after Silken Thomas’s revolt. Identifying early references to the site remains problematic, though a ‘Stephen de Molachmast’ appears in the list of witnesses to an inquisition into the holdings of William de Mohun (Moone) dating to 1282. It’s entirely probable that Stephen was an important tenant within the manorial village at Mullamast.

Though we have now found the village other questions still remain. The ‘castle’ shown on the Down Survey has still to be located. The medieval references to the manor do not refer to a castle, so this could well be a late addition to the manorial complex – possibly a tower house. The other key component that is missing is a church. No signs of a church were identified during the excavation and nothing in the analysis of the aerial photography or geophysical survey results suggests a location. A church would have been a typical component of a manorial settlement and, interestingly, this is supported by the historical references to the manor. Though there is no archaeological record of a church anywhere within the townland of Mullamast, ‘Moolaghmast’ is listed in the Ecclesiastical Taxation of Ireland (1302-6) within the Deanery of Omorthy, and later 16th century documents refer to the ‘parisshes and townes of Molamast and Burnechirch’. This does suggest that there was originally a church associated with the settlement.

The experience at Mullamast shows how closely related the disciplines of archaeology and history can be and how important it is to channel data and information between both. The historical references to a manorial village at Mullamast would have remained obscured if not for the excavation. Equally the identification and excavation at the deserted medieval village was precipitated by the historic records of the missing ‘castle’.

Posted in Deserted Medieval Village, Medieval Ireland, National Roads Authority, Rubicon Heritage, Settlement | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

A Profession in Ruins- A Phoenix from the Ashes?

During the economic boom Ireland became a mecca for archaeologists. There was full employment, great career prospects, fantastic archaeology and reasonable salaries. This was largely fueled by a combination of massive infrastructure developments requiring hundreds of archaeologists to clear the archaeology in advance of the bulldozers, together with stringent regulation of the treatment of the cultural heritage by developers. Archaeology profited as a result with a growing corpus of publications and research projects fueled by the large number of commercial archaeological excavations. This archaeological utopia was mercilessly crushed in a matter of months at the beginning of 2008 and the Golden Age of Irish archaeology came to an abrupt end.

Archaeologists work hand in glove with the construction industry. Together with geotechnical crews archaeologists are usually the first sub-contractors on site. Consequently when work dries up the archaeologists are hit first. A recent survey by James Eogan (The impact of the recession on Archaeology in the Republic of Ireland, Culture Lab Editions) reported a 37% reduction in the number of archaeological excavations between 2007 and 2008 and the further reduction of 44% between 2008 and 2009. The situation has deteriorated further in 2010. The effect of this on the archaeological profession is staggering.  Employment fell by 80% between 2007 and 2010 and companies which had been the main employers in the sector ceased trading. With little hope of a future recovery a mass of highly skilled professional archaeologists are now retraining or emigrating. The impact of this drain of knowledge on Irish archaeology is profound. In addition to the human tragedy of highly skilled and talented individuals losing their careers, specialist knowledge is leaving with the archaeological workforce which can never be replaced. This great exodus of archaeologists is now slowing but the damage is done.

The future is both uncertain and challenging for the archaeological profession in Ireland. While other industries complain about 20% unemployment, we are hit with 80%. The average archaeological salary has dropped by 25% and work is now both temporary and highly transient. It is a ‘no frills’ career requiring a strong vocation. However it is important to live in the solutions. Archaeology is a broad church. We are integrated in construction, education, tourism, planning, media and numerous other sectors. Headland Archaeology Ltd is currently exploring numerous products and markets than can build on the vast experience gained by Irish archaeologists during the halcyon days of the Celtic Tiger. This experience provides a skill set that can be adapted to numerous new innovative directions which will allow archaeology to become a great career on the Island of Ireland again. Rubicon aims to be the Phoenix of the Irish commercial archaeology market. Watch this space….the rising is coming!

Posted in Education, Employment, Rubicon Heritage, What We Do | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Cleansing Body and Soul at Dunbrody Abbey, Co. Wexford

Dunbrody Abbey is situated approximately 12 kilometres south of New Ross, Co. Wexford and is one of the most picturesque of Irish religious houses. This Cistercian abbey was founded by Hervey de Montmorency in the closing decades of the twelfth century. Although the Cistercians were present in Ireland from the 1140s, there was a fresh wave of foundations following the arrival of the Anglo-Normans into Ireland, and Dunbrody was among them. Cistercians wore white robes and were often known as ‘White Monks’. They aimed to live their lives in the same way as the 6thcentury St. Benedict, with an emphasis on manual labour. Their abbey at Dunbrody was in religious use for more than three hundred years, and its history shows that it remained firmly attached to the Anglo-Norman colony that was established in Ireland after 1169. The monastery was suppressed by the English Crown in 1537, as part of Henry VIII’s ‘dissolution of the monasteries’.

The remains of Dunbrody Abbey, Co. Wexford

We were privileged to get the opportunity to carry out some exploratory excavations in the abbey in 2007. Our excavations centred on the cloister, the east claustral range and the site of the kitchen. The word cloister is latin for ‘enclosure’, and they generally consisted of a rectangular open space, usually surrounded by covered walkways.

Areas of excavation at Dunbrody Abbey

During the course of our work we investigated a remarkable circular stone structure which was located in the cloister garth (the garden or open part of the cloister) adjacent to the doorway to the refectory where the monks had their meals. This circular structure was identified as a lavabo, a communal, ritual washing place. Lavabo means ‘I will wash’, and before each meal the monks would do exactly that in the lavabo fountain. However, as with everything in monastic life, the lavabo was steeped in ritual and was intended to cleanse the soul more so than the body. An important weekly ritual, the mandatum, required a symbolic washing of the brethren’s feet. This ritual was intended to remind the monks of Christ washing the feet of the apostles before the last supper – a good dose of humility! To reinforce this the Abbot (the absolute ruler of the Abbey) washed the feet of twelve of the monks each year on Maundy Thursday. Unfortunately this attempt at keeping the abbot grounded tended to fail miserably, and many medieval abbots were living proof of Lord Acton’s famous quote that ‘absolute power corrupts absolutely’.

The lavabo under excavation

Although only the fragmentary foundations of the lavabo survived, a combination of comparative studies of similar structures throughout Europe and the skill of the graphics department at Rubicon has allowed a possible reconstruction to be attempted of the Dunbrody example. The surviving evidence consists of a circular stone structure with four stone lined channels emanating from the centre. One of these fed into a stone box drain, although the others may have had similar drains for which no evidence survives. In addition two lengths of lead pipe were recovered adjacent to the structure. The superstructure is totally lost so all suggestions as to its form are purely conjectural. However certain structural elements are required for a lavabo to serve its purpose. At least one basin is necessary, although the majority were constructed of two basins of different sizes. The smaller basin was placed above the larger in order to allow water to flow from one to the other. The second critical element is a water supply. At Mellifont Abbey traces of lead were identified in channels in the stone work, and these are believed to have been derived from the central fountain of the lavabo. The surviving (and still functioning) lavabo at Le Thoronet in France has a series of spouts around the circumference of the upper basin. A similar arrangement may have been present in the Dunbrody example.

The cloisteral garth under excavation; the circular lavabo can be seen beside the walkway

The cloister garth under excavation; the circular lavabo can be seen beside the walkway

Reconstruction of how the lavabo may have functioned

Therefore the most likely form would have consisted of a large circular basin with an internal fountain. This would have been fed via lead pipes with a gravity feed from a reservoir held in the upper levels of the complex, possibly on the roof of one of the claustral ranges. If the basin sat directly on the surviving foundation the four gaps would have provided covered drainage which in turn fed into the surrounding box drain network. The basin could have been built of either wood or stone, although considering the amount of stone used in other areas of the abbey and the highly visible location of the lavabo, stone would seem the most likely. The central fountain was probably also constructed using wood or stone, and held lead pipes supplying the water to one or more taps. The lead piping found adjacent to the structure would support this hypothesis.

It is quite amazing to think that in the 13th century, when the majority of people in Ireland were living in single roomed mud-walled houses, that this monkish community had an ornate stone building for washing their hands and feet, supplied with an advanced plumbing system.

Dunbrody Abbey, Co. Wexford

Posted in Excavations, Medieval Ireland, Rubicon Heritage, Wexford | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Fulachts and Flintlocks: A Pistol from Whitestown, Co. Waterford

Although by its very nature archaeology is about discovery, it is fair to say that on many excavations archaeologists know what they can expect to find. Take for example Irish burnt mounds, often called ‘Fulachta Fiadh’. These are the most common site type in Ireland, and usually consist of a mound of heat affected stones together with an earth-cut and often water-filled trough. They generally date to the Bronze Age, and appear to have been used for a variety of purposes centred around the heating of water.

The pistol as it appeared in the Conservation lab following blocklifting (ArchCon Labs)

One thing we most certainly do not expect to find on prehistoric sites are flintlock pistols, but that is exactly what turned up during work on a burnt mound at Whitestown, Co. Waterford. The excavation was carried out by Tom Janes and was being undertaken in advance of construction of the East Waterford Watermains Supply, funded by Coffey Construction on behalf of Waterford County Council. The pistol was discovered in a shallow depression near the burnt mound, in what most probably represented the remains of an old field boundary. It was immediately recognisable as a historic firearm and was carefully removed using a technique called ‘block lifting’. This is where a block of soil is cut around a fragile object so that it can be excavated in controlled laboratory conditions. In this case it was sent to ArchCon Labs who x-rayed and then stabilised the pistol. The x-ray helped to establish that the gun was not loaded, an important first step when dealing with any historic firearm!

X-Ray of the pistol reveals it is not loaded (ArchCon Labs)

Analysis of the pistol established that it was a flintlock. These weapons utilised a system whereby sparks are produced as a flint carried in a spring loaded ‘cock’ strikes the ‘steel’ (or ‘frizzen’), thus igniting the powder and causing the ball to be fired. They first appeared in the 16th century, but did not come into widespread use until the second half of the 17th century. By the 18th century the majority of firearms used this method of powder ignition, until they were superseded in the western world by the percussion system in the mid 19th century. In order to fire a flintlock, a number of steps had to be followed. These were:

The component parts of a flintlock mechanism (Wikimedia Commons)

A)    The cock, holding the flint, is placed in the ‘half-cock’ position.

B)     The gun is loaded from the muzzle end, usually by pouring the desired amount of black powder down the barrel, followed by a round lead ball. The ball is generally wrapped in paper or cloth to insure a tight fit in the barrel. The ball is rammed home with the ramrod, stored underneath the barrel.

C)    The pan is primed with a small amount of fine black powder, and the pan cover (of which the ‘steel’ or ‘frizzen’ is a part) is positioned to cover it.

D)    The cock is moved to the ‘full-cock’ position.

E)     The trigger is pulled, releasing the spring and propelling the cock towards the steel.

F)      The cock strikes the steel, forcing it back and exposing the priming pan.

G)    The sparks created as the flint in the cock hit the steel cause the priming powder to ignite.

H)   The lit powder passes through a touch-hole in the barrel, igniting the powder within and discharging the ball.

Although the pistol from Whitestown was in poor condition due to its long period of exposure, it was possible to draw some conclusions as to its origins. It is most probably a late 18th century military service pistol, possibly originally intended for use by dragoons or mounted troops. This would suggest that its initial owner was probably a member of the British military.

Graphic showing the pistol's constituent materials

How did the pistol come to be deposited in a field in Co. Waterford? The fact that the pistol was not loaded, has no flint and is at the ‘half-cock’ storage position suggests that it was probably not discarded in extreme haste, i.e. thrown away during a pursuit. The individual who placed the gun here may have been trying to hide the weapon following an indiscretion, or possibly storing the weapon for later collection, which for some reason never took place. If the hiding place was intended as a temporary storage area it would seem a strange place to select, as the conditions would have ensured the rapid deterioration of the gun. However, the fact that a now removed field boundary or some other construction once overlay the findspot of the pistol (thus offering further protection) cannot be discounted. It is natural to associate finds of weapons such as this pistol with major upheavals around the time of deposition; in this case principally the 1798 and 1848 rebellions. However, it is impossible to directly associate the pistol or its deposition with either of these events. It must also be remembered that this weapon could have been in use for an extremely long period, potentially well into the late 19th century.

The fully conserved Whitestown Flintlock Pistol

What we can say is that whoever concealed this weapon did not want it to be discovered, and this in itself is of interest. The fact that it was never recovered makes one wonder about what may have happened to its last owner. Whatever the circumstances, it lay concealed for between 100 and 200 years until its discovery during works for the East Waterford Water Mains Supply. It is one of the most unusual finds we have ever recovered during excavation works, and was certainly not what we expected to find on a ‘standard’ prehistoric site!

Posted in Conflict Archaeology, Post Medieval Archaeology, Rubicon Heritage, Waterford County Council | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Zooarchaeology Focus: Putting Flesh on the Bones of the Past

Rubicon's Faunal Remains Specialist Claudia Tommasino Suárez at work

In the first of our Zooarchaeology Focus posts our faunal remains specialist Claudia Tommasino Suárez explored how analysing the age at which animals died can reveal much about how our ancestor’s utilised them. In this entry she examines how the location and type of animal bones across a site or number of sites can add both breadth and depth to our understanding of how people lived in the past.

Within most archaeological sites, we usually find that different areas were set aside to carry out different activities. One of the key markers for this is the distribution and type of animal bones recovered, which can often reflect a spatial division of work. A simple example of this was an excavation we conducted on behalf of Kildare County Council and the National Roads Authority at Prumplestown Lower in Co. Kildare. Dating to the Bronze Age, it was quickly noted that a clear division existed between the wetland and dryland portions of the site. This division allowed us to analyse the faunal remains with a focus on recording any potential contrasts between the remains from the two locations. It quickly became clear that the dryland portion of the site was the probable location of animal slaughter, as all the remains we discovered there were heads or lower limbs. In contrast, the assemblage from the wetland portion of the site contained bones from all parts of the animal skeleton, suggesting it was used as a domestic waste area.

The Site at Prumplestown Lower, with the dryland area in the foreground and wetland area in the background (Photo: Airshots)

It is sometimes possible to take these divisions a step further and identify possible links between different archaeological sites in the same area. To expand on the single example above, lets now take three Early Medieval sites that were also excavated on the route of the N9/N10 at Woodlands East, Woodlands West and Hallahoise, on behalf of Kildare County Council and the National Roads Authority. Analysis of the faunal remains from these sites suggests that they may have been linked, and that some division of work may have taken place between them. The assemblage clearly indicated that a large number of animals were slaughtered at Woodlands East, while at nearby Woodlands West craftwork activities such as tanning and antler working predominated. Hallahoise exhibited the most evidence for domestic occupation, with a large amount of meat consumption taking place. The remains would suggest that in the Early Medieval period Hallahoise was where the majority of people lived, the animals were kept at Woodlands East and their remains were utilised for manufacturing at Woodlands West.

It is possible to take this yet further and suggest that animal bones cannot only be used to suggest the interaction between different sites but can provide information regarding past environments and landscapes. As an example, it was noted in the Woodlands East assemblage that pigs were frequently killed while still infants. One possible interpretation for this is that while the cattle and sheep were slaughtered to be sent to Hallahoise, the inhabitants had access to woodlands which allowed them to catch and consume wild adult pigs.

A zooarchaeologist can also draw wider conclusions on economic change through time by comparing assemblages from different periods. One such case was an excavation we conducted at Lorrha Church, Co. Tipperary on behalf of the Department of the Environment, Heritage & Local Government. The predominant meat type eaten during the earliest phase of occupation was mutton, but it would seem that as time progressed the meaty bones of this species were transported to be consumed elsewhere. This change may indicate a move from initial local consumption to trading mutton or lamb, with the remaining bones being used for local craftworking.

Excavation in progress at Lorrha Church, Co. Tipperary

Faunal remains analysis has the capacity to inform us not only about different activities within a site, but also to suggest possible links across different settlements and even regions. It also provides us with depth in time; economic changes through decades, centuries and even millenia are often most clearly identified through analysis of faunal remains. More evidence (as if it was needed!) of the vital role played by faunal remains in the interpretation and analysis of archaeological sites.

Posted in Bronze Age Ireland, Early Medieval Ireland, Faunal Remains, Rubicon Heritage, What We Do | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment