Boyne Valley

Game of Stones

The Boyne Valley in Ireland, like Westeros, is a land that is steeped in fantastical history. It has everything from prehistoric mounds to stone castles to medieval town walls. Archaeologists are drawn to it, while the rest of us wait to see what the new season will uncover. There is the same anticipation for a new season of Game of Thrones, and this is what inspired us to celebrate the work of the archaeologists for this years’ Day of Archaeology. Well, to be honest, we had a lot of fun last year, so we wanted to do something again. It is a great way of getting the public to interact with archaeology and to imagine what might have been.

We put the call out that we wanted to do a Game of Thrones inspired trailer based on the archaeology this year. We already had access to the type of prime locations that Hollywood scouts would love to get their hands on. All we needed was permission from the archaeologists again, some willing bodies with an uncanny resemblance to the series characters, a few creative types and fabulous costumes from the local living history group. Oh, and sunshine, in Ireland. Thankfully, we got what we needed and the result can be seen above.

But what about the archaeology that inspired it? This year, after a few seasons of remote sensing, excavations started at the multivallate earthworks on the Hill of Ward in Meath. Known as Tlachtga, this site is associated with Irish Halloween folklore and pre-Christian fire rituals. It was also the site of a murderous parlay between Gaelic and Norman lords which changed the balance of power in Medieval Ireland. The excavations were carried out by UCD School of Archaeology. This generated a lot of curiosity and it has put another fantastic site on the map for people to visit.

This year also saw the return of the Irish Archaeological Field School for their fifth season of excavations of a 13th century Dominican friary under waste ground in Trim known as the Blackfriary. This is uncovering more foundations of the friary, lots of medieval artifacts and more burials. The local community are welcome to visit the site and open days will be happening during the Summer. There is even talk about reclaiming the site to turn it into a public gardening area.

Other areas that feature in our parody are Trim Castle, (one of the finest Norman Castles in Ireland and subject to numerous seasons of excavations over the years), Newtown Cathedral and the medieval town gates of Trim.

Special thanks to the archaeologists who let us film during excavations and to all the locals who played a part.

Oulala Productions

Burials & the Last Day on Site

Who are we?

Irish Archaeology Field School is a research project and teaching dig based in the Boyne Valley in Co. Meath, Ireland. We have three sites, one at Blackfriary in Trim, a C13th Dominican abbey, one in Rossnaree, near Slane, a multi-period site, and one at Bective Abbey, a C12th Cistercian Abbey. Blackfriary is a community archaeology initiative with support from the Department of Arts, Heritage & Local Government, the local authority, and the American Institute of Archaeology Site Preservation Fund. The sites at Rossnaree and Bective are being excavated by our research partners, with funding from the Royal Irish Academy.

Blackfriary: A day in the life:

Blackfriary Abbey in Trim, Co. Meath is the site of the abbey has lain abandoned for decades and been surrounded by the expanding town. The abbey walls have largely been robbed out and the site is mostly under grass.

The current season’s research programme was designed explore the interface between the church and the cloister, which is situated immediately to the north of the church. The first month of excavation revealed lots of loose stone, evidence of the deliberate destruction of the abbey walls (the stone was likely reused elsewhere) and it is only in the last few weeks that we are finally accessing the base of the walls with foundations and stone work in situ. We are only using hand tools to excavate so there is a lot of mattocking and shovelling involved, to move a lot of material:

Plate 1: Melissa Clarke wields a mattock

While the cloister wall was found reasonably quickly, the north wall of the church was heavily robbed out, and we are also reaching levels that contain f burials, both disturbed and undisturbed.

Following the dissolution of the monasteries in C16th, the abbey was no longer officially a religious centre. However people still considered the site as sacred and such sites were often used as graveyards in the centuries following. The abbey graveyard, lies to the south west of the church. There are also burials within the church. As yet we have found no conclusive diagnostic material to date them – we may have to wait for radio-carbon dates. What we do know is that we have 3 distinct burials, but we at least 6 individuals are represented by the skeletal remains recovered so far.

When a burial is uncovered, we first try to find a grave cut – that is the evidence that might remain of the grave that was dug for the burial. We then photograph it, to add to the record. The photo board notes the site registration number, the number assigned to this burial, area of the site in which it occurs, the date, and the initials of the photographer:

Plate 2: Malika Hays photographs Burial 3 prior to excavation

Burial 3 is that of a young child or infant; the remains are in reasonable condition however the bones are fragile and are particularly difficult to recover. The tools of an archaeologist include a standard trowel, and a leaf trowel for intricate or delicate work but is this instance we improvise with some wooden skewers; these are useful for precision and because the point is softer.

Plate 3: Malika excavating: using a wooden skewer for precision

Excavation of material this delicate is slow work: the soil must be cleaned off each fragment of bone and stored for sieving, and each bone fragment lifted and placed in a specific box for that burial. Given the age of the individual when he or she died, the bones are small and delicate, only partially fused in some instances. Some bones are so small they may not be identifiable during excavation and may only be recovered from the sieved material. We had barely made any progress on the excavation of this burial by the end of the day so the burial has been carefully packed with bubble wrap and covered to protect it and keep it from drying out overnight.

Rossnaree – today was a day of logistics:

The dig at Rossnaree finished up today. The site is in a rapeseed field and with the harvesters on the way, the heat was on to backfill the excavations, to ensure that all the recording of the archaeological features is complete and that every detail has been noted.

Behind the scenes though is the inevitable demobilisation of the site. At Rossnaree, there was a small crew of 8-10 people for most of the four week excavation. The contents of their site cabin fitting into the back of our small van:

Plate 4: Mattocks and sieves – tools of the trade

After loading up all the equipment, finds, samples, registers, plans and notebooks, all that’s left to do is close the gate behind us…. until next year!

Plate 5: The laneway to Rossnaree archaeological site, located in the Boyne Valley – Knowth passage tomb is just out of view behind the trees on the right.