Department of Arts

Investigating the peat bogs of Ireland

I am the Bord Na Móna Project Archaeologist and this year we are inaugurating a new 3 year campaign of archaeological and palaeoenvironmental investigations in the peatlands of Ireland.

Re-locating sites in peatland

Re-locating sites in peatland, Cloonshannagh Bog, Co. Roscommon.

The Irish peatlands because of their waterlogged anaerobic environment are an internationally important repository of archaeological sites and artefacts as well as ancient environmental and climatic biofacts. They preserve evidence ranging from human remains, settlements and trackways and platforms to food and artefacts, plants, pollen, insects, amoeba and even the fallout from ancient volcanic eruptions.

Bord Na Móna is the state sponsored company with interests in energy, fuel supply, horticulture, waste management and the environmental markets, and has the responsibility to manage a large part of Ireland’s peat resource. The company owns and manages some 80,000 hectares of lands, the majority of which are peatlands. Archaeological survey of the peatlands over the last 30 years has resulted in the discovery of many archaeological sites and structures preserved within peat. Bord Na Móna has the responsibility to organise and finance the archaeological investigation of its peatlands in advance of peat harvesting. My role as Project Archaeologist is to work, under the terms of the Code of Practice between the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, the National Museum of Ireland and Bord na Móna and identify the archaeological sites to be investigated. I am responsible for developing a programme of investigations and assisting with the selection of archaeological consultants to carry out the work through the EU tender framework. I also manage the implementation and delivery of the project investigations including analysis and reporting. Over the next 3 years we will be investigating more than a hundred archaeological sites in bogs in counties Longford, Offaly, Roscommon and Westmeath.

Medieval leather shoe from  Toar Bog, Co. Westmeath.

Medieval leather shoe found in Toar Bog, Co. Westmeath.

This week we are advancing the work by precisely re-locating and marking sites to be investigated. This will allow us to identify the best places to open excavation cuttings. The work involves finding the coordinates of the monuments identified during earlier surveys with GPS, checking their condition and deciding on the optimal placement of excavation trenches. The work is physically demanding and requires walking long distances over the bog and jumping across dozens of deep water-filled drains. The monuments include trackways and platforms that range in date from the Neolithic to the Medieval period and are visible at various depths in the faces of the drains and sometimes on the surface. Sometimes in the course of the work we make a new find, like the Medieval leather shoe illustrated above, that was identified by a keen-eyed member of the team earlier in the week. The moccasin shoe had a leather sole and was probably lost when an earlier bog walker stepped into a bog hole. Unable to retrieve it they had to make the long trudge back home with only a single shoe. Luckily we made it back with all our boots and equipment intact! The shoe will be conserved and analysed and sent to the National Museum for permanent curation.

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.