Ireland

Expert Guidance from the National Museum of Ireland Conservation Department

The Blackfriary Community Archaeology Project in Trim, Co. Meath Ireland, now in its fifth year, focuses research led archaeological excavation at the site of the 13th century Dominican Black Friary in Trim, Co. Meath. Founded in 1263 by Geoffrey de Geneville Lord of Meath, the friary was a significant site for centuries until the Dissolution of the monasteries in the mid 16th century. It was finally razed to the ground in the 18th century when sold off as a quarry. During the past five years university students, under the direction of the Irish Archaeology Field School, have been excavating the buried remains of this friary, and rediscovering its secrets.

The 18th century activity on the site had a devastating impact on the majestic architecture of the friary; the quarry men dug ‘robber trenches’ to access the wall foundations and remove as much of stone work as they could from the buildings. The stained glass windows were also removed and the lead harvested for recycling. The glass was discarded and, as we have found, beaten out of its lead matrix leaving behind only fragments of the stained glass windows that would have adorned the east window of the church, and possibly elsewhere in the friary precinct.

 

Stained glass window within its lead matrix

Stained glass window within its lead matrix

This year, working westward from the ecclesiastical buildings towards the garden range, students have uncovered three surviving fragments of stained glass window, with the glass still in its lead matrix.

This is an unprecedented find for the site, and due to the extreme fragility of the glass, we immediately sought advice from Head of Conservation at the National Museum of Ireland, Rolly Read. Rolly advised that the window fragments should be block lifted and came to the site himself to undertake the block lift. Block lifting is a technique used by conservation professionals to recover delicate or sensitive archaeological objects.

 

Site director Finola O'Carroll and supervisor Laura Corrway excavate the plinths

Site director Finola O’Carroll and supervisor Laura Corrway excavate the plinths

The block lifting took place over two days; to facilitate this we excavated a small regular area around the window fragments, creating a pedestal for each piece. This work required precision excavation to ensure that the window fragments remained supported by the soil matrix in which they had survived, while allowing scope to undercut each pedestal when they had been prepared for block lifting. When Rolly was satisfied that we had excavated to a sufficient depth around each piece, he got to work. With the assistance of a number of our staff and students, and an audience of most of the rest of the crew, he started by packing each pedestal with moistened acid-free conservation grade tissue paper, to support the delicate leadwork. Each piece was then wrapped in film to consolidate and protect it from the final stabilising stage. Once sufficiently wrapped and stable, Rolly used a quick drying mesh bandage to ‘cast’ each piece. This required precise and quick execution to ensure each piece was fully wrapped before this material started to set. The setting or curing process took about 20 minutes. When set this mesh formed a solid case around the piece, encasing it in the surrounding soil matrix. The final undercutting was carried out using trowels. Each piece was deftly flipped over into a tray, and further stabilised with film wrap, ready for transport. Each piece will now be fully excavated in lab conditions by conservators, allowing them to carry out consolidation and conservation work as they uncover the window fragments.

 

Rolly Read, Head of Conservation at the National Museum of Ireland, wraps the glass as the IAFS crew look on

Rolly Read, Head of Conservation at the National Museum of Ireland, wraps the glass as the IAFS crew look on

Rolly Read, Head of Conservation at the National Museum of Ireland, 'casts' the stained glass

Rolly Read, Head of Conservation at the National Museum of Ireland, ‘casts’ the stained glass

 

There are few surviving examples of medieval windows from archaeological contexts in Ireland so we are absolutely thrilled to have uncovered these pieces, and to have had expert guidance and assistance from the Museum to ensure that they may be consolidated in the best possible conditions!

 

 

 

The glass is ready to be lifted and taken to the museum for conservation

The glass is ready to be lifted and taken to the museum for conservation

 

Documenting the material past in the National Museum of Ireland

A very late entry from the museum archaeology sector! On the Day of Archaeology this year, I am working as a Documentation Assistant in the National Museum of Ireland – Archaeology, Dublin. I work as a team member of the museum’s Inventory project in the Irish Antiquities Division of the institution.

The National Museum of Ireland - Archaeology in Kildare Street, Dublin city

The National Museum of Ireland – Archaeology in Kildare Street, Dublin city

This project involves the documentation of the entire collections of the museum – a vast amount of objects amassed over a hundred years of collecting and conserving the Irish past. Documentation involves the organisation of information relating to all objects within a museum collection. When an object enters the museum collection, its details are recorded – e.g. object type, origins, dimensions and features – and it is assigned a unique museum registration number for future identification. The object is then placed in storage, and its details, registration number and current location are added to the museum database. If the object is taken out of storage, placed on exhibition, or loaned to another museum, the database record for the object is kept updated in order to monitor and track its location. A database of this nature also allows curators and researchers to search museum databases for specific object types, and to record secure curatorial and conservation information regarding a specific object. The National Museum of Ireland collection totals over four million objects, so without stringent documentation procedures, it would be impossible to maintain the required level of information, control and identification of their collections.

The Inventory Team documents the contents of hundreds of wooden drawers of artefacts from the storage crypt of the museum. The contents of the drawers can vary widely, and generally contain a mixed collection of artefact varieties and materials from several different chronological periods. Day to day, we can encounter a huge range of artefact types. These can consist of bronze swords, bone pins, flint scrapers, stone axes – and everything in between! We also deal with the more everyday domestic material unearthed from archaeological excavations, such as animal bones, organic samples and lots of pottery. Following a previous day of documenting a drawer of butchered animal bone, charcoal samples and clay pipe stems, I am rewarded today in my drawer of artefacts. I deal with a number of varied objects from an a donated antiquarian collection, which includes stone cannon shot, stone lamps, copper alloy dress pins and stone moulds used for casting jettons and bronze axes.

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Stone moulds used for casting a bronze axe and jettons

Each artefact is identified, entered into our database with information on its find place, donor, distinguishing features and habitat. It is then given a new label and storage bag, and if necessary, repackaging for conservation needs.

The work can be challenging, with the former recording and storage standards of artefacts differing significantly over time, but this role gives me the opportunity to work hands-on with an amazing artefact collection. Each day gives me the chance to encounter and handle a previously unseen piece of our past, and gain an expanded knowledge and appreciation of our material culture.

To get an idea of the range of objects encountered during the National Museum of Ireland Inventory Project, a number of our most interesting and unusual artefacts are profiled on our Documentation Discoveries blog .

 

Student Archaeology Summer Project

I never thought that at the age of 50 I would be on summer holidays from college, but you know that’s just one of the many unexpected twists and surprises on the journey of life. Archaeology is a bit like that: a  journey of discovery with a sense of stuff (as George Carlin terms “material culture”) waiting to be discovered. My name is Dolores Kearney, and I have one more year in my joint degree of archaeology and history. This summer I decided to submit an abstract for the Archaeology department magazine.

This abstract was accepted, and research needed to start. The subject content is in the category of historical archaeology, and the title is “The Search for Abel Ram’s Gorey Palatines”. My research process is almost completed, and today I went viewing and comparing farmsteads between the north and south of Co Wexford Ireland. This was done in order to assist me in finding the fixed point in the Wexford landscape for the original 16th century Palatine settlement.

I have before me this evening a visual record of some very stylish neat and niche Wexford rural architecture of the 18th century, and the next step is to mark similarities between the houses of the north and the south. My final step on the research ladder is the setting up of interviews with some descendants of the original Palatine settlers of Gorey, Co Wexford.Then the writing starts….

 

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

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.

Education, Documentation and Administration in The Viking Triangle

I am an Irish museum archaeologist, currently working in the historic centre of Waterford city, known locally as The Viking Triangle due to its heritage relating to the founding of the city by the Vikings in the tenth century. I work within a complex of three city museums, known collectively as Waterford Museum of Treasures ( www.waterfordtreasures.com ). The collections of the three museums range widely in chronology, beginning with Viking artefacts from the founding of the city, through the Anglo-Norman, ecclesiastical  and English monarchical influences of the medieval period, the Georgian period, and extending right up to the modern social history of the city in the late twentieth century.

As is common in most museums today, I wear many hats in my current role, which can range in tasks and content from day to day – including artefact documentation, marketing, customer services, curatorial assistance and museum education.

Documentation, one of my main responsibilities, refers to the organisation of information relating to all objects within a museum collection. When an object enters the museum collection, its details are recorded – e.g. object type, origins, dimensions and features – and it is assigned a unique museum registration number for future identification. The object is then stored in an appropriate location, and its details, registration number and current location are added to the museum database. If the object is taken out of storage, placed on exhibition, or loaned to another museum, the database record for the object is kept updated in order to monitor and track its location. A database of this nature also allows curators and researchers to search museum databases for specific object types, and to record secure curatorial and conservator information regarding a specific object. Considering that museums possess collections of thousands of objects, it would be impossible to maintain the required level of information, control and identification of their collections without the use of the documentation process.

In my documentation responsibilities, I deal with a wide and varying range of artefacts and chronologies on a daily basis, and today I am documenting a local donation of three large vintage leather suitcases into our collection. Our museum’s collection policy allows for the collection of contemporary and historical objects in order to preserve these items into the future, and the museum is extremely lucky to continually benefit from ongoing donations by Waterford citizens with a sense of civic pride for their museums.

I am currently compiling new education packs and activities for use by primary schools visiting our museums during their school terms, and that has formed the bulk of my day’s work. This will be a work pack which we will provide to visiting schools, which will provide them with worksheets and activities related to the museum exhibitions to carry out during their visit.

Due to school budget constraints relating to participation in off-site activities, it is imperative that our museum can offer a valuable, curriculum-based learning experience in order to validate the educational worth of the school visit. It is therefore vital that the questions and tasks in the education packs relate directly to necessities within the outlined curriculum targets for particular age-groups and subjects. My work trawling the primary school curriculum guidelines over the past month has given me a new-found respect for the work of school teachers! The museum provides a unique learning environment, and I hope that our work packs will reflect and enhance this advantage, and help achieve the absolute highest potential of the school visit experience. Children are a wonderful audience for archaeology, and my work in education is a great opportunity to try and pass on my enthusiasm and passion for the subject to the next generation.

I spend the morning going through our Medieval Museum in order to test the suitability of my current worksheet questions and tasks with the practical aspects of our exhibitions – such as eye levels of display cases, gallery orientation for activity trails and case lighting levels for clear observation. This involved the task of me lowering myself to a child-friendly level in front of the exhibit cases, and, understandably, I receive a number of confused looks from visitors, who quietly wonder why I am kneeling in front of the display cases!

Also to be done today is a number of administrative tasks relating to our upcoming renewal application for the Museum Standards Programme of Ireland (MSPI). This is a standards programme which aims to improve all aspects of museum practice and levels of collections care and management. Our museums currently hold full accreditation to the programme since 2009, which we will maintain by renewal application later this year. The programme is important as it helps the museum to maintain management focus and paramount collections care, and is a display of our museum’s commitment to best professional practice and management.

The day is over before I know it, and although I still have a lot of work left to do in the near future, I feel as though I’m making positive progress with it all….fingers crossed!!

Public Archaeology – a community view

This all singing, all dancing contribution was undertaken by local film makers Delphine Coudray, and Roy Murray includes archaeologists, university students, local children and Paddy Rispin, from the Trim Living History group.

Dodging torrential rain showers, in between excavation cuttings, this is archaeological interpretation, community style: Blackfriary Community DoA 2013

DoA video

The Archaeology:

The Blackfriary Community Archaeology Project is collaboration between the Irish Archaeology Field School (IAFS), Meath Local Authorities and the community of Trim, Co. Meath, Ireland. The focus of the project is the Blackfriary, a 13th Dominican Friary, founded by the Anglo-Norman Geoffrey de Geneville, Lord of Meath in 1267. The friary was quarried out in the 18th century and the remains of are mostly buried. The site, listed as a National Monument in the 1970’s, is situated in a large field and is surrounded by housing. As the town developed, around it, the field fell into disuse and eventual dereliction. The Project is challenged with investigating the archaeological remains of the site, much now underground, and working with the local community to create a space where community and visitors alike can explore heritage and use the site in a mutually beneficial and sustainable way. The Irish Archaeology Field School carries out a summer excavation project at the site annually; this incorporates a practical field programme for archaeology, anthropology and forensic students into the archaeological research project.

The Community:

Our summer excavation season depends very much on the good relationship the School has with the community; Trim has an active community that are creative, resourceful and proud of their heritage. The School asked members of the community to help out with a contribution for the Day of Archaeology, something that the community themselves would be interested in… Although not perhaps a typical day for archaeologists, the imagination, enthusiasm and fun of this contribution is very typical of the School’s experience of working in this wonderful community. Enjoy!

 

Surveying in Ireland

Today’s only anomaly

It’s now 10pm on the Friday night of the Day of Archaeology in Ireland…. and I’m just about finished for the week. I’ll be called away to get packing for a very brief holiday soon – so in this window of opportunity I’ll post this short entry. In previous years I’ve had the luxury of time to put together a cogent entry, but this evening I’m just about to kick back and relax, so forgive the brevity.

I run a very small commercial archaeology consultancy in the west of Ireland, at peak employing 18 people full time and a cohort of contractors. We’ve been reduced to three full time and two contractors today. This has created its own problems – we have the legacy of a bigger company, with a solid IT infrastructure but we’ve lost some very experienced staff.

Earlier today Charles posted on  ‘Picking up the pieces’ after the collapse of the Celtic Tiger and the problems of emigration, the resultant loss of knowledge and experience and the impact of economic failure on the cultural heritage sector, and it’s something that has affected us as well.

One element of that is that my role has become far busier – at one time I had the luxury of keeping up a consistent blog for the company, and was focussed on marketing and management – now that there’s only two full time archaeologists (me and Bill) and an ecologist (Ger), the job runs from accounting to assessment to  being out on site testing and monitoring, with a great deal of travel throughout Ireland, long days and long distances.

I started (very) early  this morning on a field survey in the East of Ireland  but was able to get back to the office by lunch. The survey was part of a large EIS for an infrastructure project and involved visiting farms to establish whether aerial anomalies were of archaeological potential or could be otherwise explained. One inspection was all that was required today. Didn’t find anything! Back in office the weeks notes had to be written up – smartphones are a lowercase godsend – all my field notes are voice recorded, my photographs are geolocated, I have a suite of maps on dropbox on the phone and just have to come back and transcribe the voice recordings (also georeferenced), upload the photos to Google Earth and remember to save everything in the right place. Paperless… That’s the aim.

Later, it’s time to complete the final draft of an EIS for a proposed gas pipeline which involves most of the afternoon working on GIS measuring distances and editing the text. A little bit of CAD work on another project brings me to dinnertime – This is something I thoroughly enjoy. I started in archaeology as a site illustrator and always enjoyed that role, doing the occasional digitisation and prettifying of site drawings these days is something I find hugely relaxing for some reason – maybe it’s all the nice colours and shades you can play with, or the uncomplicated nature of it.. I don’t know, it’s late and I’m tired.

Then – the dreaded invoicing, accounting and chasing money… less said about that the better.

And finally the day is rounded off with preparing a fee proposal. That takes me until 9… Bit of cleaning and packing and here we are, Worthingtons Red Shield and me. Goodnight from Ireland.

 

Looking at crops and weeds from early medieval Galway, Ireland

Some Irish early medieval charred plant remains in a petri dish

Today I’m working on a research project looking at early medieval plant remains from Galway, in the west of Ireland. My focus is on material that dates from approximately 450 to 1100 AD. The objective is to pull together the results from a range of different sites, and to see whether it is possible to identify a distinctive regional pattern in the crops and weeds found. A map with all the sites included to date can be found here. It’s still very much a work in progress!

Archaeology is rarely glamorous (too much mud and dust) but somehow, today, I’ve assigned myself the most unglamorous task of all: I’ve spent my time trawling through a stratigraphic index (that’s the list of different contexts that were excavated at a site), identifying the early medieval samples, and then adding them to my database. It’s tedious and time-consuming, but absolutely necessary for multi-phase sites, to ensure that my dataset isn’t biased by the inclusion of material from a different period, either earlier or later.

The good news is that, now that this is done, I’m ready to start real analysis of the results on Monday. Meanwhile, I’m off to enjoy a database-free weekend!

Why Should Archaeology be of Interest to Politicians?

Of course, most archaeologists will know exactly why they feel archaeology should be of interest to politicians: it provides vital information about human life in the past, in all of its fascinating complexity. This information in turn entertains and enriches us, giving a sense of perspective and depth to modern life, helping us to see and understand where we have all come from and the skills, struggles and mistakes it has taken to get the human species this far.

But why should any of this be of any interest to those who are elected to represent the populace in the political arena? By its very nature, the job of an elected politician is to represent people’s interests, and there are many, many pressing interests which they are asked to represent. Some of these are local – planning disputes, resolving local conflicts, campaigning for greater resources for healthcare, childcare, schools, roads and rubbish collection. Other interests are wider and more strategic – representing their party’s interests, the slow grind of arguing for and implementing policy and, inevitably, doing things that might help them get elected the next time around too.

I work for the Northern Ireland Assembly as Research Officer for culture and heritage. I see the intensely competing claims on the time of our local MLAs (Members of the Legislative Assembly) first hand, and I often wonder if and how archaeology is of any relevance to them. I am an archaeologist by background; having spent time in commercial archaeology, then carrying out academic research in Britain, Ireland and in the Middle East, and then teaching, I found myself at the Council for British Archaeology with its headquarters in York. It was there that I first began to understand the crucial interface that exists between politicians and organisations like the CBA, and the crucial nature of the work that they do in representing and explaining the significance of archaeology at every twist and turn of legislative, policy or fiscal change to the Ministers and MPs who make significant decisions.

Having moved to the Northern Ireland Assembly, I now support statutory committees by providing them with (hopefully) informative, objective papers and presentations on topics within my brief. I also support individual MLAs who often request research to support either their own internal party discussions, or sometimes constituency business. Starting here in 2010, I suddenly had to think about not just archaeology but also things like arts policy, sport, public libraries, and languages. What funding do each of these sub-topics get within the over-arching remit of ‘culture’? How are the policies pursued here different to the Republic of Ireland, Great Britain, or elsewhere in the EU? What could be tried here in Northern Ireland that has worked elsewhere? Is there evidence of problems within particular policy areas?

These are the kinds of issues which come up regularly, but I am often surprised by how often archaeology and heritage come forward as important issues for MLAs. I have been asked, for example, for papers on the scale of undeposited archaeological archives from commercial projects, the role of cultural rights within museums, differences between the planning policies for the historic environment in each of the jurisdictions of the UK, metal detecting, the restoration of historic canals, and the quantity of Irish artefacts held outside Ireland. All of this work involves careful liaison with staff in the relevant departments here (the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure and the Department of the Environment), but also in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport in London, and the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht in Dublin. It also involves talking to those who are often the real experts on these topics: those working in the field, in NGOs and in voluntary organisations. What surprises me further about this work is that the relevance or legitimacy of archaeology alongside all of the other political issues which are around at any particular moment is rarely questioned. Some of the anxieties which I know that archaeological organisations can sometimes feel, like how to argue for resources and parliamentary time for archaeology in the midst of seemingly more urgent business, are almost never real issues for politicians. I have never heard it said that archaeology and heritage are less deserving of discussion or consideration than schools, hospitals or crime. Of course, there are different views on how such issues are to be funded or addressed, but heritage is recognised as being fundamentally important in contributing to community identity (something of real significance in Northern Ireland), but also as an economic driver for tourism and regeneration.

So today I am working on a paper which examines the social impact of heritage: what role, for example, do museums, the historic environment, and community archaeology play in contributing to quality of life, or to alleviating social exclusion? There are lively debates around all of these issues and plenty of evaluations, strategies and assessments to plough through. I will be speaking to National Museums Northern Ireland, to the Northern Ireland Museums Council, to academics at the University of Ulster and, of course, doing plenty of reading, reading and more reading. The Assembly is in recess now so it’s a good time to tackle a complex topic and try to get to the bottom of it before the MLAs return to the Assembly in September.