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Rubicon’s Best Ever Find? Discovering A Uniquely Preserved Medieval Object

Today has been a typically varied day in the offices of Rubicon Heritage; we have just this week relocated our main Irish office from an industrial estate in Little Island to a much more central premises in Midleton, where our new neighbours fix pianos! Amidst the chaos of the move and some of the less glamorous but vital aspects of running a commercial business (such as checking and authorising payments, reviewing accounts and writing tenders) there has been one real highlight that I want to share with you. As Cork experiences horrendous weather conditions and widespread flooding, the Irish Summer has been forgotten in the Rubicon offices. The reason for this is an email I received yesterday, which revealed that we had discovered what appears to be an internationally significant archaeological find.

What is particularly interesting about this find is that it is an advertisement for the wonders of archaeological conservation. During archaeological excavations for Cork County Council on a medieval castle site in Caherduggan, Co. Cork last year, we uncovered a well which contained a fantastic array of objects. Amongst the treasure trove of material that emerged from its muddy depths were a medieval leather shoe and an exquisite medieval bone die. But most interesting was a long strip of leather, with what appeared to be metal studs along its length (to read a post about when we discovered it see here). We initially thought this might be a belt, and without  further ado sent it off to the conservator, Susannah Kelly of University College Dublin, to see what remained.

The leather belt on its discovery at Caherduggan Castle, Co. Cork

The leather belt on its discovery at Caherduggan Castle, Co. Cork

After months of painstaking work, leather specialist John Nicholl took possession of the belt from Susannah this week, and yesterday sent me on some photographs of the now conserved object. When I opened the attachment to view the pictures I was greeted with a jaw-dropping sight- one of the most beautiful archaeological objects I have ever come across. The images revealed a phenomenally well preserved strip of leather with buckles at each end, and hinged heraldic shields mounted along its length. Excitement spread throughout the office like wildfire and I quickly got sidetracked, spending long minutes gazing at reference material. We put up a post here to share the information, and I arrived to work this morning to find some very interesting and helpful comment and responses. What we initially thought may be a scabbard belt is perhaps more likely a decorated medieval horse harness, undoubtedly the best preserved ever found in Ireland (and quite possibly Britain as well). All that normally survives of these decorated trappings are single harness pendants, but here we have a virtually complete example!

The well preserved buckle still attached to the leather, and partial pendants

The well preserved buckle still attached to the leather, and partial pendants

I began this morning with a look through my trusty copy of The Medieval Horse and It’s Equipment to learn more (meanwhile bombarding an equally excited specialist John with questions!), and it appears we really may have something special with this find. Indications are that in the 13th century the use of these pendants on horse equipment became more numerous, but were in decline by the end of the 14th century- this may suggest a potential 14th century date, which would tie in with our other objects from the well. Next I fired off an email to the Office of the Chief Herald in Dublin to see if they could tell me anything about the heraldic symbol on the pendants, which appears to be a lion. They informed me that a lion rampant is associated with the O’Keeffes, a Cork family, although there is no evidence as yet that the object belonged to them. They also pointed out that on the Caherduggan pendants the lion is facing the opposite way to what would normally be expected in heraldry (described as lion counter-rampant or lion rampant to the sinister), making it a rarity. Contact with the National Museum of Ireland revealed that they have a collection of individual pendants that have been retrieved from illegal metal detectorists, so we now have the always enjoyable prospect of a trip to the Museum to have a look for some parallels. I also took a few minutes to look through the Portable Antiquities Scheme database to discover if there were any parallels in the UK (to have a look at the results I got see here).

A detail of a portion of the belt with the mounts complete and intact, showing the lion motif

A detail of a portion of the belt with the mounts complete and intact, showing the lion motif

We have barely scratched the surface of uncovering the story of this beautiful and potentially unique find, and there is undoubtedly much more to add before we are finished. However, for today we are still trying to get to grips with the excitement of the discovery, and are busy getting experts together so we can explore all the possibilities- all in all a very good day to be in the Rubicon office! To follow updates on this object and other work we carry out you can check out our blog at www.rubiconblog.com!

The other buckle with complete hinged pendants visible

The other buckle with complete hinged pendants visible

 

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Roadtrips and Research – The Undergraduate’s Tale

I’m Rena Maguire. I’m almost an archaeologist, as I’m a third year undergraduate in QUB Belfast. My day of archaeology started at 6am. Not usual for an undergraduate, but I like to get a head-start on things by getting out for a few miles cycle on the bike to clear the cobwebs away and keep fit. That’s after coffee and giving morning kissies to my nutty hamsters Mo, Flo and Tim. They’re my surrogate dogs, and I daren’t ignore them! Today I’ve got a meeting with my supervisor, Dr Dirk Brandherm, with regards to research for my dissertation. He’s the metal expert par excellence. This is the start of my third year in QUB Belfast, doing my Archaeology degree, and this summer is all about research and breaking some new ground on my chosen topic.

Archaeology isn’t all research – it can be pretty strenuous on excavations, and I’m off on excavation in July, to Flag Fen, Cambridgeshire. It’ll be my first Bronze Age site, which I’m incredibly excited by. I clocked up a fair few excavations last year – Dunluce was my field school in June 2011, then I was off to an island off the coast of Norway, excavating a Hanseatic kontor, or trading post. This was followed by an Early Christian rath at Ballyaghagan. It seems that whatever digs I’ve been on there’s been television cameras there, so even if you haven’t seen my face, my backside has been on most UK TV stations! I love the constant challenges each landscape throws up, so am very thrilled at getting wetland experience at Flag Fen. It’s also one of the eras I’m interested in specialising in. Win/ win situation!

I came into academia from working in the entertainments industry, as a mature student, and I love the work. I really couldn’t imagine doing anything else now. Last week I was in Armagh, handling 2200 year old horse harness and drawing it as part of my dissertation. This week I was down in the beautiful National Museum of Ireland, in Dublin, cross-referencing data going back as far as the 1830s. The archives are heaven, the staff incredibly helpful in every way – I love the old fashioned courtesy and grace which exists in this profession.

If you’re a book lover, you’d also love the poring through glorious sepia coloured envelopes, smelling sweetly as only old paper in archives can, with fabulously drawn and recorded artefacts. There is an elegance to this kind of research – I get lost in thought among them very easily. To date I’ve found a lot of information which hasn’t been in the public domain, which hopefully will read well after its added to my thesis!

I walk over to university in the rain, and get soaked, but I’m pretty happy. I miss Queens when I’m not there regularly, miss the fun, the people and the stimulus. If you aren’t familiar with Queens University Belfast, let me tell you what a really terrific place it is to study archaeology. It was always my first choice as a university, not just because I live here but because it has produced so many great archaeologists. It may be a centre of excellence, but it’s got a great sense of belonging and community.

I’ve been compiling a listing of the horse harness pieces of the Irish Iron Age which I’m doing my dissertation on, and having to devise a methodology for its presentation. This has been a most difficult things for me, as I’m very much the kind of person who goes into a situation and makes up a methodology depending on the circumstances of that moment. My supervisor keeps me on my toes and won’t let me away with being as sloppy as my past employment would accept. Order and quantifiable scientific analysis make for good archaeology – things I need to learn!

The thing I love about archaeology is that no two days are ever the same. Today, I’m presenting the results of the past two weeks of intense research work. In a couple of weeks time, I’ll be in workboots and vizi-vest, on a fenland in East Anglia. I’ll alternate between computer skills, artwork, hauling spoil buckets about, calculating carbon 14 rates of decay, sorting artefacts out – or like today, learning from Dirk how metal repairs were carried out in the Iron Age depending on the substance the actual artefact is made of. I’m going to see if I can purloin the loan of a piece of harness to get it X-rayed, and analyse how the pieces were actually made. You work hard as a QUB Undergrad ( well, you do if you want to do this thing right). I wont tell lies and say it’s an easy course to do, but the lecturers work ten times harder to pull everything good out of you, and make you into a consummate professional.

I would like to go into the academic side of archaeology, but I also love the digging – you have no idea what’s waiting in the soil. It’s like Christmas – with added mud! At Dunluce last year, on the very last day of the dig, I found a rapier, which had been buried under a ruined building from the 1641 Rebellion . God knows what its story is, but that element of humanity and pathos is just one reason why I’m in love with all the processes of this job.

So, after I finished exasperating my supervisor about my lack of forethought on categorising artefacts ( filing is not my strong point!), and I resolve to do better next time, I head to a chip shop to grab some lunch. They’re playing a song that somehow always seems to pop up every time there’s some good archaeology about to go down – Nicki Minaj’s Superbass. The song makes me think of all last summers early starts, dressing by the first light of dawn to arrive at excavations; it makes me think of plane rides, and coach rides, and smiling to myself as the sun rises on ancient landscapes, not knowing what the day is going to bring. ‘My heart goes boom-da-boom da boom like super bass’…. yes, actually,it does, when I think of the honour of working with the history of humanity, and learning how to recreate it all again in the present day This work makes me a very happy girl indeed. I’m still only learning, but I know I want to take this to PhD and excel at what I’m interested in .We get to do the best job on the planet, in my opinion, so I’m more than happy to make every day a day of archaeology!

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