Northern Ireland

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.

Education, Community and Irish Archaeological Research

Hi. My name is Christina O’Regan and I am the Fieldwork and Educational Director of Irish Archaeological Research (IAR). Three colleagues and I set up this non-profit social organisation in early 2011 with the aim of getting the public more involved with archaeology through education, workshops, and community events. We are all from commercial archaeological backgrounds and wanted to develop our experience in community archaeology.

A focus has been the delivery of school workshops, typically to second level students in years 8 – 12. These workshops begin with a general introduction to the archaeology of Ireland, followed by a practical session varying from how to make and decorate prehistoric-style pottery, learning about diet through artificial ‘poo’ dissection, hands-on interaction with genuine and replica artefacts and prehistoric hunting techniques. These workshops have been incredibly successful, with benefits for students and teachers alike.

My work in IAR varies from day-to-day as I develop workshops, plan for future events and shoot off a few emails to raise the profile of IAR within the archaeological and educational sectors.

For this year’s Festival of British Archaeology, we have decided to host two family-orientated events; the first at Glenariff Forest Park (July 21st & 22nd) and the second at Gosford Forest Park (July 28th & 29th). Our experience with the school workshops has shown us that the more practical the day, the better. Pottery workshops, archery, demonstrations of flint knapping and a children’s activity area will ensure there is something for everyone to enjoy. There will also be a mini museum, with an interactive artefacts table as well as information on the archaeology of the areas where the events will be held (Antrim and Armagh). The Northern Ireland Environment Agency have very generously granted us a loan of some artefacts from both counties and I joyously spent an afternoon sifting through their stores, picking out choice artefacts with the help of Andrew Gault from the Agency. We are also busy planning similar events for National Heritage Week in the Republic of Ireland, August 18th – 26th.

A trial run of the Open Air Museum at the Carnival of Colours, Londonderry showed us the enormous benefits this type of venture can have in increasing awareness of local heritage within communities.

Social media has been a lifeline for IAR with our Facebook page now ‘liked’ by over 1,000 people. The page allows us to announce all of our upcoming events as well as share archaeological discoveries and support other institutions and companies. Facebook also allows us to easily disseminate our free online magazine, Irish Archaeological Research and we have just put out a call for articles for the fourth (summer) edition. As editor of the e-zine, I envisage many late nights over the coming weeks organising layout and thinking up witty headlines!

For more information on any of our events see


Digging at a Cliff Top Palace

This year we are now in the fourth season of excavation at the Bishop’s Palace at Downhill, on the north coast of Northern Ireland. Many people will know this site from the iconic Mussenden Temple. Over the past three seasons, we have cleared out and uncovered many of the domestic buildings of the amazing building, showing us what life was like for some of those who worked in the big house. The Palace was built in the 1770s by the Earl Bishop, Frederick Hervey, 4th Earl of Bristol and Bishop of Derry.  During construction, the Earl Bishop was often on the continent and continually sent back instructions for alterations to the house.  This has created a convoluted house that has been considerably altered; now a team of archaeologists are now attempting to understand these structures and conserve them for the future.  The Palace and much of the demesne is owned by the National Trust and the whole excavation has been run by the NT archaeologist for Northern Ireland, Malachy Conway, and a team of dedicated volunteers (some professional archaeologists and some interested amateurs)

This season we have been beset by bad weather and a small volunteer workforce.  Our aim this year is to prepare the West Yard for public access and to finish clearing the northern part of the East Yard.  I have spent a few weeks refilling the gas holder that we spent the past two seasons excavating, it’s approximately 7m wide and 3m deep.  On the Day of Archaeology, we were all digging in the East Yard, working on the entrance to an animal enclosure.  Across the area, there is a scatter of sherds of white ceramic, probably plates used by the RAF when they were stationed here.  This season has not yet provided any interesting finds; unlike previous seasons, which have revealed Roman statue fragments and a Bronze Age bowl.  Much of our excavation has been assisted by a digger and mini-dumper, moving spoil and masonry around the site.  We now have two weeks left to finish clearing the yard.


As well as volunteering with the National Trust on the Downhill Project, I’m doing a part-time PhD in medieval archaeology.  My research is looking at 14th-Century manors in England, recreating the buildings through an analysis of the annual manorial accounts.  Many of these sites have been lost or drastically altered, so documents are one of the few ways of studying them.  I’m looking at the types of buildings that were on the manor, the choice of building materials and their maintenance.  So far, I have only looked at a small number of manors, but there are already patterns emerging of high status buildings being constructed from very different materials to the agricultural ones.

On Day of Archaeology, I was translating accounts from the manor of Oldington in Worcestershire.  Once you get an understanding of medieval Latin, medieval accounts are not that hard to read – they follow standard formulae and have a limited vocabulary.  But they are quite fun to read, as they describe the daily life on the manor, often naming the people doing the work and describing what they are doing, you can create a vivid picture of the bustling manor and its inhabitants.  This is a really interesting research project and will create a new understanding of medieval manorial buildings and their construction and repair.

Nature Reserves & World War Two Archaeology

My job involves visiting and advising on management of archaeological sites for the UKs largest wildlife charity, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB). We manage land across Britain from Shetland to Cornwall, Suffolk to Ceredigion and also throughout Northern Ireland. I get to see an amazing variety of sites from shell middens to hillforts to 19th century timber storage ponds – thousands of sites including 200 which are Scheduled (legally protected). Many of the best preserved archaeological sites can be found in wild places because this land has not been subject to intensive agriculture or commercial development. In particular we have hundreds of World War Two sites and I’d stick my neck out and say we must have one of the largest and best preserved collections of any land owner (with exception of the Ministry of Defence!).

The military used many wild places for training, storage,  firing/bombing ranges or  fortified them against invasion.  Heathland and coastal wetland were particularly heavily used because they were out of the way spotst where they could conduct live firing. The military flooded areas as a form of  invasion defence, leading wildlife to recolonise in the 1940s – so conservationists have alot to thank the military for in Suffolk, see:

Today I visited two wetland sites in Suffolk which have well preserved buildings – RSPB Boyton Marsh and Hollesley Marsh in Suffolk. I was hosted by wardens Dudley, Reg and Aaron – a happier crew you will not meet, and once you get to see where they work you can understand why. Nice sunny day in the countryside, quiet landscapes with grass bending in the wind and some beautiful concrete block houses and pillboxes! Boyton was an Armoured Fighting Vehicle (AFV) firing range where tanks trained in the run up to D-Day and a group of block houses survive which would have operated pulley systems to move targets for the tanks to fire at. It is hard to imagine the noise, and the tanks trundling past today. At Hollesely we have a beautiful pillbox, which was part of the coastal crust of defences that carpeted the east coast of England – and a nice place to stop on a walk, eat your sandwiches and look at the view. We discussed how we good interpret these sites for visitors and keep them in good order – luckily,  by and large they were built to last! Returned home to see the kids for a Romans vs medieval knights battle……historical accuracy is everything to us archaeologists.

Day of Archaeology as a PhD student

Hi.  I’m a part time PhD student researching thirteenth-century manorial buildings using medieval documents.  I’m studying at Queen’s University Belfast, Northern Ireland.

I spent most of Friday analysing information from manorial accounts for three manors in the south east of England.  Medieval documents are not the usual focus of an archaeological PhD, but I am interested in the information about buildings that they contain.  These accounts have lots of information about what the buildings were roofed with, what the walls were made of and the different types of buildings on the manor.  There is also interesting entries, like the mole catcher, who is employed to catch moles in the lord’s pasture, or the castrating of pigs.  Some times specific historical events are recorded, like the great storm of 1361-2.  The only problem is that the accounts are in medieval Latin, which I had no knowledge of until last September.  I’ve had to learn medieval palaeography to be able to decipher the hand writing and translate the Latin.

The most interesting outcome of my analysis was that there appears to be an increase in spending on the maintenance of buildings at the end of the 1330s.  Some of the manors spent more money on repairing the buildings and others rebuild some of their buildings.  I’m yet to understand why this change occurs and so far I have only identified it in four manors, but it is a pattern that I will look out for as I investigate more manors across England.  My goal is to advance our limited knowledge of what medieval manorial buildings looked like and what they were built from, as well as how much maintenance they required.

On Friday evening, I headed up to Northern Ireland’s north coast to visit a site that I have been excavating with the National Trust.  The site is the eighteenth-century palace of the Earl Bishop, Frederick Hervey [Bishop of Derry and Earl of Bristol].  This has been the third year of the project and we have now uncovered many structures in the two domestick yards to the rear of the house that have been hidden since the Second World War.  There have been loads of finds of ceramic, glass, bone and iron; we needed large plastic storage boxes for the finds, instead of the usual finds bags.  We are already planning to return next year to investigate further areas of the palace.  I’ve enjoyed the chance to do some practical archaeology, it makes a change from reading medieval documents.  While I was up this weekend, filming was taking place for the next season of ‘Game of Thrones’.

I also spent a bit of time working on stuff for the Ulster Archaeological Society Newsletter.  As Assistant Editor, I have to write up notes from the Society’s lectures and field-trips, as well as contributing other notes.  This is a great way to keep informed of what is going on in Irish archaeology – Twitter and Facebook is a great help in doing this.