I am an Archaeologist with 25 years’ experience. I hold a Masters and Ph.D. from NUI Dublin. I am the Project Archaeologist with Bord na Móna, the commercial Semi-state body with responsibility for development of 80,000 ha of Peatland in Ireland. My primary research interest is the Irish Bronze Age.

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.

Picking up the pieces

I’m a Project Archaeologist and one of the roles of a Project Archaeologist is to pick up the pieces when a colleague has to abandon a project.

For the last decade I have been acting as Project Archaeologist for the Irish Concrete Federation which represents the Irish Concrete and quarrying industry. The role of the Project Archaeologist is to manage the archaeological process on behalf of a client at all stages of the development process. Generally the function of the Project Archaeologist is to advise the client on all aspects of the potential cultural heritage impacts of a project from design stage, through site identification and acquisition, the planning process, environmental impact assessment, planning conditions, excavation, post excavation and publication. In Ireland the functions of the Project Archaeologist are often formally stated in a Code of Practice agreed between a development organisation and the State. Codes of Practice have been agreed with a number of organisations such as the National Roads Authority, the Railway Procurement Agency, and Bord Gais Eireann.

I like to think of the role of Project Archaeologist being similar to a film producer. The Project Archaeologist doesn’t direct the excavation but they are responsible for what comes before the excavation and for a lot of what comes after it. Like a film producer the Project Archaeologist can also be left to pick up the pieces if the Director can’t finish the project.

ICF Code of Practice

ICF Code of Practice

This year on my Day of Archaeology I’m driving to Co. Galway to collect the excavation archive from a colleague who is giving up archaeology and emigrating. Things were very different in 2008 when Michael, the man I am traveling to meet, won the contract to excavate the medieval Moated Site at Clonmelsh, Co. Carlow through competitive tender. The site at Clonmelsh was part of the manor of Grangeforth, which belonged to the Cistercian Abbey of Baltinglass that was founded by the King of Leinster Dermot Mac Murrough. The site had to be preserved by record in advance of a quarry extension, and all that remains of the site today is the excavation record which consists of the context and sample sheets, site notebooks, drawings, finds and samples.


Clonmelsh under excavation 2008

Clonmelsh under excavation in 2008

In 2008, at the end of the Celtic Tiger boom, there were over a thousand licensed excavations carried out in Ireland and this was already a considerable reduction on previous years. But with the subsequent collapse of the Irish economy the number of archaeological investigations has been reducing each year and many consultancies like Michael’s have failed. The ultimate objective of any archaeological excavation is to produce a published report and the failure of his consultancy placed this process in doubt. With the support of the developer I worked with Michael and encouraged him to submit a proposal to the developer for the continuation of the post-excavation project. The developer agreed to fund the work and a certain amount of progress was made. But the situation in Ireland has continued to deteriorate and Michael has found it impossible to support his family. As a result he has been forced to quit archaeology, put his house on the market, sell his furniture and his car, and take his children out of school and emigrate in search of a sustainable future. It’s sad to see a colleague forced to abandon their career and  leave their home and start again from scratch. I wish Michael well for the future. I’m afraid he is not the first Irish archaeologist forced to emigrate and he probably won’t be the last, as tens of thousands of other Irish people have been forced to leave in recent years. Now I’m left with the excavation archive wondering what to do next.


Clonmelsh site plan

Clonmelsh site plan

I’m writing about this because it is sadly one of my main tasks this week but also because it represents the current reality of archaeology in Ireland. Irish archaeology has been blighted by economic failure, imposed austerity and the failure of the commercial archaeology model. Those of us who are left are trying to pick up the pieces, but the loss of collective knowledge and experience will never be made good. Many excavation archives generated during the boom years now sit in store rooms with no one now to write them up and bring them to publication. The National Museum has been working to acquire the finds and archives generated by consultancies during the boom so the data won’t be lost but the task is monumental, and is being carried out at a time of reducing staff and resources. Most of this material will simply remain stored away for years to come. I’m reasonably familiar with the site at Clonmelsh so, with the support of the developer, I’m going to have a go at finishing the report, but  the data from so many other sites may never see the light of day.

I regularly write about archaeology and you read more of my blogs here.

Ireland in the Bronze Age

The Early Bronze Age pottery from the cemetery in the Mound of the Hostages at Tara, Co. Meath. From  O'Sullivan 2005.

The Early Bronze Age pottery from the cemetery in the Mound of the Hostages at Tara, Co. Meath. From O’Sullivan 2005.


About me
I am a professional archaeologist who lives and works in Ireland. Part of my professional work involves overseeing the archaeological programme of Bord na Móna, where I act as Project Archaeologist. Bord na Móna is the commercial Semi-state body with responsibility for the development of the Irish national peat resource. Bord na Móna owns and manages more than 80,000 ha of land spread across Ireland. Most of this is peatland which has preserved a wealth of organic archaeological and palaeoenvironmental material. I also act as Project Archaeologist for the Irish Concrete Federation where I am responsible for implementing the Archaeological Code of Practice which was agreed with government in 2002. But on this particular day I am spending my time working on my own archaeological research.


A day of archaeology in the peatlands of Ireland II

The view across Killaderry Bog. Co. Galway.

You can find part I of this post here.

Getting to the site

It’s a two hour drive from my base in Kildare to Killaderry, part of the trip is on the new Motorways built during the Celtic Tiger period but once you cross the Shannon these roads run out and you are back on the old single carriageways and narrow bridges that characterise the country.

The excavations

I Arrived at Killaderry, Co. Galway just after 11am and Jane Whitaker of ADS showed me around. These are raised bogs, which means they developed from ancient lakes. The natural vegetation has been removed by milling so they give the impression of solidified dark brown lakes. The only visible features are the long and deep drains extending into the distance that break up the bog into long narrow fields. The figures of archaeologists in reflective yellow safety gear can be seen beside shallow excavation cuttings filling out recording sheets. The trackways are spread around the bog and it takes a long time to walk out to them and then from site to site. This year 13 sites were excavated in Killaderry Bog and 3 in Castlegar. Dan Young from Reading University is busily taking samples from around the trackways for environmental analysis. When it rains this can be a bleak place as there’s no cover. In a hot summer there’s no shade from the sun. The peat dries out and can become airborne and tractors and harvesters create mini-dust-storms as they pass.

A section of a trackway prepared for environmental sampling at Killaderry Bog. Co. Galway.

The trackways have a wide date range from the Bronze Age right through to the fifteenth century AD. The longer trackways tend to cross the bogs at their narrowest points linking areas of dryland. In a number of cases trackways follow the routes that were established at earlier periods. There are other alignments of trackway that are being investigated this season that will soon be dated and will provide more detail. At this stage the evidence indicates that this routeway through Killaderry bog was in use for at least two thousand years and is probably the preserved wetland part of an ancient road network that existed in this area. Investigation of the nearby River Suck also has the potential to identify ancient fording points and possibly the remains of bridges. There have been interesting finds, a Late Bronze Age wooden shovel, a rough-out for a handled bowl and a spoon that resembles a chisel. Now that the season’s fieldwork has come to an end the next part of work, the post-ex phase, begins.

Final recording of cuttings and samples at Killaderry Bog. Co. Galway.

A day of archaeology in the peatlands of Ireland

View Killaderry& Castlegar in a larger map

About me
As an archaeologist my work ranges widely from advising developers how to avoid impacts on archaeology and built heritage, to the preparation of the cultural heritage sections of environmental impact assessments, to the commissioning of field-based investigations such as geophysical survey and the traditional archaeological excavation. Part of my professional work involves overseeing the archaeological programme of Bord na Móna, where I act as Project Archaeologist. Bord na Móna is the commercial Semi-state body with responsibility for the development of the Irish national peat resource. Bord na Móna owns and manages more than 80,000 ha of land spread across Ireland. Most of this is peatland which has preserved a wealth of organic archaeological and palaeoenvironmental material. Once thought to be areas of wilderness we now know that the bogs were used by people for thousands of years.