Straight from the Horses Mouth: A story of a PhD and her Dead Ponies of the Iron Age.

This is my third Day of Archaeology… my first was all waggly tailed, spaniel enthusiasm for my undergrad dissertation. The second, I went out on a limb for a video  about my MSc analysis of the pollen and charcoal of Bohermeen bog, close to the iconic Hill of Ward, aka Tlachtga. This year I am writing a literature review for my PhD thesis, which sort of began its life from the topic of my undergrad dissertation on the function of the enigmatic Irish Y-piece. That undergrad  research is now a fairly substantial paper in Emania ( journal of the Navan Research Group) 22, and the material of the thesis, which expands on equestrian objects from 50 AD-400 AD in Ireland is a strange, solitary and sometimes quite exciting journey.

I wasn’t going to write anything for this years Day of Archaeology. After all, everyone else is doing cool digging or enviro work, and some old bird sitting typing on a Mac, surrounded by books isn’t a very sexy or marketable notion of what an archaeologist does. Yet in many ways, it is exactly what we do when the holes are filled in, and when the artefacts are cleaned and restored.

We investigate.

We research.

– and we write.

The purpose is to take the new knowledge we’ve just caught,  which is often as fragile as a butterfly, and  share it with as many as want to read it, and through a collaborative process that butterfly-hypothesis becomes  bigger, stronger, more powerful until it is joined by many other theories and ideas, turning the past into a blaze of colour and reality. That’s our  job: to reconstruct the past, bring it to life again to tell the story of human beings.

I was once the very typical horsie little girl, spending every minute on horseback that I could, with school-books decked out in pictures of show-jumpers and dressage horses. Ten-year old me gets ridiculously excited about this thesis on a regular basis. You see, the bits and tack I’m analysing appear very late in the Irish archaeological record, and that suddeness has always been thought to point towards some sort of social upheaval, where invaders on horseback took over the island. That’s the old La Tene invasion theory  for you. But it’s not as simple as that. It seldom is.

So very few archaeologists have looked at tack with a horseman or womans eye.  They’ve just been chunks of metal to catalogue ( and it must be said, measured all too often wrongly!). Don’t ever lose sight that these beautifully decorated artefacts fitted on real, flesh and blood animals . Animals who were loved, trusted,  and held special status to be fitted with custom-made bits, which have even been scoured at later periods of history and reused, even after 2000 years. The best story I’ve found centres on a bit, on display in the delicious bijou North Down Museum. During the 19th century, a farmer found the extravagantly gorgeous bronze bit in marshland, cleaned it up and fitted it to his donkey! Well, the donkey was made of naughtier stuff than a proud Iron Age war horse and repeatedly rejected it. In fairness, it probably didn’t fit a wee donkey very well. That’s when the farmer sold it to the museums of the time for a pretty handsome sum!

Just like that 19th century donkey, each of these ancient Iron Age animals had their quirks – some were forward on the rein, others chewed too much on their bits, others had hard mouths and needed the Y-piece as back-up. If you handle the pieces for long enough you can see each horse – observe and understand the  use-wear, feel the way the animal would react, and also gauge their size pretty accurately – and all that information straight from the horses mouth, you could say! So, research is starting to show how the riders of the Irish Iron Age were riding,  and what sorts of animals they were galloping out on. For a horse-orientated nation, that’s a pretty tasty bit of research and I never, ever forget the honour of being the one to start telling this untold tale.

The next step, and what I’m looking at this month, is to work out what species these animals may have been and where they came from. It’s going to eventually involve stable isotope analysis of horse teeth and perhaps, eventually, even some haplogroup analysis. Ireland had a great deal more indigenous breeds than the Irish Draft or the Connemara (whisper it, but I don’t think there’s much original ancient blood in either breed any more). Early medieval Ireland however inherited a plethora of breeds from the late Iron Age – the famed Irish Hobbey (or Hobelare), reknowned through Europe from the early medieval times. The equally extinct Roscommon pony, and Cushendall cob  – I have a photo of what may be the last pure-blood that existed in the 1950s, and she’s a clean limbed cob, not a pony. The Rathlin breed, the Manx, the Galloway… all lost to time and sometimes politics.

The rapid decline of the famed and highly desireable medieval Hobbey only occurred during the times of the Irish Penal Code, starting in 1695, when Irish Catholics were not allowed to own a horse worth more than £5 ( among much worse restrictions) to force conversion to the Protestant church , or reinforce humiliation and poverty – either way, bitter and unnecessary pills to be made to swallow for the vast majority of the islands‘ population. The Hobbey is praised so passionately by English knights in the 14th century AD for their intelligence, loyalty and swiftness that it’s likely the decline of this ancient breed of riding horse was due to being crossed with heavier English animals, breeding out its unique qualities.

That political excuse does not exist for the other breeds which may have existed at the end of the Iron Age. The bitter irony of the Roscommon, Cushendall and Rathlin breeds is that they slipped from living memory during periods of time when all things Celtic and mystical were being embraced. The 19th and early 20th century Celtic Revivla period liked to draw pictures of warriors and heroes on fierce Celtic horses, but they let the breeds die off. Though some horse dealers I know, rugged Antrim hill-men, say the Cushendall is simply not recognised by young folk, but still there for those who ca identify that strong face and peculiar pace they lapse into. They are, from the scant images available,  lithe, clean-limbed sorts of animals with graceful heads. Just a little small for the bulk of the Irish Iron Age bits and Y-pieces, but will fit some specimens. Perhaps for youths or smaller, lighter built women?

I’m not a great one for thinking the horse was a boys-own club in late prehistory – burials in Ireland occasionally indicate otherwise. Iron Age burials are rare anyway, ad these inhumations are the rarest of all.  Those horsie girls of 2000 years ago, who may have had shorter lives than us, were laid to rest with their beloved animals close beside them, to eternally lean over their stone walls and nuzzle each other, peaceful in just being with each other. No different from you, me or a multitude of people and their animals in times yet to come.

The past may be a different country but often they don’t do things any differently than us. Horse people don’t change a lot. The horse is part of the history of humanity – the brave war-horses, the much loved farm horse, the palfrey to ride out across countryside on, heart soaring higher than a hawk. Just like the dog, the horse walks beside us  in war and peace, and I reckon those unknown animals who suddenly came to be used on this island ( for what? When? Why?) need to be remembered as much as the horses of say, WW1. Their story blends with our own, even reverberating politically to the present day. And that’s why I have travelled this year to some amazing places, to talk to usually pretty crazy-sexy-cool people about stuff in their museums. It’s why I stay up late at night drawing these well made snaffles, and cataloguing them.

It’s why I am an archaeologist and as such, it’s why we write.

We find the evidence, then we tell the story.

I think that’s a pretty cool job, don’t you?