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!

Festivals, Shoes, Maps and Beer in Galway, Ireland

Some rights reserved by Mikenan1 ( used under a creative commons licence

Moore Group is based in Galway, on Irelands rugged, windswept, wet west coast, and today marks the beginning of festival season in the City. So, despite the dreary weather, we’re all in festive mood here. The Volvo Round the World Yacht Race is due to finish in the harbour over the weekend, the Galway Arts Festival follows the week of festivities around the Yacht Race and the famous Galway Races follow that. Then, in early August we’re hosting our small boutique ‘Archaeology of Beer’ Festival in Headford, Co. Galway (Headfest). It’s been described as Ireland most boutique, boutique festival. This year, due to a lack of funding, we’ve downsized the gig, so it’ll be even more boutique!

This morning I’ve been focused on beer. I’ve been researching ancient recipes and brewing methods for a ‘wild’ beer. A wild beer is a beer which is fermented using windblown or other wild yeasts, and is something we’ve never really tried before. It could (and probably will) turn out awful… We’ve brewed two beers so far. One, a bog myrtle (Myrica Gale) and malt ale with some yarrow flavouring (Gale Ale), the second a simple hopped ale (so that people can taste the difference between a modern hopped ale and an ancient non-hopped herbal ‘gruit’ ale). We’ve already tasted our ‘Gale Ale’ and, it’s really nice, if I say so myself…. We had separated it into three batches – one is a ‘lighter’ ale of about 6% ABV, the second is stronger and is around 8% ABV and the third is a really strong 9.5% ABV ale. We’ve one more beer to brew and I’m trying to work out a recipe for next weeks brewday. On Headfest day we’ll be demonstrating our brewing in a replica fulacht fiadh using hot rocks to get our liquor to the right temperature. You can read more about our hot rock experiments on our blog

Unfortunately beer doesn’t pay the bills so we have other more mundane duties to perform today as well. I’m currently completing a constraints study on a large electricity infrastructure project. Essentially this entailed mapping and describing the existing, known, cultural heritage of the study area, using existing data sources and information. We’ve mapped all these data and today I have to review the mapping to ensure that it’s correct. It sounds dull, but there are some interesting diversions. For instance, comparing the first edition OS Maps with the second editions gives a picture of a remarkably changed landscape which mirrors the economic history of the 19th and early 20th centuries in Ireland. Despite the intervening famine there was huge development in the West of Ireland, with the construction of roads, railway lines, bridges and the introduction, and eventual dissipation, of large demesnes and designed landscapes. Whereas the early maps (surveyed in the 1830s and 1840s) depict remote clusters of houses and small landholdings in many cases reachable only by tracks, by the 1890’s or early 1900’s these remote locations are served by roads and other services.   Much of this growth in the latter part of the 19th century is down to the Napoleonic Wars when Ireland experienced a huge surge in economic circumstances (an early Celtic Tiger period) and the passing of the Land Acts in the latter part of the 19th century and the early 20th century which eventually dissipated the power of the Anglo-Irish landed gentry and created a large sector of small landowners throughout the country.

My colleague Billy, meanwhile, is busy preparing finds for deposition in the National Museum, cataloguing and boxing… He’s currently looking at shoes.

A shoe from post medieval Galway

The shoe pieces (44 in all) were retrieved from the Market House excavation (for more on the excavation see here) during the course of the Eyre Square Re-enhancement Project in the middle of Galway City in 2004. Most of the fragments were retrieved from a rectangular test pit excavated across the centre of the site representing successive metalled surfaces and dump deposits pre-dating an 18th century building at the north end of Eyre Square. The majority of the pieces come from post-medieval contexts consisting largely of footwear fragments and off cuts. Shoes are fascinating (I’m serious)… Here’s an excerpt from Billy’s report:

“The shoe styles found share similar characteristics with comparative urban excavations in Cork and Waterford and more locally from Barrack lane, Galway. The most common shoe type of the medieval period was the turnshoe, made as the name suggests by stitching a wet and inside out leather upper to a sole and then turning it rightside out so that the sewing is protected. The upper would then be wrapped around the foot and secured by either a strap, latched or using a thong. This simple template evolved through time for utilitarian purposes or simply as fashion dictated. Heels were initially made by sewing stiffeners inside the shoe to prevent wearing.

From the sixteenth century onwards heels developed into a series of separate “lifts” (“built heel”) stacked and pinned or sewed together. Similarly the upper changed from a simple wraparound piece to an overshoe consisting of a ‘vamp’ or toe covering, quarters covering the inner and outer sides of the foot, the tongue, a piece of leather to the front placed between two sides of a tied opening and the back strap. Another common shoe feature was a welt (sometimes called rand) or strip of leather stitched along the lasting margin between the upper and the sole to protect the seam and make the shoe watertight. Common shoes of the second half of the eighteenth century were the heavy brogue and the knee length boot. The native brogue (after the Irish bróga, meaning shoe) was a low heeled, heavy shoe of un-tanned leather with laces along the instep and no tongue with small perforations on the toe puff and quarters. This hardwearing footwear was practically designed for country men as a shoe that would drain water and dry quickly due to the lack of a tongue, and not get stuck in the mud because of their laces above the ankle. Knee length boots were an English introduction and were more expensive and associated with the landed gentry, given the restrictive laws for horse ownership during the penal law era.

Concerning leather as a raw material, cow hide was generally used in the manufacture of most shoe soles, welts and binds – it being the strongest and most resilient of the available skins. For the uppers, calf, goat or sheep skin were the preferred choices for reasons of flexibility and comfort.”

See – I told you, Shoes are fascinating!

As archaeologists it’s the ordinary things we find which inform our discourse with the past and which give me most satisfaction. The big finds and the big sites are, of course, part of the process, but it’s the archaeology of the ordinary that keeps me interested – the shoes, the nails, the bottles and pot sherds, all of which tell us a story and fill in the gaps in our knowledge.

The Lion Tower and other walls, Galway, Ireland

For the first time in the history of the company, Moore Group’s team are not nursing hangovers this morning.

By that I don’t mean that it’s a daily occurrence. No. Today is the day after Ladies Day at the Galway Races. Traditionally we’d take the Thursday off to gamble, carouse and revel, dress in our finery and consume copious bottles of champagne, while we watched the fleets of helicopters land and deposit the more affluent racegoers (back when times were good there would be over 300 helicopters a day flying into the Galway Races). And today has traditionally been our recovery day.

We gave the Races our thirties but like the tycoons, we stayed away this year…

Galway Races

The Galway Races From Samuca’s Photostream

The West of Ireland generally closes down for this week of the year and the week coincides with the ‘builders’ holidays (It’s always struck me as odd that the rest of the Country and Non-Ireland continue as normal), so normally we close down for the Thursday and Friday.

But this year, we’re working like everyone else. Unfortunately the crèche isn’t, so my day of archaeology started with toddler transport and grandparent delivery (ie.. delivery of child to said grandparents – he gets to go the races today!). Fortified now with bacon and coffee, I’m back in my home office and preparing to complete a monitoring report. In recent months we’ve downsized and the remaining 4 Moore’s are working ‘in the cloud’. Three have taken the week as holidays and are relaxing at their respective destinations, save Billy, who, presumably, is busy in his home office writing up the notes from his weeks monitoring in Kells, Co. Meath and putting the final touches to an archaeological assessment of a proposed gas pipeline in Limerick.

The main archaeological feature I’ll be writing about in my report today is a section of the medieval bastion of Galway City which was exposed during excavation works for a gas pipeline in the middle of the city as well as the foundation to an earlier defensive tower called the Lion Tower. The bastion wall was found near the centre of Eglinton Street, between Tower House and Cube or Carbon nightclub (not sure which – they didn’t spell it with an initial K, though I’m sure they were tempted). The adjacent Lion Tower (and if there are Galway peeps reading – it is the Lion Tower and not the Lions Tower) foundation was found roughly 2m to the south east of the wall and consisted of a rubble foundation with an upper course of stone that appeared to be laid in an arc. We interpreted this as representing the circular base of the Lion Tower as depicted on the 1651 Pictorial map of Galway, although we had a very narrow area to work in and all the work was done in the evening with limited light.

The Lion Tower/City Bastion as it was in the 30’s (we encountered the foundations in the roadway this side of the second car and the tower foundation opposite the telephone box)

The bastion wall was in good condition and constituted a substantial foundation measuring approximately 2.6m in width built of roughly hewn limestone rubble blocks bonded with lime mortar. Preliminary work on either side of the wall exposed a fair face with a slight batter along the north west facing elevation, the south east face was more ragged. This section of the polygonal bastion was built around the earlier Lion Tower in 1646.

I normally spend the bulk of my time in the office, dealing with clients and potential clients, preparing prices and tenders, accounts and all that dull stuff. The rest of my time is in the field, monitoring pipelines or other construction related activity, site inspections or site visits for assessments of proposed developments, the occasional excavation (not too many of those around these days), and fieldwalking. My deep fear of animals of any description is a definite disadvantage, but I  persevere – sheep – I’m desperately frightened of sheep, and dolphins.

Twenty years ago, I stumbled into archaeology, 80’s Ireland presented precious little opportunities but an opportunity to work on an excavation came up after University and I was hooked. Of course, I’ve stumbled a few more times since.  Finding things like the bastion makes up for those dull days, as do the days when you find yourself up the top of a mountain, in driving rain, walking through deep bog up to your ankles.

In the early 1960s the late Prof G.A.Hayes-McCoy became a spokesperson for the preservation of the  landmark “Lion Tower” described and pictured above (actually a section of the bastion). The ultimate failure of that campaign was a great disappointment to him and he later said that Ireland was forgetful about its past and that “we don’t bother to find out about it or to maintain our ancient heritage”, and, of Galway; “take my own city of Galway, it is now more prosperous than it was, but it is no longer distinctive. I do not believe that it is essential for progress that we should lose our heritage”.

The Day of Archaeology and other initiatives can help in curing that forgetfulness. Well done to all involved – a fantastic initiative, let’s do it again…