Seminar XCIII: in the tracks of the Celtic Tiger

So, where have I got to now? According to my notes, this blog’s content is now up to the 7th March 2011. Not exactly impressive given the date today but let’s carry on, because on that day Dr Aidan O’Sullivan of University College Dublin was presenting to the Oxford Medieval Archaeology Seminar with the title “Early Medieval Dwellings and Settlement in Ireland: perspectives from archaeology, history and palaeoecology”, and quite apart from the fact that words with four consecutive vowels in are quite fun in themselves, the paper was also really interesting. The basic situation in which archæology in Ireland finds itself at the moment is that up to the economic collapse of 2007, in the so-called ‘Celtic Tiger‘ years, it was an incredible growth field, driven by massive road construction projects (not least the infamous one that never quite wiped out Tara) that piled up incredible amounts of new data, of which however there was very little time to publish any. Now that the profession in Ireland is approximately a fifth of the size it was then, and there’s almost no money left, those who are still in jobs like Dr O’Sullivan are trying to get that data out there, and now even as then his means of doing so is a project called EMAP (Early Medieval Archaeology Project) which is putting it all on the web for free. This is, he said with calculated irony, the only archæological project in Ireland still receiving state funding. It includes a database of 2208 sites, dug anywhen between 1930 and 2004, several published gazetters, 241 detailed site reports and a bibliography of 5,500 items, plus a general synthesis.1 The bibliography and the project reports are all up for free download, as are those of their publications so available, and they even have a blog, which I gather is all the rage these days! So there’s that, just for starters; they are colouring in the grey literature, if you like.

Front-page image of EMAP's website showing a reconstruction of the monastic site at Clonmacnoise

Front-page image of EMAP's website showing a reconstruction of the monastic site at Clonmacnoise

However, Dr O’Sullivan hadn’t just come to advertise; he briskly got that out of the way first and then tried to give us a balanced synthesis of how archæological thought in Ireland has changed as a result of all this new data coming on-stream, and since very few other people can have read all this data yet, not least since much of it was commercial project reports rather than anything more widely available, this was more or less straight from the horse’s mouth. It messes with quite a few generalisations about Irish settlement and life in the early Middle Ages, too. For example, it is something of a topos that early medieval Irish settlement was all enclosed, be it in a ringfort or a dún, in so far as there’s a difference between the two; but now we have an awful lot of sites that are not enclosed, far from a majority (you may recall that there are fifty thousand known or assumed ringfort sites in Ireland!) but still enough to count. More categorisation is obviously needed, so it seems worth pointing out that some of these supposed ringforts were actually empty when dug; that is, they were not settlement sites. The major work on these sites proposes a distinction of status between double-walled (bivallate) ones and single-walled ones, and places the known ones in a network of relations based on this, but this has come under fire from Dr O’Sullivan since, increasingly, radio-carbon information shows that not all sites in such networks were occupied at the same time, or even close to it, and so at least the earliest ones cannot be related to the others.2 Those that do exist for a long time—and some sites were in continuous use from sixth to eleventh centuries and beyond—tend to have been very much modified over the course of their existence, so they probably had several rôles over that time. There is, however, a shift towards building rectangular forts after 800, at the edge of their enclosures unlike the central circular ones of 500-800, and the univallate ones begin to disappear over the ninth century in a matching fashion.

Earthworks on the Hill of Tara seen from the air (contingent bivallate form)

Earthworks on the Hill of Tara seen from the air (contingent bivallate form)

Some of the forts that were rebuilt have been found to have deliberately-incorporated prehistoric material buried under their new floors, which presumably had an apotropaic rôle; Dr O’Sullivan wisely said, “Don’t call it pagan, call it ‘customary'”…. This kind of reference to the past was part of the everyday assemblages of tools and utensils that have also been recovered in perfectly normal places and ways. It also shows up in burial of people, where despite the fact of Ireland’s indubitable conversion to Christianity in the early Middle Ages family cemeteries run right through the period in continuous operation from fifth century to twelfth, in some cases; Dr O’Sullivan suggested that people were buried with their land, or their family, and that this didn’t change because of the change of religion; a comment made by someone I didn’t know at the end pointed out that burial of ancestors was one kind of claim that one could mount to landed property in Irish law, which fits with that. Dr O’Sullivan also mentioned a small but significant number of late graves that contained iron-working deposits, which if he could explain them, I have no notes on it. But one of the good things about this paper was Dr O’Sullivan’s willingness to give space to other explanations than his own or to admit that there wasn’t yet one; he was extremely even-handed.

Skeleton being unearthed at early medieval site at Moneygall, County Offaly

After all, it's been a while since we had any dead bodies on the blog. This one was being unearthed at Moneygall, County Offaly, making it a potential ancestor of Barack Obama *so we are told* (see link)

We are also often told to accept that Ireland, where no money was in use, basically paid for everything and counted anything of importance in cattle. The archæology does indeed show a lot of cattle, but also, even from as early as the fifth century, a lot of arable farming too, even in the fields actually around Tara for example, so this needs to be in our picture of the average Irish farmstead too. By the tenth century cattle was actually a lot less important in the deposits than it had been and mills are more and more commonly found from the same time or even earlier.3

A Kerry cow (historic breed)

A Kerry cow, which is a historic breed though I don't know if it's historic enough. Certainly this one is contemporary!

There is also about the idea that the only things in early medieval Ireland that you could call towns were Church sites, with developed craft production and specialisation, markets, and so on. Now the Church is actually under-represented in this new data, because typically people don’t put roads through church sites. From what we know, however, this complexity is certainly the case for some sites, like Clonmacnoise (pictured above) which shows a street plan and so on, but some, even those where we know craft production was going on like Clonfert which was famous as a bell foundry, were largely empty enclosures. Not every monastery was therefore a town or town-like site; this is important as it means that those that were must be considered the exception not the rule. It is true, though, that even at the end of the period, nucleated settlement had basically yet to arise: no villages yet, and certainly nothing like a town as we’d recognise it elsewhere.4 There were a very few exceptions to this, the famous Viking cities of Dublin and Limerick primarily, and the east side of the country was dragged into their economic gravitation to an extent, but the west remained much as it had been much earlier, and would do till the thirteenth century. It’s obviously not, as Kenneth Jackson once called this period, “a window on the Iron Age”, given that there was a lot of change in the eighth and ninth centuries (and had probably been quite a lot in the third as well), but the lack of being bothered with the big changes of the period that other areas take for granted is worth pondering all the same. As with much else that was said here!5

Aerial view of the monastic site at Clonmacnoise as it now stands

I've used it once, I'll use it again: aerial view of the monastic site at Clonmacnoise as it now stands


1. That synthesis to be Aidan O’Sullivan, Finbar McCormick, T. Kerr and L. Harney, Early Medieval Ireland: Archaeological Excavations 1930-2004 (Dublin forthcoming). If you want stuff that’s already out there, the project report that that will be based on is online here.

2. That synthesis being Matthew Stout, The Irish Ringfort (Dublin 2000), with which, shall we say, Dr O’Sullivan respectfully but merrily disagreed. You may find his take in “Early medieval houses in Ireland: social identity and dwelling spaces” in Peritia Vol. 20 (Dublin 2008), pp. 225-256, and even if not (I haven’t checked, I admit), it’ll be interesting. N. B. Oxford readers this is currently on the new periodicals racks in the Bodleian Upper Reserve. Now whose fault is it that we’re two years behind?

3. Here you can see the work of Dr O’Sullivan’s colleague Finbar McCormack, “The decline of the cow: agricultural and settlement change in early medieval Ireland”, ibid. pp. 210-225. I shall expect to see you all at the rack on Monday.

4. See, for example, Ann Hamlin, “The archaeology of the early Irish churches in the eighth century” in Peritia Vol. 4 (Dublin 1985), pp. 279-299 and Wendy Davies, “Economic change in Early Medieval Ireland: the case for growth” in L’Irlanda e gli Irlandesi nell’alto medioevo, Settimane de Studio del Centro Italiano di Studi sull’Alto Medioevo Vol. 57 (Spoleto 2010), pp. 111-134, neither of which have particular dogs in the fight but give good accounts of it.

5. If you are hungry for more, Dr O’Sullivan has lately published a related paper with one T. Nicholl, “Early medieval settlement enclosures in Ireland: dwellings, daily life and social identity” in Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy Vol. 111C (Dublin 2010), pp. 59-90. The Jackson reference is to Kenneth Hurlstone Jackson, The Oldest Irish Tradition: a window on the Iron Age (Cambridge 1964, repr. Llanerch 1999 & Cambridge 2011). I feel slightly ashamed that my alma mater are still willing to find a market for this but am fortified by Professor Jackson’s truly immortal middle name.

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2 responses to “Seminar XCIII: in the tracks of the Celtic Tiger

  1. Pingback: Contagions Round-up 8 « Contagions

  2. Pingback: Seminar XCIV: cows, mills and bullion from the Duero to Dublin « A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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