Review: Hidden History Below Our Feet: The Archaeological Story of Belfast


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Review: Hidden History Below Our Feet: The Archaeological Story of Belfast

  1. 1. Review: Hidden History Below Our Feet: The Archaeological Story of Belfast Originally posted online on 1 February 2012 at (í Ó Baoill. Northern Ireland Environment Agency, Belfast, 2011. 199pp. ISBN 978-0-9569671-0-7. £14.99 (via Amazon).What do you think of when you hear the name ‘Belfast’? I’m sure some people will sayThe Titanic. For others the name may conjure up images of too many years of sectarianhatred and murder. A select band will immediately think of its heady days as apowerhouse of Empire, with major ship building and linen works, along with a wholehost of industrial marvels. Nonetheless, I feel that most people would be imagining thecity for quite a while before they used words like ‘prehistoric’ or even ‘Medieval’. RuairíÓ Baoill, excavations director with the Centre for Archaeological Fieldwork at QUB, hastaken on just that challenge – not only to bring together the disparate threads of thestory, but to do so in a popular format.I realise that using the term ‘popular’ is generally considered by professionals in anyfield to be something of a pejorative. It is taken to imply that the product is somehowwatered down and ineffective. At the very least, the implication is that there is nothinghere for the serious student. Hidden History Below Our Feet should not to be confusedwith this category of ‘popular’. I think it would be best to describe the format as‘engaging’ in that it is visually attractive and lavishly illustrated, but there is no‘dumbing down’ of the scholarship within.Chapter 1, The Prehistoric Archaeology of Belfast, begins with a map andgazetteer of the main ancient sites known in and around the city. As the author points
  2. 2. out, the fact that the modern core of Belfast is built on low-lying, estuarine clays, andwas probably unattractive to settlers, is among the reasons that little of this period hasbeen recovered. However, relatively large numbers of prehistoric sites are known fromfurther up the Lagan Valley, as well as from the upper slopes of Black Mountain andCave Hill. After a brief introduction to the underlying geology and geography of the city,Ó Baoill describes the Irish Mesolithic and how the evidence from Belfast fits within thatframework. On page 19 is the first example of a beautiful thematic device that recursthroughout the book. This is a three-page-wide fold-out, showing an imagined aerialview of Belfast looking south during the Mesolithic by artist Philip Armstrong. It showsa number of small settlements, looking quite isolated among the vast forests thatcovered the landscape. To be honest, my first impression of this feature was that it was‘popular’ and definitely in the pejorative sense – nice pictures, but no archaeologicalworth. However, the more I have looked at it, the more I have come to realise that it is apowerful and eloquent statement, illustrating the relative isolation of individual familiesand the fragility of their existence – and every bit as valuable and instructive as anyother was of portraying the evidence. My only quibble with this particular example isthat the houses depicted appear to be in the ‘roundhouse’ tradition, with vertical wallsand distinct, thatched roofs, as opposed to the hemispherical domes usually associatedwith this period. Following this, the Neolithic is introduced and the place of Belfast isclearly defined within it. Short individual sections are devoted to the evidence from theMalone Ridge, Megalithic tombs, flint working etc. Similarly, the evidence for theBronze and Iron Ages is assessed with devoted sections on settlement, burial, theCarrowreagh Complex, McArt’s Fort etc. The chapter concludes with a more in-depthcase study of the prehistoric complex centred on the passage tomb and hengemonument at the Giant’s Ring. Throughout the chapter there are recurring uses of theimagined aerial view of the landscape, either as single pages or a fold-out. With a bit offlicking back and forward between the various illustrations, I began to get a real sense ofhow this landscape was changed and developed through human action across thecenturies.Chapter 2, Early Christian Belfast, follows the same format as before with adistribution map and gazetteer of sites. Leaving aside the caveats inherent in any formof distribution map, it is interesting to see the locations of sites spreading from the hillsdown into the Lagan Valley, but still avoiding much the low-lying slob lands. This rathershort chapter concentrates on the settlement evidence from the period, with shortsections on the raths from the Malone ridge and the wider Belfast area (especially theBallyaghagen site). Short sections are also devoted to souterrains, other settlementforms (including Ballyutoag), and churches etc. The chapter concludes with a moredetailed case study on Shankill Church and Graveyard.Chapter 3, Medieval Belfast, charts the progress of the development of Belfast fromthe Anglo-Norman intervention to the early 17th century when the town was granted toSir Arthur Chichester. Following the distribution map and gazetteer, the historicalbackground and John de Courcy are introduced. This is followed up a discussion of theAnglo-Norman settlement, its form and extent, along with the importance of the fordacross the Lagan. The historical evidence for the Late Medieval Belfast and theClandeboye O’Neills is skilfully blended with the archaeological record. Robert
  3. 3. Lythe’s c.1570 map of Belfast is powerfully contrasted and complimented by theexcavation photographs and recovered artefacts. The chapter closes with a moredetailed case study on the castles of Belfast.The distribution map at the beginning of Chapter 4, C17th & C18th Belfast, shows thefurther nucleation of settlement and, crucially, economic activity, moving into the coreof the city as we know it today. As a minor aside, I am curious as to why ‘non-antiquities’are listed in the gazetteer at Knockbreckan, Mallusk, and Derriaghy. As far as I can tell,these sites are nowhere referenced within the remainder of the chapter. As one wouldexpect, the chapter proper opens with a historical sketch of Sir Arthur Chichester andhis descendants, along with the troublesome O’Neills. The following section, on the mid17th century defences is particularly interesting and Ó Baoill skilfully weaves historicaland archaeological data together. He does not just to create a compelling narrative, butalso provides a fair assessment of the state of our knowledge on the topic – what hasbeen found and what has yet to be uncovered. There is no ‘dumbing down’ here. True,the historical and archaeological questions raised, not just in this instance, but acrossthe book, may be more complex than the space allows, but the reader will come awaywith that understanding, as opposed to easy ‘just so’ answers. The chapter continueswith an introduction to the earliest accurate maps of Belfast (Phillips’ 1685 maps), alongwith the challenges and opportunities that they present to the archaeologist. The sectionon the archaeology of the 17th and 18th century town is an excellent piece of work anddraws together for the first time the large number of post-Medieval urban excavations inthe town. Individual sections describe the findings at High St., Waring St., Hill St.,Gordon St., Custom house Sq., and the Downshire Pottery on the Ravenhill Rd. etc. Asequence of short entries details some of the surviving 17 th century buildings in andaround Belfast, and the chapter is completed with a case study, focusing on the BelfastPothouse, which produced tin-glazed earthenware during the 17th and 18th centuries.Chapter 5, C19th to C21st Belfast, brings the story up to date with an examination ofthe textile and shipbuilding trades that made Belfast a capital of commerce. Other topicscovered include the expansion of the city throughout the 19 th century and the impact ofthe potato famine of the 1840s. There is a delightful entry on the burgeoning ofantiquarian interest in the city at this time, and the lasting contributions made by suchnotables as Frances Joseph Bigger, George Benn, and Robert M. Young. This is followedby a series of short entries on the most notable of the urban excavations, including St.Anne’s Square, Cotton Court, Hill St., Gordon St. etc. Excavations of industrial sitesinclude entries on the Annadale Brickworks and a clay-pipe manufactory at WinetavernSt., while further entries discuss some of the investigations of the city’s docks, includingLime Kiln Dock and May’s Dock. The final case study examines the BallymacarrettGlassworks. Again, excavation photographs, examples of the products made there, alongwith historic maps and photographs are woven together to produce an accessible andeducational whole.In a final concluding page, Ó Baoill asks ‘what have the nearly 100 excavations carriedout between 1981-2008 told us about the story of Belfast?’ Frankly, if anyone readingthis book is still asking this question by the end, they have not been paying attention. ÓBaoill stresses the advances in our knowledge that have been made and how these
  4. 4. excavations give us insights in to the lives and material culture of the inhabitants thathistorical sources alone simply cannot. He deftly describes the future challenges forarchaeology within the city – establishing the locations and degree of preservation of themajor buildings of Medieval Belfast. While he acknowledges the challenges that lieahead, he is essentially hopeful that archaeology has still much to contribute to ourknowledge of our city and ourselves. The book also contains appendices, listing thearchaeological sites of unknown date in Belfast and its environs, a comprehensive list ofthe archaeological excavations carried out in the city between 1981 and summer 2008,the latter with location maps. A final appendix is a glossary of terms used within the text– equally as useful for the novice as the more seasoned enthusiast.For myself, the sad fact that this publication highlights is that of these nearly 100excavations, only eight have been comprehensively published. Admittedly, some are likemy own small-scale investigation at The ‘Prince’s Buildings’ on Ann St., where some latewall footings of no particular significance were uncovered across a number of test pits.Nonetheless, there are a number of large-scale excavations that deserve to see fullpublication. It is not just that without formal publication these sites will languish as‘grey literature’, known only to a small band of dedicated researchers. These sitesdeserve to be more fully integrated into our collective knowledge not just of the city ofBelfast, but as part of the broader canvases of Ireland and Empire. If for no otherreason, Ó Baoill is to be congratulated for starting this process and highlighting thevolume of data available. He is to be doubly congratulated on the depth of his research,for the first time bringing all this information together in a single volume. Beyond this,he has managed to carefully integrate the historical and archaeological narratives in apleasing, readable style. As I have said before, there is no ‘dumbing down’ at work in thisvolume, just clear, concise writing in an educating and entertaining manner. Ó Baoill,and everyone else involved in its production, is to be congratulated for producing amentally stimulating and visually exciting book. I can happily commend it to bothprofessional archaeologists and interested amateurs alike – we all have something tolearn from this beautiful and inspiring book.Note: Belfast City Council and the Northern Ireland Environment Agency, inpartnership with Tandem Design, have produced a website to promote the book, whereyou can see sample pages, learn a little more about the author, and purchase a copy.They also have a dedicated Facebook Page and a Twitter feed.