Review: Creative Minds: Proceedings of a Public Seminar on Archaeological Discoveries on National road Schemes, August 2009
Review: Creative Minds: Proceedings of a Public Seminar on Archaeological Discoveries on National Road Schemes, August 2009 Originally posted online on 16 November 2011 at rmchapple.blogspot.com (http://rmchapple.blogspot.co.uk/2011/11/review-creative-minds-proceedings-of.html)Michael Stanley, Ed Danaher & James Eogan (eds.). National Roads Authority, Dublin,2010. 146pp. Colour illustrations and plates throughout. ISBN 978-0-9564180-2-9.ISSN 1694-3540. €25.Creative Minds is the result of a 2009 public seminar on archaeological results fromNational Road Authority schemes in the Republic of Ireland. The volume is also theseventh in the ‘Archaeology and the National Roads Authority Monograph Series’publications of conference papers. To anyone involved in Irish archaeology over the lastdecade, these volumes have become a staple source for the dissemination of the latestresults and ideas on some of the major excavations of our times. It is inevitable that,with the completion of many road schemes, coupled with the general downturn in theeconomy, this volume should present more thematic overviews of entire road schemes,rather than the results of individual excavations. The volume is dedicated to the lateDáire O’Rourke, Head of Archaeology at the NRA from 2001 to 2010The first paper in the volume is Farina Sternke’s ‘From boy to man: ‘rights’ ofpassage and the lithic assemblage from a Neolithic mound in Tullahedy, Co.Tipperary’. The author attempts to move beyond what she terms the ‘dry, technicalpursuit’ of the analysis of lithic assemblages to gain deeper insights into the lives of ourancestors. The site at Tullahedy was an enclosed Neolithic settlement complex that hadsuffered from quarrying over the last two centuries. Despite this, five phases ofoccupation have been identified, beginning in the Middle Neolithic (3600-2900 BC) and
running up to the working of the modern quarry. The recovered lithics (1691 items)comprise various cores, blades, flakes etc., along with 137 whole or fragmentary polishedstone axe heads. The majority of the assemblage (87%) was chert, and the author makesthe point that a corpus of this size is exceedingly rare in the southern portion of theisland. The presence of artefacts and production processes at variance from the acceptedforms led the author to speculate that they may be the work of apprentices. Theseinclude the numerous abandoned arrowhead fragments that appear to have brokenduring manufacture. Similarly, the recovered axe heads display remarkable defects: useof unsuitable raw materials, poor workmanship, and many would have broken at thefirst attempt to use them. The author sees the Tullahedy mound as a special place withinthe landscape, possibly a ritual centre where such ceremonies as rites of passage wereconducted. While I remain to be fully convinced by all of the arguments and speculationpresented, the assemblage is certainly intriguing and deserves further study. RichardO’Brien presents a general introduction to Spindle-whorls and hand-spinning inIreland. Based on his MA research, he presents brief overviews on identifying anddating Irish spindle-whorls. This is followed by some observations on experiments withwhorls. In his conclusions, O’Brien asks for better reporting of spindle-whorls in futureexcavation reports, especially the inclusion of weight data. In Clay and fire: thedevelopment and distribution of pottery traditions in prehistoric Ireland,Eoin Grogan and Helen Roche attempt to use the combined evidence from recent NRAexcavations to reassess the chronology and development sequence for all Irishprehistoric pottery types. They also offer a review of the contexts and distribution of thismaterial. They see pottery production as occurring at the local level of family orcommunity, utilising locally available materials, and carried out by the more adeptmembers of the group. They suggest that during the Early Bronze Age, in particular,there is evidence of specialised potters, producing higher quality funerary vessels. Theysuggest that the absence of both ‘practice pieces’ and children’s playthings may beexplained in terms of a general taboo or long-standing restrictions associated withpottery production. They also raise the question of the almost complete absence of bothhuman and animal representations from prehistoric pottery. They see the new dataprovided by the ‘Celtic Tiger’ building boom as both confirming known patterns ofspatial distribution and human activity, and extending our of knowledge of the rangeand density of prehistoric settlement. Ellen OCarroll presents Ancient woodland usein the midlands: understanding environmental and landscape changethrough archaeological and palaeoecological techniques. The linking ofarchaeologically excavated evidence and palaeoenvironmental is demonstrated in a casestudy relating to the rath at Barronstown 1, Co. Meath. Excavation produced nearly 500wood fragments, from artefacts to stakes and chippings. The identified samples includeda range of species, but the assemblage was dominated by hazel, ash, oak, and yew.Further analysis, centred on pollen identification from the bases of the ditches provideda different picture. Here there were high levels of herbaceous taxa (including cereals),but low levels of tree pollen. This is in keeping with other research that suggests a majorprogramme of deforestation from the later Iron Age onwards to provide viable farmland. The author then details her PhD project, funded by the NRA, to examine landscapeand environmental change in the Irish midlands, through the medium of humaninteraction with woodlands. Initial findings from one of the pollen cores suggests large-scale clearance of the landscape from the Bronze Age onwards. Charcoal identifications
from various sites along the N6 scheme show a domination of oak in the record, but withsignificant proportions of alder, ash, and hazel. In Reinventing the wheel: newevidence from Edercloon, Co. Longford, Caitríona Moore and Chiara Chiriottidescribe the excavation of Ireland’s earliest block wheel. It was recovered from the baseof a large trackway. While the wheel itself has not been directly dated, a piece ofbrushwood that directly overlay it was radiocarbon dated to 2909±39 BP (1206-970 calBC, Wk-20961). A dendro date of 1120±9 BC was returned from wood from the samelayer, but in a different part of the trackway. A further wheel rim was recovered, datingfrom the 7th to 3rd centuries BC. Amazingly, the only known parallel for such a find wasalso recovered from the Edercloon excavations, though this piece is broadly dated to the7th to 9th centuries AD. A number of hypotheses as to what the wheels may have lookedlike, supported with excellent computer-generated visualizations, are presented andanalysed. The authors also note that despite this profusion of wheels, the Edercloontrackways were never suitable for wheeled transport. The chronological span of theartefacts is not only seen in terms of a long-term tradition of wheel-making, but anenduring custom of deposition within the trackways. Angela Wallace and LornaAnguilano look at Iron-smelting and smithing: new evidence emerging onIrish road schemes. They examine the methods production, from sourcing,processing, and smelting the ore, followed by an assessment of prehistoric and EarlyChristian iron working. Detailed case studies are presented for Lowpark 1, Co, Mayo,and Borris, Co. Tipperary. In conclusion, the authors identify the lack of recovery of orefrom excavations, along with the absence of large-scale iron-smelting sites. Theypropose that an examination of 18th and 19th century mining records, as part of abroader research framework, may lead to the discovery of Iron Age sites. Furtherresearch is urged on the development and adoption of iron-working in Ireland. Theyargue that while there is much evidence for small-scale iron-production in the EarlyChristian period, there is also evidence for increased specialisation, with differentactivities being carried out at different sites. Paul Stevens presents For whom the belltolls: the monastic site at Clonfad 3, Co. Westmeath. He outlines the phases ofoccupation at the site from the early monastic occupation in the 5 th to 6th centuries AD(Phase 1A) to small-scale iron smithing in the 17th to 19th centuries (Phase 3). After ashort introduction to the recovered metallurgical residues, the evidence for theproduction of Early Christian hand bells is presented and assessed, along with attemptsto reproduce an example of such a bell. In particular, there is evidence that wrought ironhand bells were covered in a thin layer of bronze, applied using the brazing technique.The place of Clonfad 3 is also assessed in terms of its position as a long-termmanufacturing centre for these prestigious items. Finally, Niall Kenny presents avaluable contribution on Charcoal production in medieval Ireland. In response tosuch comments as ‘charcoal production pits are one of the most understudied areas inIrish early medieval archaeology’, the author presents a review of the traditionalmethods of charcoal production. The main methods include pit kilns and mound kilns,and the comparable archaeological evidence is presented and reviewed.From the point of view of my own research interests, the appendix presenting theradiocarbon determinations from the sites discussed in the text is of special importance.The appendix lists 99 radiocarbon dates, 61 of which are new to the IR&DD catalogue.However, in adding these dates to the resource a number of inconsistencies in the data
were noted. To cite one example: the date Beta-171418 from Curraheen 1, Co. Cork, ishere cited as 2210±60 BP, but is given as 2230±60 BP in the NRA Database entry forthe site. While this is a small discrepancy, it is sufficient to produce different calibrateddates and, more importantly, lessen confidence in the accuracy of the published data inthe site. This appears to be a recurring error in this series. As it appears to be confinedto dates produced by Beta Analytic, I would guess (but I may be wrong) that it is due tothe incorrect usage of the two types of date provided by the laboratory. I have writtenabout this before (here (or here), and here), but it is useful to recap: BetaAnalytic provides both a Measured Radiocarbon Age and a Conventional RadiocarbonAge. The Measured Radiocarbon Age records the amount of 14C surviving in the sample,while the Conventional Radiocarbon Age contains corrections to allow for isotopicfractionation etc. Of the two, only the Conventional Radiocarbon Age should be quotedin publications. Unfortunately, when both dates are available there is no easy way todistinguish which one is the MRA and which is the CRA, leading to a lack of confidencein both. My one other, albeit minor, criticism is that the one dendrochronological datequoted in the text is not afforded its own appendix, making it easy to accidentallyoverlook by researchers such as myself.Despite these minor criticisms, this volume represents a valuable step in the process ofsynthesising data from numerous excavated sites on publicly funded NRA schemes andpresenting it to a wide audience of both professional archaeologists and the interestedpublic. The editors and contributors are to be commended for their dedication incontinuing this important series.Note: Robert M Chapple wishes to acknowledge the financial assistance provided underthe Built Heritage element of the Environment Fund by the Department of Arts,Heritage and the Gaeltacht towards the Irish Radiocarbon & DendrochronologicalDates project [IR&DD Facebook Page].