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Chapple, R. M. 2012 'Archaeology Ireland 26.1 (Issue 99) Spring 2012. Review' Blogspot post


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Chapple, R. M. 2012 'Archaeology Ireland 26.1 (Issue 99) Spring 2012. Review' Blogspot post

  1. 1. Archaeology Ireland 26.1 (Issue 99) Spring 2012: Review Originally posted online on 4 April 2012 at ( is here and so too is the new edition of Archaeology Ireland magazine! As I haverecently taken to providing a slightly annotated contents list of the magazine, I thoughtI’d put together a few notes on what’s inside.In the first major paper in the current edition, Liam Downey, Connie Murphy & TadhgOKeefe report on A possible Celtic icon on the Beara Peninsula. This is recentlyrediscovered stone from the townland of Billeragh, Co. Cork. While it appears to havedisappeared from view in recent years, it was known to a number of the older residentsas Pete Micheáls god. The writers describe it as an anthropomorphic figure sitting onfolded legs and compare it to various examples of ‘Celtic’ stone idols from across theisland, as well as phallus-like stones, such as the Lia Fáil at Tara, Co. Meath. While thereis a local folkloric context for the piece, it appears to be relatively recent. The biggestproblem, as I see it, is that the stone cannot be definitely described as being crafted byhuman hand – at least not on the basis of the published photographs. Nonetheless, evenif it is a wholly ‘natural’ stone, it does not preclude it from having been the object ofveneration in the past. I do not doubt that this particular item will be the topic of muchfurther discussion. In News from the Net 25 Eoin Bairéad provides his usual high-quality round-up of internet related items. Of obvious interest to me is his mentionof The William Dunlop Archaeological Photographic Archive [Facebook page], for which
  2. 2. I am very grateful! You can keep up to date with all the links to the stories he mentions,via his website: here.Lynda McCormack presents Thoughts on the Loughcrew autumnal equinox. In thispiece, she draws on her personal experiences of visiting Cairn T, passage tomb atLoughcrew, Co. Meath, for the September 2011 equinox. She uses this experience toexamine some ideas about how we today and the people of the Neolithic may haveexperienced such events and how they interpreted their place within them. She uses aquote from John Berger: “an image can outlast that which it represents” to explore theidea that the Neolithic viewpoint is irrecoverable, but that the physical remains of thecemetery still allow for interpretation and exploration. In Derrycarhoon: a Bronze Agecopper mine in west Cork William OBrien & Nick Hogan present early results on theexcavation of a near-vertical mine shaft. The site is of interest as it is the first instancewhere this form of mining – vertical excavation and without the use of fire-setting - hasbeen identified. The authors trace the modern history of the mine’s discovery in 1846(when it was considered to be a ‘Danish mine’), and the controversy in recent times as towhether it should be considered as a Bronze Age or a Medieval endeavour. Aprogramme of survey has identified two 19th century mine shafts and six ancient rock-cut trenches. The excavation of one of these (Mine 5b-1) produced samples of workedwood and antler, dating to the Bronze Age. Similarly, trenches excavated through thecentral area of spoil heaps produced fragments of stone hammers and portions ofwaterlogged wood. A series of dates on the wood indicated that they were broadlycontemporary with the results from the vertical shaft. The recovered artefacts includenumerous broken stone hammers, a wooden wedge, a number of hazel prise-sticks, anda portion of an antler pick. The paper also adds seven new radiocarbon determinationsto the Irish Radiocarbon & Dendrochronological Dates Catalogue [Facebook], for whichI am very grateful. I should also mention the magnificent illustration of the mine shafton p15. It is a laser-scan profile through Mine 5b-1 and the surrounding forest. Not onlyis it an immensely detailed and scientifically-accurate rendering of the shaft, it is also anextremely evocative image. It gives, to me, at least, a vivid impression of the humanscale of the mine workings at Derrycarhoon and some feeling for what it must have beenlike to toil there to extract copper ore.Alan Nowell is back with Babylon to Banagher, where he attempts to trace elements ofritual dances with links to Freemasonry. This is his third foray in the pagesof Archaeology Ireland into the wild world of danced ritual (Nowell 2005, 2010). Histhesis is that a number of carvings of 8th to 9th century date represent portions of a‘hopping dance’ and how that the sacred nature of this ritual was, somehow, preservedin modern Freemasonry. Nowell posits that some form of quasi-Masonic group wasactive in Ireland during the Early Christian period and that they possessed knowledge ofboth stone carving and these ritual dances. His belief is that these dancers arrived fromthe east and then goes on to cite a range of Babylonian decorated artefacts of, I think,around 1000 BC. He interprets the designs as each showing four men engaged in acircle-dance of some sort. To explain the two millennia that separate these items and theIrish high cross carvings, he invokes the possibility of the design having been carvedonly on perishable items. The latest piece in his ‘quest’ is the discovery of a marble discfrom Babylon, now housed in the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. Nowell sees significance
  3. 3. in the Babylonian context in that the city was ‘the epicentre of Masonic lore and legend,with a huge presence in the Old Testament!’ While there are frequent references toBabylon in the Old Testament, there is little, if anything, in modern Masonic ritualabout the city – much less that it is seen as an epicentre of lore and legend. I amindebted to Rt. W. Bro. Robert T. Bashford for pointing out that, from the 1723publication of James Anderson’s ‘Constitutions’, there has been much written byFreemasons attempting to trace the origin of their Order back to Babylon and beyond,though it appears to be fanciful self-aggrandisement rather than based on actualevidence. Unfortunately, Babylon is still frequently associated with Freemasonry, butonly by the conspiracy-theory brigade (see here, here, here, here, and here). In any case,Nowell sees the five men depicted on the disc as being engaged in a hopping dance,which has continued in one form or another into the 20th century. In support of the ideathat the Babylonians has secret dancing societies, he cites the ‘evidence’ of GeorgeIvanovich Gurdjieff’s allegorical work Beelzebubs Tales to His Grandson. While thereare many who see Gurdjieff as a charismatic spiritual leader (and good luck to them) hecertainly was not an archaeologist or historian, and this form of material is not evidenceand has no place in a serious discussion. In fairness to Nowell, he is open to thepossibility that he is wrong on some or all of these elements. However, I disagree withhis belief that such links are ‘beyond coincidence’ in explaining the survival of thesedances over a period of over 2000 years. I can only refer him to the words of Dr.Sheldon Cooper: "This would be one of those circumstances that people unfamiliar withthe law of large numbers would call a coincidence." While I do not agree with any of hisarguments, Nowell is to be congratulated for presenting a set of interesting and thought-provoking papers. Personally, I hold the view that the high cross carvings are merelyinteresting ways of depicting groups of people, interlaced together. I would explain themas drolleries; without any need to invoke a hopping-dance ritual to go with them. Thefact that they are found in Early Christian Ireland and ancient Babylon may be simplyexplained as two similar, but unrelated, responses to decorative needs, that only bearthe most passing of resemblances between them. Nonetheless, I do look forward toNowell’s next instalment on his personal ‘quest.’Peter J. Gibson in Geophysical imaging of the Leamonaghan togher describes aninvestigation of a stone trackway or ‘togher’ in Co. Offaly. The togher runs for over 350mfrom a well dedicated to St. Manchan to a rectangular stone enclosure, dedicated to St.Mella. Within the enclosure is a single-cell stone oratory, also dedicated to the saint. Theenclosure, oratory and togher are all thought to be contemporary, and date to the 11thcentury. Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) was applied to the togher in both exposedand covered areas, with the intention of determining its internal structure. Although thelines along the togher appeared quite chaotic, the lines across it indicate that it isconstructed from different material than exists on either side of it, continuing to a depthof 2m. This work was followed up by a programme of resistivity imaging. These methodsindicate that the togher was not built simply as a layer of stones on the ground surface.Instead, it appears that a trench was first dug and then backfilled, before being cappedwith stones. This was no small undertaking: it is estimated that this trench was 2mdeep, 3m wide and ran for the entire 350m length of the togher. My first reaction is thatit seems like an awful lot of work to go to, to provide well drained trackway – as I am
  4. 4. unable to think of any other reason to undertake such a feat. I look forward to seeing theresults of excavations here that may resolve these interesting issues.Neill Mac Coitir takes on the tricky subject of the roots of ogham in hispaper: The Ogham alphabet - a military origin? He prefaces the piece with a generalround-up of the scholarship on the topic to date. The alphabet was probably invented inthe 2nd or 3rd centuries AD and was initially used on wooden objects, before beingtransferred to stone in the 4th century AD. It is most commonly found in Ireland, Wales,Cornwall, and the Isle of Man. Mac Coitir repeats James Carney’s theory that oghamwas essentially a military cipher, not intended to be read by common people. In defenceof this thesis he cites ogham’s use by Cúchulainn in a number of military settings(ignoring that these tales were not written down until the 14th or 15th centuries and allthe caveats that go with that). He contrasts this with the single use of the ogham scriptrecorded in early Irish literature by a druid. Carney does not appear to have attemptedto develop this theory further, apparently for lack of evidence. Mac Coitir, unfortunately,does not have any additional evidence to add to the discussion, but he does attempt toprovide a theoretical framework for the development of ogham and a vector for itsdissemination. The theory is quite simple. Going by Ptolemy’s ‘map’ there are tribescalled Brigantes in both south-east Ireland (which he describes as the ‘heartland’ forlater ogham inscriptions, though that is patently not the case) and in modern-dayYorkshire and Lancashire. While modern scholarship is unable to prove any firm linksbetween these two groups, Mac Coitir claims that ‘it is plausible to assume that ties ofkinship linked the Brigantes of Britain and Ireland.’ Just for the record, Strabo mentionsthe Brigantii, a sub-grouping of the Vindelici, living in the Alps, but no one is proposingthat all three tribes are related to each other. The northern Brigantes are significant inMac Coitir’s thesis as the site of the Roman auxiliary fort of Vindolanda lies within theirterritory. Vindolanda is the site from which several hundred letters, written on woodensheets, were recovered during excavations in the 1970s and 1980s. The author suggeststhat members of the Irish Brigantes went to Roman Britain in the 2nd or 3rd centuriesAD and were recruited into the local garrison. While this is around the correct date forthe majority of the letters, it is not believed that local troops were recruited atVindolanda until the early third century AD, at the very earliest. He suggests that arecruit that showed promise might have been taught the Latin alphabet and been movedup the ranks. On returning home this putative military veteran may have seen theadvantage of adapting the Latin alphabet to use in early Irish, thus inventing ogham.The belief is that the popularity of this script was taken up by other tribes and itspopularity spread, though remaining strongest in the south-east. All things considered,Mac Coitir has produced an interesting, stimulating paper that is well worth a read.Unfortunately, I feel that it is merely a construct where one supposition is perchedprecariously on top of another, and all devoid of hard evidence to back it up.In The pitfields of Rathcroghan, Co. Roscommon Gary Dempsey examines thephenomena of a large number of sub-rectangular depressions in the ‘Royal landscape’around Tulsk, Co. Roscommon. These pitfields appear to be peculiar to the Rathcroghanlandscape and are not found in other areas. They are generally 10m long by 2-3m wideand up to 0.5m deep. Estimates place their number in the range from 1500 to 2000.Various theories have been proposed for their origin, including the possibility that they
  5. 5. are natural features resulting from faults in the underlying bedrock. Indeed, theprevalent pit alignments of north/north-west and north/north-east match up with thepattern of jointing in the natural bedrock. Other work suggests that they are the result ofglacial plucking of the bedrock, and that they date from the last Ice Age. An alternativeposition is that they are humanly created features, possibly dating from the 17th centuryonwards. One suggestion is that they were created to mix subsoil with topsoil, toimprove the fertility of the local soil. Other suggestions for their use include having beenused as sources of clay or rocks, or for collecting water etc. It does appear that a numberof these pits are cut into older monuments, but are overlain by post-Medieval fieldboundaries. While not conclusive, this could suggest that they are manmade, thoughthey certainly date to after the main phases of prehistoric activity in the Rathcroghancomplex. While Dempsey is unable to put forward any definite answers to thesequestions, he does call for more research and further investigation. I, for one, lookforward to seeing what such excavations reveal.In Achill Henge - Stonehenge or Clonehenge Geraldine Stout wonders about what thisrecent addition to the Mayo landscape says about modern Irish society. Thismonstrosity defacing the countryside (just so we’re clear on what I think of it) iscomposed of 30 vertical concrete blocks with joining lintels. The whole is 30m indiameter and is up to 4.5m tall. While Stout makes some spirited comparisons betweenthis modern example and its Neolithic cousins, it is the comparisons with othermembers of the Clonehenge tradition that are most enlightening. In these examples theStonehenge image has been appropriated and manipulated for a whole variety ofreasons from the commemoration of Franco’s victims, to more whimsical versionscreated by the artist Banksy. Interestingly, Stout acknowledges that the way in which thehenge has taken on a life of its own may not have been part of the original intention ofits creator. Echoing Lynda McCormack’s paper earlier in this volume, there is the feelingthat new audiences create and recreate the image of the monument, its meaning, and itssymbolism in myriad ways, all of which may be beyond the control of the originator.Marion Dowd, in Lithics with an identity crisis, tells the interesting story of the recoveryof a range of worked lithics and shells from the topsoil in her garden at Dromahair, Co.Leitrim. Further investigation indicated that the topsoil may have been transportednearly 30km, from a site at Larass/Strandhill, Co. Sligo. She presents an excellentargument that, though limited, such finds can still contribute to our knowledge ofprehistoric activity. Dowd also notes that we should be mindful that some artefactsrecovered from the plough zone may not be directly associated with the area in whichthey are found. Although long-distance transport (of the kind that resulted in theDromahair discovery) is probably unlikely before the modern period, she does cautionthat even 18th and 19th landscaping could have involved significant movement of soil.This reminds me of the story (probably apocryphal) of an archaeologist being sent outfrom the National Museum in Dublin to a suburban address in that city to examine abeautiful collection of flint artefacts being regularly collected from the topsoil. The story,as it was told to me, had the archaeologists opening a number of trenches across thegarden and recovering loads more finished artefacts, but finding no underlying features.It was only when one of the artefacts was found to have the remains of a paper labeladhering to it that someone thought to check on who had lived in the house in the past.
  6. 6. It turned out that the house had been home to an antiquarian collector and, after hisdeath, his family simply threw his collection out into the garden as no one wasinterested in it! Whatever the truth of my story, Dowds paper is a useful reminder thatall may not be as it seems when recovering artefacts from the plough zone. This is notthe first time that Archaeology Ireland has featured this type of story. In 2004 themagazine published a note from Paul Clarke (2004, 5) recounting the discovery of ahollow based arrowhead on the road at Annaghkeen, near Headford, Co. Galway, thatprobably fell off a machine transporting soil.In Graveyard clean-ups in County Mayo Suzanne Zajac reviews the various sources ofadvice for those interested in graveyard conservation. She identifies the significantproblem of the conflict between these sites as living parts of the local community, andsimultaneously, as part of our historic past. Conflicts can arise when the need toconserve and protect the archaeological remains come comes into contact with thedesire to expand burial areas or to create access points. Zajac illustrates these points interms of some work carried out at the graveyard at Claggan, Co. Mayo. To place theClaggan project in context, she notes the damage that a well-meaning, but ill-informed,group did to Ardagh church, Co. Mayo, in 2009. This incident of damage to a monumentled to a moratorium on similar graveyard work. It also prompted the publication of acircular from the Rural Social Scheme (RRS) of ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’ (Circular RRS15/2009) for graveyard ‘clean-up’ projects. While Zajac agrees with the requirement towork closely with County Councils, she argues that ‘a sustainable way forward’ forgraveyards still in public use needs to be formulated. She sees the compilation of aninventory of graveyards in Mayo as a positive first step in this direction, but feels thatthere is still some way to go.Muiris OSullivan and Liam Downey continue their long-running series of ‘Know yourmonuments’ with a look at Passage tombs and megalithic art. As is usual for this series,they present an excellent summation of what a passage tomb is and what its diagnosticfeatures are etc. After a brief introduction to the various elements and styles ofdecoration the authors discuss the Boyne Valley complex, the largest concentration ofmegalithic art anywhere in Europe. Outside of the Boyne Valley, short, but informative,sections detail recent research at Knockroe, Co. Kilkenny, and a number of sites in Co.Sligo. The final section details the dating and origins of the form, along with a briefexamination of the shared elements and differences with rock art.As has been the usual format of Archaeology Ireland for the last several years, the finalpostings are the inspired whimsy of Herodotus of Ballycarnassus. In Sovereign debt andsofas Herodotus notes how the court case by the Spanish government has succeeded inreturning 17 tonnes of treasure from the 1804 wreck of the Nuestra Señora de lasMercedes. The Spanish have said that the coins, valued at $500m, represent culturalheritage and will not be used to pay back the country’s debt … I’m sure we’ll see howthat one goes! In Warrior burials he quotes W. F. Wakeman’s Handbook of IrishAntiquities about King Laoghaire being buried standing upright to face his enemies, andhow the Ulstermen got around this practice by reburying Eoghan Bel, King ofConnaught, face down. As an aside, it may be noted that these two notes are,
  7. 7. respectively, his 134th and 135th pieces published in Archaeology Ireland since hisdebut in Spring 1998 – a truly impressive feat of sustained archaeological drollery!As is pretty obvious from the forgoing, I do not agree with all of the points raised in allof the articles in this issue – that is as it should be! If you are interested in Irisharchaeology, at whatever level, I would urge you to go out and buy a copy of the latestissue of Archaeology Ireland. Better still, take out a subscription – this way you get abetter deal on the magazine cover price, it is delivered to your door, you get access to theIrish journals on JSTOR and you get the latest issue in the ArchaeologyIreland Heritage Guide series. The current one is The Burren, Co. Clare: a guide to themedieval landscape by Elizabeth FitzPatrick. At the very least, petition your local libraryto stock it! Archaeology Ireland has established itself as a vital artery of communicationfor both professional archaeologists and the interested public and it deserves oursupport.References:Clarke, P. 2004 ‘News: it fell off the back of a lorry’ Archaeology Ireland 18.1, 5.Nowell, A. 2005 ‘An insular dance - the dance of the Fer Cengail?’ ArchaeologyIreland 19.2, 36-39.Nowell, A. ‘2010 ‘Dance traces surviving in the ritual of Freemasonry’ ArchaeologyIreland 24.1, 26-30.Notes:In one publication (Nowell 2005), the author’s name is erroneously given as ‘Newell’.Archaeology Ireland issue 18.1 was erroneously issued as 17.4.Unfortunately, I have been unable to find an online link to Circular RRS 15/2009.Archaeology Ireland is a quarterly publication from Wordwell Books. It is aimed at bothspecialists and the general reader. Go and buy a copy today!