Corrstown: a coastal community. Excavations of a Bronze Age village in Northern Ireland: Review


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Corrstown: a coastal community. Excavations of a Bronze Age village in Northern Ireland: Review

  1. 1. Corrstown: A Coastal Community. Excavations of a Bronze Age village in Northern Ireland: Review Originally posted online on 25 April 2012 at ( Ginn & Stuart Rathbone (eds.). Oxbow books, Oxford, 2012. xv+301pp. ISBN978-1-84217-464-7. £26.95 (via Oxbow) or £33.25 (via Amazon).Corrstown: A Coastal Community presents the results of the excavation and analysis of76 Bronze Age structures excavated by Archaeological Consultancy Services Ltd. during2002 and 2003. Along with the well-publicised Bronze Age village, an Early Christianrath and rock-cut souterrain were investigated, together with the recovery of a smallcollection of Neolithic pottery. Chapter 1: Introduction sets the scene, outlining thedevelopment-led background from geophysical prospection, surface collection ofartefacts and test-trenching. This led to further test-trenches and eventually, in October2002, an excavation directed by Malachy Conway. What was initially regarded as a smallprehistoric settlement and an Early Christian rath, grew and grew with every furtherarea topsoil stripped. The authors put it best: “After several weeks of topsoil stripping itwas clear that the settlement consisted of many more buildings than could have everbeen expected and the site was of far greater complexity and scale than had beenpreviously envisioned for the Irish Bronze Age.” I would commend section 1.2:Surprising results to readers alone for the eloquent (and expletive free) description ofwhat life on a development-led excavation is like in Northern Ireland. The houses (74 ofthem, plus two W-shaped structures) ranged from circular to oval in plan and mostproduced large quantities of pottery. Some of the houses were of the well-knownconstruction type, defined by a slot-trench and containing internal structural postholes(Type 2). However, the majority of buildings at Corrstown were of a previouslyunrecognised type where wide, segmented ditches and multiple pits and postholes
  2. 2. formed no easily recognisable pattern (Type 1). Several consisted of concentric rings inthis manner and one appeared to stand within a deep, horse-shoe enclosure. Many ofthe roundhouses had long, sunken porches with cobbled floors. Some houses wereconnected to each other with similarly sunken and cobbled pathways. A roughly cobbledroad (70m, by 10m wide) ran through the eastern portion of the site, while a second,unpaved, road is postulated, based on the absence of features along the western side ofthe site. Tantalisingly, the cobbled road runs out from the village, beyond the limits ofthe development. The fact that these houses were connected by paths and that only asmall number of structures overlapped each other suggests that the houses are broadlycontemporary. This is further confirmed by 24 radiocarbon dates from 22 of the houses,showing a defined cluster in the Middle Bronze Age (c. 1700-1200 cal BC). Takentogether, this is the first indisputable evidence for an actual Bronze Age village in eitherIreland or the UK. The recovered artefacts were, understandably, dominated by thosethings that survive best: pottery and lithics. Over 9000 sherds of pottery wererecovered. For its size alone, this is an exceptional assemblage, but a previously little-known form of Middle Bronze Age coarse ware – derived from the Cordoned Urntradition - has been identified within it, adding to its significance. The volume ofrecovered flint was so large that only estimates of its size may be made – over 16,500pieces (509kg for secure contexts and a further 63kg from non-stratified contexts).Similar to the pottery, this is one of the largest Bronze Age assemblages ever recoveredfrom an excavation on this island. Other significant finds included four stone moulds,two polished axe heads, and a polished mace head. The Early Christian portion of theexcavation (easy to forget when bracketed together with such amazing discoveries)included the full excavation of the rath and rock-cut souterrain, along with an unusualrectangular structure and a kiln.
  3. 3. Simplified plan of the Corrstown Village siteChapter 2: Excavation results summarises the findings and gives detailed definitions ofthe Type 1 and Type 2 structures. This is followed by a detailed gazetteer of thestructures. The authors are to be complimented for providing clear, readable results in aconsistent format. The description of each structure is accompanied by a full page (A5)plan and occasional section drawings or profiles. While I would have liked to see moresection drawings, it must be remarked that the plans are of the highest quality and, likethe written descriptions, are clear and consistent. Weighing in at 143 pages, this is easilythe largest part of the book. I cannot stress how valuable this is – it represents theoriginal data that all subsequent interpretations of the site depend on. I am sure it
  4. 4. would have been attractive (even ‘easier’) to present a synthesis of the site that omittedthis primary data. However, as times progress and scholarship inevitably moves on, theprimary data will still be available for future re-interrogation and reinterpretation. Thisapproach has been a personal obsession throughout my archaeological life. Admittedly,I am normally chastised for writing in this way, so when I see other writers obviouslyengaged in the same project, I do wish to applaud their efforts. In Chapter 3: MaterialCulture and Environmental Analysis the authors note that all the recovered artefactswere manufactured from locally available sources and, while they demonstrate that thecommunity here was a vibrant, thriving place, there is no evidence for contact with thewider world. The first specialist analysis is Maria O’Hare’s examination of the lithicassemblage. She concludes that the assemblage, despite its size, is typical of domesticcontexts from the Irish Bronze Age. The most common tool types produced includeutilised pieces and scrapers (both formal and ad hoc types). Flaked and more formaltools were also present, but in much smaller quantities. Helen Roche and Eoin Groganexplain that this is the single largest collection of Middle Bronze Age pottery yet foundon this island. This represents a minimum number of 492 vessels: nine Early Neolithicbowls and 483 Middle Bronze Age vessels. The Neolithic vessels are pretty standard andcan be paralleled with numerous sites, including both domestic (e.g. Ballygalley,Ballyharry & Ballynagilly) and burial sites. The dispersed nature of the evidence acrossthe site is taken to suggest that there had been some small-scale domestic activity in theNeolithic, but that this had been largely disturbed during the main period of Bronze Ageoccupation. Almost all of the houses produced Bronze Age pottery, though the quantitiesranged dramatically, from as few as six sherds up to 711 sherds. The majority of thevessels (386) were plain, but some (97) possessed some form of decoration, mostnotably cordons. This suggests that the vessels derive from the funerary-basedCordoned Urn tradition, though their recovery from domestic structures is significant.Based on the work of Anna Brindley (2007), Roche and Eogan argue that the funeraryversion of the Cordoned Urn dates to the period 1750-1450 cal BC, but that the domesticversion continues in use beyond this, possibly as late as the beginning of the Late BronzeAge (c. 1250 cal BC). The importance of the Corrstown assemblage is that it allows there-dating of this form of relatively well-made plain vessels from the Late Bronze Ageback into the latter portion of the Middle Bronze Age. While the authors note that thishas serious implications for the dating and interpretation of many sites, they note that,in purely ceramic terms, a number of sites dated to the Late Bronze Age solely on thepresence of coarse pottery may need to be re-examined. Eoin Grogan also contributes ananalysis of the stone artefacts. One miniature axe head, five large axe fragments, andone small flake were recovered during the excavations. Unfortunately, the largefragments were all recovered from the topsoil. The miniature example was recoveredfrom a secure context within structure S37. Grogan sees all the axes recovered as beingparalleled within the Irish series and argues that all relate to the Neolithic phase of siteuse. However, given the relative size of the Bronze Age settlement, it may well bejustified to reinterpret the evidence in light of Jolliffe’s (2010) research, where he arguesfor the evidence of polished stone axeheads being made during the Bronze Age. Theperforated macehead (of Largs-type) was made of gabbro and was recovered from aposthole in structure S1. Four stone moulds, all of dolerite, for the casting of bronzeartefacts were recovered. These included part of a mould for a palstave, two for thecasting chisels, and one for a ribbed, bladed implement, currently unparalleled in the
  5. 5. excavated record. Stephen Mandal also contributes a brief note on the stone types andtheir probable sources near the site. Örni Akeret contributes a note on the recoveredseed types. He notes the absence of chaff in the samples, but cautions that this may havebeen due to a recovery bias at the flotation stage of sample processing. The range ofcereals identified is seen as typical of this period: with a dominance of barely and, inparticular, naked barley (Hordeum vulgare). While approximately 150 barely grainswere recovered from one stakehole in structure S58, only a single rye grain wasrecovered from the entire site. Akeret suggests that the rarity of rye on this site andothers suggests that it occurred as a weed, rather than as a cultivated crop. A smallnumber of wheat grains (Triticum) were also recovered. A number of these could befurther identified as emmer wheat (Triticum dicoccum). A further table gives all theprimary information regarding cereal types and the features they were recovered from.In a final note on this chapter, I would like to draw attention to the excellent artefactphotography by John Sunderland – it manages to fulfil my personal dictum for allarchaeological photography: it should be archaeologically informative and aestheticallypleasing.Chapter 4: Analysis of the Corrstown Site provides the overarching synthesis of the site,drawing on the primary data presented in Chapters 1 and 2. Detailed discussions arepresented on the Type 1 structures, examining individual components of the structure’smorphology, including walls, entrances, drains, etc. The Type 1 roundhouses are brokendown into several types, including single segmented ditch roundhouses (1A), concentricsegmented ditch roundhouses (1B), conjoined concentric segmented ditch roundhouses(1C), freestanding structures (1D), small abutting structures (1E), and undeterminedsegmented ditch roundhouses (1F). Only six structures fall into the category of the Type2, narrow slot roundhouses. While in the minority here, they are the most common typefound elsewhere and a comprehensively paralleled with other excavated evidence,including Kilmurray, Co. Wicklow, Lisheen Site A, Co. Tipperary, and Ballyrennan, Co.Antrim. This is followed by a detailed note on the reconstruction drawings of Type 1 andType 2 houses by Ella Hassett. The authors explain how the drawings were producedafter detailed discussions between artist and archaeologists. They go on to discuss suchvariables as roof coverings and slope, along with the whole host of necessarycompromises, guesses and speculations that are required to produce such drawings, butare not recoverable through excavation. I have written before of the importance of thisform of discussion, where the process of reconstruction is dissected and becomes afurther means of interrogating the excavated data and the assumptions we place upon it.An analysis of the rebuilding cycles at Corrstown, where individual buildings appear tohave been continually rebuilt on the same spot, are interpreted in terms of thesequential replacement of a single homestead. Somewhat fewer than 50% of theCorrstown houses appear to have been rebuilt, with the extent of such renovationsrunning from major overhauls to complete rebuilds. The authors suggest, based on anumber of strands of evidence, that the Corrstown houses may have had life spansranging from 30 to 80 years. Although fraught with difficulty, the authors bravelyattempt the caveat-laden procedure of producing an estimate of the Corrstownpopulation. While various means of calculating an estimate produced results from 200to 1400 people living in the village during its peak, the authors prefer the lowerpopulation range of 200 to 300. In any event, they point out that, even at the lowest
  6. 6. estimate, the Corrstown population would have been far above that of any previouslyknown Bronze Age settlement in Britain or Ireland. As noted above, on page 7 of theintroduction there is a reference to 24 radiocarbon dates from 22 roundhouses.However, on page 231 it is clear that there are some 33 radiocarbon dates listed – thereason for the difference appears to be that the additional dates have been carried out aspart of Victoria Ginn’s PhD research. This may seem like a minor point to bring up, butit does demonstrate that although the report is written and the book is published, theresearch goes on. Four further Early Christian dates, taking the total to 37, are listedseparately in a table on page 292. All of these are new to the IR&DD Catalogue [comeand like the IR&DD Facebook Page]. Unfortunately, the charcoal samples for originalbatch of 28 dates were not identified as to wood species. The authors raise thepossibility that some of these included old-wood samples, making the dating lessreliable that would be desired. It is a minor point, but one worth noting that the authorsperpetuate the belief that oak wood should not be dated as it is likely to be significantlyolder than the feature being dated – one sample was dismissed for dating precisely forthis reason. Instead, selection of samples should be focused on identifying short-lived,single entity items, including charred twigs and sapwood etc. (Chapple 2008; 2010a). Inthis way, even taking dates on oak would be ‘safe’ and eliminate the possibility of the‘old wood’ effect. Although not the fault of the authors, it is worth noting that thecurrent requirements for post-excavation work in Northern Ireland do not demand theidentification of wood to species prior to radiocarbon dating. I believe that a change inthis policy, while not eliminating all the caveats of radiocarbon dating, would bringmuch more clarity and robustness to the process. I am delighted to see that the curve(IntCal09) used to calibrate the dares is included, though it would be nice to have hadthe name and version of the computer software used included too. However, onepersonal bug-bear that I would like to see eliminated from archaeological writing is theinclusion of the lengthy reference to the publication of the IntCal calibration curvedirectly associated with the radiocarbon dates. In this volume it is included beneathboth tables of radiocarbon determination on pages 231, 292, and 301. All that isrequired is a note to indicate the curve used and the reference (Reimer et al. 2009),while the full citation should be confined to the bibliography. Such minor annoyancesaside, McSparron’s analysis of the dates (fully elaborated upon in Appendix I) identifiedthree main phases of activity. Taken together, the returned determinations demonstratethat the Corrstown settlement was founded around 1500 cal BC, most likely after 1460cal BC. This Growth Phase lasted up to 260 years. The Village Phase commenced around1360-1270 cal BP and lasted for 35-155 years. A final Decline Phase began after 1150 calBC and lasted from 80-300 years. This analysis, based purely on the radiocarbon data,is supported by the spatial organisation of the village, indicating that the most centralstructures were among the earliest etc. McSparron’s analysis also indicates that therewas no abrupt beginning or end to the village – it appears to have started with one ortwo structures and grew organically. Similarly, the evidence points to a long, slowdecline as opposed to any cataclysmic destruction of the village. A spatial analysis of thevillage indicates that the northern and southern portions of the site appear to have beenorganised in different manners, suggesting that they developed at different times. Thenorthern portion is characterised by pairs or small groups of structures, while thesouthern side is generally formed on three well-laid-out lines of buildings. This is
  7. 7. further supported by the artefact analyses and the radiocarbon determinations. Furthersections examine the domestic unit and the significance of the roads and pathways.Chapter 5: From Inception to Abandonment first attempts to place the Corrstownvillage within its landscape setting. This is followed by an examination of the evidencefor the diet of the villagers. In the absence of surviving animal bones, this short sectionrelies on the recovered charred seeds. Like many excavated sites on this island, theagrarian economy appears to have been centred on barley production. An analysis of theorientation of building entrances shows a pronounced, but not overwhelming,orientation towards the south-east, similar to many other excavated Bronze Age andIron Age houses. Although functional concerns, such as avoiding the prevailing windsare one possibility for this decision, other factors may have included cosmologicalconcerns and deliberate alignments on such phenomena as the midwinter sunrise. Theevidence for structured deposition in the form of foundation deposits or closingofferings is assayed. While the placement of a pot base in a pit in the entrance ofstructure S58 and the macehead from S1 may be easily interpreted in this way, otherdeposits may be more difficult to reconstruct. One possibility is that, at least some, ofthe charred barley recovered from the site was intended as ritualised deposits. Thisbears some similarity with my own excavations at Site 19, Gransha, Co. Londonderry(Chapple 2010b). Here a series of atypical cists – broadly contemporary with Corrstown- held only a few unidentifiable scraps of bone, but produced many thousands of charredbarley grains. The authors also suggest that structural deposition of pottery may havetaken place in the ditches surrounding some of the houses. Again, this is paralleled atGransha, where the surrounding ditch appears to have been used for selectivedeposition of both pottery and flint. The discussion on this point is well worth reading indepth for its balanced approached to this contentious area. Other sections examine theplace of the roads and movement of goods and people into and out of the village, alongwith the evidence for burial at this period. The question of the decline and abandonmentof the village is the last section in this chapter. Although the possibility of abandonmentdue to the environmental effects of the Hekla 3 eruption is assessed, it is discounted infavour of other aspects of climate change. These include the several episodes of colder orwetter weather that occurred in the period from the 16th to 6th centuries cal BC. This isbacked up with evidence from pollen analysis of Gary Bog, Co. Antrim, and Gortcorbies,Co. Londonderry, and is also set in the wider context of population decline throughoutIreland, Britain and the Mediterranean world.Chapter 6: Corrstown in context first attempts to fit this unparalleled site within theeconomic and social landscape of the north coast. The authors assess the archaeologicalsituation of the 1990s where there was much speculation as the density of prehistoricsettlement in the area, but relatively little evidence to support it. More recentexcavations, such as Crossreagh West, Crossreagh East, and Cappagh Beg, etc., haveradically altered this perception. The authors also note that the excavation in a fieldadjacent to the Corrstown site, in Magheramenagh townland, produced similarstructures and dates. For these reasons, they regard it as part of the Corrstown villagesettlement. The Magheramenagh excavation was undertaken in a number ofphases from 1999 to 2000, and I was present for one of these during 1999. While I wasthere we excavated a rock-cut souterrain, a suspected Neolithic house (that later turned
  8. 8. out to be Early Christian) and a spread of Neolithic pottery. Unfortunately, the siteremains unpublished; though the five radiocarbon dates from the site are available(Chapple 2008). A number of my photographs (scanned from slides) from that phaseare also accessible to the public. Further discussion places the village within its island-wide context and attempts to evaluate the status of the settlement and how it should becategorised.In Appendix I, Cormac McSparron lays out the detailed methodology for hisinterrogation of the radiocarbon dates and how the three Phases of Growth, Village andDecline were arrived at. Perhaps it is not for the faint-hearted, but for those whopersevere it is an excellent example of the power of Bayesian analysis in refiningchronologies (See review of Gathering Time for further references and resources forBayesian applications in archaeology). In Appendix II: Medieval Corrstown theexcavation of the rath, souterrain, and kiln are detailed. Although a little too brief for mytaste, it is an efficient summary of the Early Christian evidence from the site. I wouldpick the authors up on one point, though. My reading of the text suggests that the dataprovided on the Magheramenagh excavation included two dates for the souterrainsthere. The dates cited are 1160±40 BP (Beta-186549) and 1280±40 BP (Beta-186551).Unfortunately, the authors have been provided with the Measured Radiocarbon Age asopposed to the Conventional Radiocarbon Age. I know that I bang on about this all thetime, but this is important (see Chapple 2010a; and here). Beta Analytic Inc. providestwo types of data. The Measured Radiocarbon Age records the 14C surviving in thesample, while the Conventional Radiocarbon Age takes account of other factors such asisotopic fractionation. Although the Measured Age is useful in certain circumstances, itis the Conventional date that should be published and used in all analyses. While thereare not always differences in the two dates, in this particular instance there is adivergence of 30 and 20 Radiocarbon years, respectively. Also, neither date is associatedwith a souterrain. To be fair to the authors, they do state that they were given the datesdirectly, but were not able to consult the report text, so the fault does not lie with them.To set the record straight, the details of these two dates are as follows (in both cases thedates were calibrated with Calib 6.1.0, using the IntCal09 curve (Reimer et al. 2009)):Beta-186549 1130±40 BP 780-992 cal AD Charcoal (unidentified) from fill ofpost-hole (Cut 52, Context 53) in arc of post-holes/circular house (Area 1).Beta-186551 1260±40 BP 668-869 cal AD Charcoal (unidentified) from fill ofsouthern wall-slot (Cut 63, Context 64) of rectangular structure (Area 1).Appendix III: Cappagh Beg, by Steve Linnane and Victoria Ginn, details a further set ofexcavations carried out by ACS in Co. Londonderry. The features excavated here may beinterpreted in terms of two or three houses, two boundary ditches and a cremation pit.Structures A and C are interpreted as houses Bronze Age type. The absence of internalfeatures at Structure B is taken as evidence that it may never have been roofed, andpossibly for ritual use. This is a charming little theory, but I see no particular merit in it.Two radiocarbon determinations place the site use in the period from the 11 th to15th centuries cal BC. The authors note that although large quantities of flint and potterywere recovered here, none of it has been analysed. While this report is a valuable
  9. 9. interim statement, I would hope that arrangements could be made to fully research andpublish this site.In the forgoing review I have detailed some problems I see with the volume. I realisethat these are pretty-much in the order of nit-picking and only obsessives like me worryabout these things. I have only one criticism that rises above this level of minorirritation, and even still it is not significant. The colour plates of the artefacts are, as Ihave mentioned above, excellent, but I would dearly have loved to see some colourphotographs of the site. Obviously, such considerations come down to the cost ofproduction, but I cannot help but think that a couple of the photographs of the stoneaxes could easily have been sacrificed for some general shots of the excavation. I waslucky enough to visit the Corrstown excavation during 2003 and took a number ofcandid shots of the excavation in progress. For the benefit of anyone who wishes, theseare now available for public viewing, as are some shots from the Magheramenaghexcavation. Even taken together, my short list of minor criticisms should in no way beseen as detracting from the achievement of this excellent book. It is a remarkable pieceof scholarship – each aspect of the site is well described and discussed and parallels aresought to put each in its place within the corpus of excavated sites. This is a remarkablefeat on its own, given the complexity of the evidence, not to mention the plain fact thatthe Corrstown site simply rewrites most of what we thought we knew about Bronze Agesettlement in these islands. As I have noted above, there is a strong commitment tomaking available the primary data so that future researchers may re-examine andreinterpret this site. One line in the blurb on the back of the book probably illustratesthe importance of this site better than anything else: “It is intended that this volumerepresents a beginning of the study of the Corrstown village”. As I said above: althoughthe report is written and the book is published, the research goes on. It is not simplythat, if you are interested in the Irish Bronze Age, you should have this book in yourlibrary – you must have it.References:Brindley, A. L. 2007 The dating of food vessels and urns in Ireland. Galway.Chapple, R. M. 2008 The absolute dating of archaeological excavations in Ulster carriedout by Northern Archaeological Consultancy Ltd, 1998-2007 Ulster Journal ofArchaeology 67, 153-181.Chapple, R. M. 2010a Just an expensive number Archaeology Ireland 24.2, 29-31.Chapple, R. M. 2010b The excavation of an enclosed Middle Bronze Age cemetery atGransha, Co. Londonderry, Northern Ireland. BAR British Series 521. Oxford.Jolliffe, T. 2010 Archaeology of the Upper Witham Valley: Prehistoric visitors, IronAge settlement and a Romano-British Landscape dominated by a new villa. BARBritish Series 524, Oxford.
  10. 10. Reimer, P. J., Baillie, M. G. L., Bard, E., Bayliss, A., Beck, J. W., Blackwell, P. G., BronkRamsey, C., Buck, C. E., Burr, G. S., Edwards, R. L., Friedrich, M., Grootes, P. M.,Guilderson, T. P., Hajas, I., Heaton, T. J., Hogg, A. G., Hughen, K. A., Kaiser, K. F.,Kromer, B., McCormac, F. G., Manning, S. W., Reimer, R. W., Richards, D. A., Southon,J. R., Talamo, S., Turney, C. S. M., van der Pilcht, J. & Weyhenmeyer, C. E. 2009‘IntCal09 and Marine09 radiocarbon age calibration curves, 0-50,000 years CalBP’ Radiocarbon 51.4, 1111-1150.