Irish Copper Age houses in a radiocarbon landscape: a reply to Dr Charles Mount
Irish Copper Age houses in a radiocarbon landscape: a reply to Dr Charles Mount Originally posted online on 14 September 2011 at rmchapple.blogspot.com (http://rmchapple.blogspot.co.uk/2011/09/irish-copper-age-houses-in-radiocarbon.html)Last week archaeologist Dr Charles Mount published a blog post about the relativelyrare phenomenon of houses in the Irish Copper Age. As is the way of such things, it wasrapidly seized upon by a number of archaeologists and related groups on Facebook andquickly ‘shared’ and ‘re-shared’. On my own Facebook page I shared it with thecomment that it was a ‘brief, but elegant, summary of Copper Age houses’. While I don’tknow Dr Mount personally we are ‘Facebook Friends’ and he added a comment askingthat if I knew of any more sites he had missed, to let him know. The simple answer was:No, I haven’t a notion about any other houses dating form that period. Rather than leaveit there, I started thinking and doing a little research … and I still have no extra housesto add to the list. But that’s not quite the end of the story.But first some background (it would be best to go back and read the original blog postnow) … Mount dates the Irish Copper Age (or Chalcolithic) to the period 2600-2400 calBC to 2200/2100 cal BC. This is a period bounded by the end of the Late Neolithic andit’s Grooved Ware pottery on one side and the earliest portion of the Early BronzeAge on the other, and sees the introduction of the Beaker Pottery form. In terms that Iam more comfortable with, it dates roughly from 4100 radiocarbon years BP to 3750radiocarbon years BP.Mount notes that only about a dozen houses can be properly said to date to the CopperAge, and that these are confined to a mere four sites. These are: Lough Gur, Co.Limerick; Monknewton, Co. Meath; Graigueshoneen, Co. Waterford; and Ross Island,Co. Kerry. Obviously, the Lough Gur sites were investigated in the years before thedevelopment of radiometric dating, but the others are all supported by good dates andfinds of beaker pottery. Mount concludes that the light construction of many of theknown examples may explain why so few houses have been identified. He alsocomments that a series of stake-built oval structures ‘would leave a meaningless jumbleof stake and post-holes associated with spreads of settlement material.’ In a commenton the original blog post, John Tierney of Eachtra Archaeological Projects, noted that‘hard-to-spot clay walls’ may have been more common in the past than we hadpreviously believed. Such a situation would leave us inferring the former presence ofstructures by identifying spaces ‘devoid of features in a ground plan.’With these problems in mind, I approached my Catalogue of RadiocarbonDeterminations and Dendrochronological Dates with the intention to seeing if thishighly-specialised way of apprehending the archaeological world could bear fruit. Withsome simple data filtering, my current catalogue of 5351 radiocarbon determination wasquickly whittled down to 294 from the island of Ireland. For this process, my frame ofreference was an examination of the ‘raw’ radiocarbon dates in the range from 4100 to3750 radiocarbon years BP.
Some of the evidence we can dismiss immediately as not pertinent to the question ofhousing in the Copper Age. Into this category can go 80 dates from various burntmounds and burnt spreads and 12 trackways of different forms. Sixty-four dates can beexcluded as they are directly or indirectly associated with burials such as wedge tombsand cists – a number of these are now, thanks to the work of Anna Brindley in refiningthe chronology for Bronze Age pottery styles, considered to be anomalous. A furthernine dates are associated with Late Neolithic Grooved Ware pottery. Fourteen relate toenvironmental samples, largely associated with dates on pine stumps from the CéideFields complex. Two dates relate to log boats (Carrowneden, Co. Mayo & Lurgan, Co.Galway); one is associated with a wooden polypod bowl (Tirkernaghan, Co. Tyrone); oneis from peat associated with a necklace (Milmorane, Co. Cork). One date is from thehenge at Tonafortes, Co. Sligo, and eight are from the Newgrange pit circle/henge. Onerelates to an unpublished Late Neolithic timber circle at Liscolman, Co. Antrim. Twentyfour dates are broadly associated with megalithic tombs, especially passage tombs,though a number do relate to court tombs. Some of the older dates relate to pre-tombhabitation (e.g. at The Mound of the Hostages, Tara and Ballyglass, Co. Mayo) and maybe treated with some degree of caution.When all of the above are removed, along with a few anomalous dates, a fewduplications in the catalogue, and the data relating to sites already identified by Mount,we are left with 61 radiocarbon dates. Let me be clear – I’m not arguing that every one ofthese dates represents a Copper Age settlement … I just think that it may make a goodpreliminary list from which future research and debate may just blossom. The nature ofsuch a blog post as this means that I have not had the opportunity to go and revisit everypublication cited here to check if there could be a Copper Age house there – I think I willleave that to others!The first cluster of dates 13 dates relate to sites that have already produced beakerpottery and should, perhaps, be looked at again to gauge whether or not there issufficient evidence to suggest the presence of a house or similar structure.At Waterunder, Mell, Co. Louth, an occupation layer that contained beaker pottery andend-scrapers returned a date of 3960±33BP, (2572-2346 cal BC, Wk-17457) (McQuade2005, 35). At Milltown North, Co. Limerick, a ‘scoop’ that contained beaker potteryreturned a date of 3895±34BP (2473-2236 cal BC, UB-6065) (Grogan 2007, 302). Oakcharcoal from a pit associated with beaker pottery at Broomfield, Co. Dublin, dated to3880±30BP (2467-2235 cal BC, GrN-13879) (OBrien 1988, 120). Charcoal from a pitthat contained beaker pottery, flint débitage and charred seeds at an Early Christianenclosure at Curaheen, Co. Cork, produced a date of 3920±70BP (2579-2155 calBC, Beta-171422) (Kerr et al. 2010, 153). However, the biggest single concentration ofdates comes from Ballynagilly, Co. Tyrone. The site is better known for producing aNeolithic house – one of the earliest excavated – but there was also substantial evidencefor beaker-related activity there too. The nine dates ranged from 4055±50BP (2859-2471 cal BC, UB-553) – from charcoal from dark layer – to 3780±70 BP (2459-2030 calBC, UB-557) – again from charcoal associated with Beaker pottery (Smith et al. 1973,219; 1971, 106-7).
At Eglinton (Gortenny Td.), Co. Londonderry, there are three dates that are of interestin the current context. Charcoal from the basal fill of a possible hearth dated to3830±50BP (2463-2142 cal BC, Beta-230118); a large pit returned a date of 3770±50BP(2398-2031 cal BC, Beta-230119); and the fill of a stakehole came back at 3950±40BP(2571-2307 cal BC, Beta-230120) (Chapple 2008, 172).Seven dates are related to known Bronze Age settlements. At Ballybrowney 1, Co. Cork,charcoal from the fill of a slot trench associated with Structure C dated to 3910±70BP(2575-2154 cal BC, Beta-201046) (OSullivan & Stanley 2005, 149). Charcoal from aposthole associated with the enclosure at Site 35D, Laughanstown, Co. Dublin, returneda date of 3847±35BP (2459-2205 cal BC, OxA-12811) (OSullivan & Stanley 2005, 149).Charcoal from occupation soil overlying pit at Meadowlands, Downpatrick, Co. Down,dated to 3795±75BP (2463-2034 cal BC, UB-472) (Smith et al. 1973, 213). Fruitwoodand ash charcoal from the lower fill of a pit associated with the roundhouse atCloghnabreedy, site 125.3, Co. Tipperary, dated to 3762±35BP (2289-2041 cal BC, UB-7377) (Stanley et al. 2009, 170; McQuade et al. 2009, 368). At the enclosed settlementat Chancellorsland, Site A, Co. Tipperary, a date of 4085±60BP (2872-2486 cal BC, AA-10297) was achieved on charcoal from the basal layer a recut of the outer ditch (Warner2008a, 665). Charcoal from a grey layer under the ramparts at Rathgall, Co. Wicklow,provided a date of 3780±140BP (2580-1776 cal BC, UB-2344) (Anon. 1987-1988, 79). Adate of 4021±48BP (2851-2458 cal BC, UB-3969) came from charcoal (Area A) at thehilltop enclosure of Knockacarrigeen Hill, Tuam, Co. Galway (Carey 2002, 61-62).Charcoal from a midden at Illauntannig, Co. Kerry, dated to 4030±60BP (2863-2350 calBC, UCLA-2773AA) (Berger 1992, 884, 885). Although, not strictly evidence ofhabitation, this date may be taken to suggest that a contemporary house (or houses) laysomewhere in the vicinity.There is a group of 11 dates that are only associated with single pits. At Robswalls(Paddys Hill), Co. Dublin, sea shells from a pit produced a date of 4040±70BP (2872-2351 cal BC, GrN-12337) (Manning & Hurl 1989-1990, 74). The pit was associated with aflint scatter and also contained animal bones, hammerstones, a polished porcellaniteaxe head, and several hundred lithics. At Granny Site 27, Co. Kilkenny, charcoal fromisolated pit dated to 3982±36BP (2580-2350 cal BC, UB-6314) (OSullivan & Stanley2005, 148). Two dates came from the NAC excavations on the A1 (Loughbrickland)Dualing Scheme, Co. Down [there’s also a coffee table book, free to download fromRoads Service, and a colour poster by NAC]. The first of these was from a pit in Area 8(Aughintober td) and the second came from the fill of a pit associated with what isinterpreted as Phase 2 of a short-term camp site (Area 2). The former date was3890±60BP (2564-2154 cal BC, Beta-217343), while the date from the camp sitereturned as 4030±80BP (2872-2345 cal BC, Beta-217346) (Chapple et al. 2009, 7, 136;Chapple 2008, 164, 165). At the predominantly Late Mesolithic site at Toome (BrecartTd.), Co. Antrim, a pit (Area N) dated to 3880±40BP (2470-2209 cal BC, Beta-219472)(Chapple 2008, 160). At Ballycorick, Co. Clare, a pit returned a date of 3870±40BP(2467-2208 cal BC, Beta-179172) (Grogan 2007, 99, 170). Charcoal from a pit with slagat the industrial site at Kinnegad 2, Co. Westmeath, produced a date of 3910±40BP(2549-2216 cal BC, Beta-177425) (Carlin et al. 2008, 136). Charcoal from a pit fill inArea I at Gortore 1, Co. Cork, dated to 3832±36BP (2458-2151 cal BC, UB-6768)
(ODonoghue 2010, 10). Charcoal from three separate pits at Faughart Lower 6, Co.Louth, produced dates of 4030±50BP (2855-2463 cal BC, Beta-217946), 4070±50BP(2863-2474 cal BC, Beta-217947), and 4010±40BP (2832-2461 cal BC, Beta-217948)(Hayes 2007, 68, 72).The final group, and unfortunately the largest, is a set of 25 dates where I have onlytantalizingly brief details of the site. For example, at Demesne, Co. Westmeath, a dateof 3914±55BP (2567-2208 cal BC, no laboratory code cited) was returned from a‘settlement cluster’ (source: INSTAR People of Prehistoric Ireland Database).The catalogue contains a substantial list of dates provided by CRDS in MSExcel form.Overall, they list good, clear context information (and I remain indebted to the companyfor providing the information), but the original final reports would be necessary to fullyevaluate the significance of the information they provide. It is wholly possible that thesedates are the keys to identifying further Copper Age houses and settlements, but furtherresearch is required to track down and analyse this body of information. At KilshaneSite 5, Co. Dublin, charcoal from an artefact-rich deposit in the enclosure ditch (possiblyof a causewayed enclosure) returned a date of 3784±69BP (2459-2033 cal BC, Wk-18167). Killescragh (E2070), Co. Galway, is described as having contained ‘woodenstructures and a burnt mound’. Charcoal from a hearth there produced a date of3855±107BP (2618-1979 cal BC, Wk-21246). Treanbaun (E2123), Co. Galway, is listed asan ‘Early Medieval burial site and Bronze Age remains’. Here, a date of 3883±75BP(2568-2141 cal BC, Wk-22715) was returned from charcoal in the fill of a possible mine.Charcoal from in situ burnt timbers at the site of ‘industrial early historic activity’ atGortnahoon, Co. Galway, produced a date of 3953±63BP (2826-2210 cal BC, Wk-21333).The final 20 dates in this group are drawn from the NRA Database. Again, they areseverely lacking in all the contextual information I would like, but they still interestingpointers for future research. At Grace Dieu West, Co. Waterford, charcoal from pit at a‘Neolithic and Bronze Age settlement’ dated to 3860±40BP (2464-2206 cal BC, Beta-170160). A date of 3850±70BP (2546-2057 cal BC, Beta-171410) was returned fromcharcoal from a pit at Barnagore 2, Co. Cork, at a site described as ‘pit, Stakeholes.’Charcoal from pits at Adamstown 1 and 2 Co. Waterford, provided dates of 4090±90BP(2896-2460 cal BC, Beta-2097590) and 3840±40BP (2462-2154 cal BC, Beta-209755),respectively. Adamstown 1 is described in the database as ‘Kiln, Pits, Metalworking site,Kiln - corn-drying , Stakeholes’, while Adamstown 2 is simply given as ‘Settlement,Industrial - Multi-period’. Charcoal from another pit, this time at a site of ‘Pits,Stakeholes, Postholes’ at Curraheen 1, Co. Cork, provided a date of 3940±70BP (2620-2205 cal BC, Beta-171422). At Curraheen 5, Co. Cork, alder charcoal from a pit dated to3850±40BP (2461-2205 cal BC, Beta-181754). The site is described as a ‘Burnt mound,Pit, Burial mound.’ Other sites in Co. Cork include an apparently isolated pit atCarrigrohane 4 that dated to 3990±60BP (2836-2297 cal BC, Beta-178202); A ‘BronzeAge burnt mound, Hoard, Cremation pit, Flint scatter’ at Fermoy 2 dated to 3810±40BP(2457-2137 cal BC, Beta-201032); One of a number of ‘Bronze Age pits’ at Lisnasallagh 2returned a date of 3890±60BP (2564-2154 cal BC, Beta-201097); while at Barnagore 4,a ‘Bronze Age pit, spread’ dated to 3760±40BP (2292-2036 cal BC, Beta-171415). In all
of these cases, except Barnagore 4, the date was on charcoal from a pit; in this case, thedate was returned from a charred seed.There are three dates from Co. Meath that fall into our time frame – two from pits andone from a posthole. At Dunboyne 4, a site described as ‘Bronze Age Kiln, Pits,Postholes,’ a date was returned of 3860±40BP (2464-2206 cal BC, Beta-231934 fromone of the postholes. A site of ‘Bronze Age Cremation pits, Hearth’ at Knockmark 1 datedto 3780±40BP (2342-2041 cal BC, Beta-231945), while one of the ‘Bronze Age pits &postholes’ at Raynestown 2 produced a date of 3780±40BP (2342-2041 cal BC, Beta-241285). At Tullahedy Site TUVW, Co. Tipperary, charcoal from a pit under a burntmound spread produced a date of 3940±66BP (2618-2206 cal BC, UCD-116). While thisparticular date could have been removed from the data-set at an earlier point, the factthat the site is listed in the NRA Database as ‘Bronze Age enclosure & burnt mound’intrigues me to the point that (without seeing a final publication on the excavation) Isuggest it may warrant further and closer study.Two dates come from excavations in Co. Kilkenny. At a collection of ‘Bronze Age pits’ atGarrincreen, ‘charred remains from pit with pottery’ returned a date of 3780±40BP(2342-2041 cal BC, Beta-205170), while charcoal from a stakehole at Granny 28 dated to3913BP (UB-6637). Unfortunately the NRA database lists the standard deviation for thisdate as ±0, limiting its full potential for contributing to our knowledge. Charcoal fromtwo pits, both in Co. Kildare, one at Loughlion Site 8 and the other at The Curragh Site10 produced dates of interest in the current context. The first site is described as ‘BronzeAge Pits, Postholes, burnt mound’ and dated to 3838±74BP (2480-2041 cal BC, Wk-12814), while the second produced a date of 3780±30BP (2295-2059 cal BC, GrN-30089) and is listed as ‘Bronze Age pits & postholes.’ The final date in this preliminarycollection is from Newtownbalregan 2, Co. Louth, which is described as ‘Hut site, House– Neolithic.’ Although the site produced a date of 3990±46BP (2829-2346 cal BC, Wk-19929), neither the material it was derived from, nor any contextual information islisted.Where does all this data leave us and what conclusions can we draw? Firstly, I think wenow have a decent preliminary list of places we should start looking for Copper Agehouses. It is my contention that the explosion of archaeological excavations – and theresulting tsunami of radiocarbon dates – means that few, if any, archaeologists will evergain mastery of all that data and knowledge. In such a situation no one person will beable to read and investigate all the available literature to sift out the sites relevant totheir personal research. Obviously I’m biased, but I believe that starting witha catalogue of known radiocarbon dates is one strand in mining this mountain of data. Iwould argue that no amount of other forms of research could have independentlyproduced this list. That is not to say that there are sites I have missed out that otherresearchers, using other means, could have found – that is why this must bebut one strand among many.Have I given Dr. Mount even one more positive identification of a Copper Age house? –No, definitely not. In my defence, I believe that we now have a list of about 60excavations where we can start looking for these sites. If even one or two could be shown
to be houses of the right period, then, I think, we will have achieved a great deal.However, there is a broader question that this list may help to draw us towards – thewider nature of activity during this period. As I’ve said above – I’ve not had the leisureto read all the pertinent details of even the excavations reports immediately available tome. It is for this reason I’m pretty sure that many of the sites I’ve listed will, ultimately,not produce any new evidence for houses that we have missed. However, I could nothelp noticing a trend as I wrote up this data – there do seem to be an awful lot of(apparently) isolated pits that have produced Copper Age dates. Another trend - and onenoticed by Mount in his blog – is the lack of actual copper. Not one of the features that Ihave listed here has produced a single scrap of copper. In the context of the knownhouses, Mount suggests (in the comments to one of the Facebook ‘shares’) that coppermay have been regarded as somehow ‘taboo’ and banned from domestic spaces. Thatargument has a definite appeal, but taken in the broader context of all of these otherexcavations, radiocarbon dates and features, it hints at some different mechanism atwork. Maybe copper was so highly regarded and valued that it was not deliberatelyplaced in the ground. Maybe there are issues regarding its final disposal that eludearchaeological recovery. I have no answer to any of these questions – only morequestions. To paraphrase Bob Dylan, ‘something is happening here, but we don’t knowwhat it is.’ Maybe I should re-examine the previous question: Have I given Dr. Mounteven one more positive identification of a Copper Age house? No, not YET, but we’regetting there.Notes:All calibrated dates cited are quoted at the 2σ level of confidenceIf anyone reading this recognises a site that they directed, I would be very glad for twothings. First, go back to the archive and take another look – could there be any evidencefor an elusive Copper Age house? Am I close or way off the mark? Secondly, pleaseconsider sending me a copy of the final report, so that the dates and the contextualinformation can be added to the catalogue.I should just state, for the record, that I’m not having a bleat about the lack ofinformation provided by the NRA Database (or any of the other sources, either) – I amimmensely grateful that such information is available at all in advance of (hopefully) fullpublication. It is merely my aim to draw attention to the fact that this material is thereand may provide some starting points, but that further search and research is required.References:Anon. 1987-1988 Excavations bulletin 1977-79: summary account of archaeologicalexcavations in Ireland The Journal of Irish Archaeology 4, 65-79.Berger, R. 1992 14C dating mortar in Ireland Radiocarbon 34.3, 880-889.
Carey, A. 2002 Excavations at Knockcarrigeen Hill, Tuam, Co. Galway Journal of theGalway Archaeological & Historical Society 54, 55-71.Carlin, N., Clarke, L. & Walsh, F. 2008 Appendix 1: radiocarbon dates in Carlin, N.,Clarke, L. & Walsh, F. The archaeology of life and death in the Boyne floodplain: thelinear landscape of the M4. Dublin, 135-137.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., Dunlop, C., Gilmore, S. & Heaney, L. 2009 Archaeologicalinvestigations along the A1 dualling scheme, Loughbrickland to Beech Hill, Co. Down,N. Ireland (2005). BAR British Series 479. Oxford.Grogan, E. 2007 The Bronze Age landscapes of the pipeline to the west: an integratedarchaeological and environmental assessment. Dublin.Hayes, A. 2007 Archaeological excavation pit features at Site 134, Faughart Lower 6,Dundalk, Co. Louth. M1 - Dundalk Western Bypass. Unpublished Stratigraphic Report,Aegis Ltd.Kerr, T., Harney, L., Kinsella, J., OSullivan, A. & McCormick, F. 2010 Early Medievaldwellings and settlements in Ireland. AD400-1100. Vol. 2- Gazetteer of sitedescriptions. Dublin.Manning, C. & Hurl, D. 1989-1990 Excavations Bulletin 1980-1984: summary accountof archaeological excavations in Ireland The Journal of Irish Archaeology 5, 65-80.McQuade, M. 2005 Archaeological excavation of a multi-period prehistoric settlementat Waterunder, Mell, County Louth County Louth Archaeological and HistoricalJournal 26.1, 31-66.McQuade, M., Molloy, B. & Moriarty, C. 2009 In the shadow of the Galtees:archaeological excavations along the N8 Cashel to Mitchelstown road scheme. Dublin.OBrien, E. 1988 A Find of Beaker Pottery from Broomfield, Ballyboghil, CountyDublin Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland 118, 118-123.ODonoghue, J. 2010 Archaeological Excavation Report A014-003 - Gortore, Co. Cork.Neolithic house Eachtra Journal 6, 1-63.OSullivan, J. & Stanley, M. 2005 Appendix 1 - radiocarbon dates from excavatedarchaeological sites described in these proceedings in OSullivan, J. & Stanley, M.(eds.) Recent archaeological discoveries on national road schemes 2004. Proceedingsof a seminar for the public, Dublin, September 2004. Dublin. 147-154.
Smith, A. G., Pearson, G. W. & Pilcher, J. R. 1971 Belfast radiocarbon datesIII Radiocarbon 13.1, 103-125.Smith, A. G., Pearson, G. W. & Pilcher, J. R. 1973 Belfast radiocarbon datesV Radiocarbon 15.1, 212-228.Stanley, M., Danaher, E. & Eogan, J. 2009 Appendix 1 - radiocarbon dates fromexcavated archaeological sites described in these proceedings in Stanley, M., Danaher,E. & Eogan, J. (Eds.) Dining and dwelling: proceedings of a public seminar onarchaeological discoveries on national road schemes, August 2008. Dublin, 165-171.