Recent Archaeological Discoveries Near Swanlinbar, Co. Cavan
Robert M Chapple
The townland of Gortlaunaght lieson the western slopes of a foothill ofSlieve Rushen, 2.5km to the south-east of the village of Swanlinbar,county Cavan April 2006 - January 2008 Monitored topsoil stripping carried out by Northern Archaeological Consultancy Ltd. for the Quinn Group Ltd. in advance of quarrying. Site discovered in the eastern, central section of the quarry land. Landscape forms a natural shelf of relatively level land, rising abruptly to the se, towards Slieve Rushen. To nw ground falls the valley of the Cladagh and Blackwater rivers.
Excavations lasted from May toAugust 2008Investigated two main sites:A: a sub-rectangular structureB: a sub-circular enclosureExt 1-3: small areas ofarchaeologyDiscovered and test-trenched :C: upstanding rath/ringfort.
In this relatively small area (c. 500m x 500m), evidence was discovered for continuous settlement and activity from the Middle Neolithic (Phase I) into the Medieval period (Phase VI). That’s over 5000 years of (basically) continuous occupation! Phasing I: Middle Neolithic (c 3500-2900 BC) II: Late Neolithic (c 2900-2350/2200 BC) III: Bronze Age (c 2350/2200-650 BC) IV: Iron Age (c 450 BC-400 AD) V: Early Christian period (c400-1250 AD) VI: Medieval period (c1250-1611 AD)
One of the fills produced two rim sherds, 22body sherds and 11 fragments - represented aportion of a substantial decorated MiddleNeolithic (c 3500-2900 BC) Globular Bowl withan original rim diameter of 220mm.
DecorationUpper rim surface: alternating diagonal pairs ofincised lines, forming a chevron pattern. Edge of spur : with short diagonal incised lines.Exterior surface: series of closely set incisedlines, which produced a lattice pattern.
The Globular Bowl may be paralleled at such Ulster sites as:Island MacHugh, Co. TyroneLough Enagh, Co. Derry/LondonderryLinford Site 4, Co. AntrimCroft Manor, Ballygalley, Co. AntrimCairncastle Road, Ballygalley, Co. Antrim Other comparable sites include:Townleyhall II, Co. LouthDalkey Island, Co. DublinKilshane, Co. Dublin .A radiocarbon date associated with the Kilshane vessel dated to 3645- 3390 cal BC, placing it in the Middle Neolithic.
Deliberate deposition within sinkholes is known from various sites (Mell II and Tullyallen I, Co. Louth), it seems unlikely in this instance as metallic slag was recovered from the same fill. Instead, it seems more probable that the vessel had been deposited in a feature that was later subsumed and destroyed by the natural opening up of the sinkhole. This would explain the presence of metallic slag, possibly derived from an adjacent iron working area.
Late Neolithic (c 2900-2350/2200BC) activity is represented by thegroup of features external to theSite B enclosure, near the nwfacing entranceway. They formedtwo short arcs with an interveningpit.
Upper fill: various flint & chert pieces Bottom fill: Late Neolithic Grooved Ware bowl. Upper fill:Upper fill: chert pieces, quartzite chert & flint flakes, spalls & coreshammer stone & part of BA + part of indeterminate BA vesselVessel (indeterminate) Bottom fill: 3 chert flakes & Late Neolithic C14 date (2877-2577 cal BC). Top fill: irregular chert end scraper & a portion of an indeterminate BA vessel Bronze Age pottery (indeterminate)Upper fill: chert core& flakes Bronze Age Cinerary Urn (portion)
Bottom fill: Late NeolithicGrooved Ware bowl. Upper fill:chert & flint flakes, spalls & cores+ part of indeterminate BA vessel
Q: How do you excavate a Late Neolithic GroovedWare pot?
Q: How do you excavate a Late Neolithic GroovedWare pot?A: Very, very carefully!
Intact basal portion and variousother sherds of a Grooved Warevessel.Rim: simple rounded form.Estimated original rim diameter:200mm.Decoration: Internal face of rim bore aslight, decorative, groove. Flat basedisplayed two shallow circumferentialincised lines set approximately 5mmapart. Regularity of these groovessuggests that they too were decorative,as opposed to coil joins.
Knowth, Co. Meath, with a single circular groove on the base. Other sites, which produced comparable material, include: Ballynahatty, Co. DownBettystown, Co. MeathNinch – Laytown, Co. MeathFourknocks Ridge , Co. Meath.Dundrum Sandhills (site 1), Co. DownCairn L, Lough Crew, Co. MeathNewgrange, Co. MeathLongstone, Co. Tipperary The Gortlaunaght vessel bears most resemblance to the Dundrum-Longstone type. This is the most common and easily identified form of Grooved Ware and is characterised by thin walled bowls with curved rims and rounded rims where the ornament is sparsely applied, but rigidly controlled.
Bottom fill: 3 chert flakes & Late NeolithicC14 date (2877-2577 cal BC). Top fill:irregular chert end scraper & a portion of anindeterminate BA vessel
Upper fill: various flint & chert pieces Bottom fill: Late Neolithic Grooved Ware bowl. Upper fill:*Upper fill: chert pieces, quartzite chert & flint flakes, spalls &hammer stone & part of BA cores + part of indeterminateVessel (indeterminate) BA vessel Bottom fill: 3 chert flakes & Late Neolithic C14 date (2877-2577 cal BC). Top fill: irregular chert end scraper & a portion of an indeterminate BA vessel Bronze Age pottery (indeterminate)Upper fill: chert core& flakes Bronze Age Cinerary Urn (portion)
Upper fill: 7 chert flakes and a quartzite hammer-stonehammer-stone was made from alarge rounded oval quartzite pebbleand exhibited two small areas ofimpact damage (pecking) near oneend and two areas on the opposingend, along with evidence of damageto both faces
It is tempting to see these arcs as asurviving portion of a Late Neolithicstructure, none of the featuresproduced any evidence of post pipes (iedecayed posts).
C428 C446 C425 Problem: The range of surviving depths varies from 0.76m (C425) down to 0.11m (C368 & C436) (mean: 0.29m),. The largest of these would have been suitable for holding a post, but the smaller examples clearly would not. Alternative theory: These pits were created solely for the deposition of ceramics and lithics. The inclusion of a hammer stone and flakes, but without any micro débitage, is evidence against this material being the remains of domestic refuse. While Grooved Ware pottery is sometimes found on domestic sites, it is more usually associated with ritual activities.
Taken together, the evidence indicates that this group functioned as a ritual area devoted to the structured deposition of ceramics and lithics. Other items that may have been included for deposition in such a ritual-oriented area may have included non-surviving organic materials, including foodstuffs (such as the charred hazelnut shells from C401), items of leather, wood, basketry, or fabric or liquids. The presence of items of Bronze Age date may be accepted either as later, intrusive depositions or as part of a longer cultural continuity.
Internal dimensions: 6.53m (east to west), by 5.97m. Construction technique: subsoil removed but the bedrock was left untouched Fill of ditch produced: small irregular chert flake portion, five sherds of an undecorated Bronze Age vase urn (Early Bronze Age) & 523g of burnt bone, including skull fragments and two teeth Two radiocarbon dates from charcoal from this fill:Location of urn 1212-911 cal BC and 1112-831 cal BC. Suggest a Late Bronze Age date.
Parallels for undecorated vase urn: Magheraboy, county Derry Drumnakeel, county Antrim Altanagh, county Tyrone Research by Anna Brindley dates the vase urn form to the period from 2000/1980 to 1740 BC. Radiocarbon dates: 1212-813 cal BC … nearly 550 years difference
No need for any discrepancy: Ring ditch would have existed over a long period before finally becoming invisible on the landscape. Early Bronze Age : construction of the ring ditch; manufacture of the pottery vessel Original form of the site may have included an internal bank and central mound. As no central pit was found within the ring ditch, it is likely that the vessel and the cremated remains would have been incorporated directly into the mound. Theory: Late Bronze Age - site was modified/destroyed & vessel, bone and chert flake were roughly reinterred in the ditch. Why? (Speculative) - changes in ritual /social polity transformations within the wider cultural/power relationships. Although ‘slighted’ or remodelled, such a scenario would not necessarily remove the monument completely from the landscape, which is an important consideration in relation to the Early Christian settlement here.
Sinkhole black-brown clayey silt Redeposited natural large Bronze Age vessel of cinerary urn form: 16 rim sherds; 10 base sherds & 335 body sherds
Charred residue noted on the interior surfaceEvidence of an overspill of organic liquid material on the exteriorsurfaceWhatever was being prepared spilled/poured while the ceramicwas over a heat source, or was still hotSuggests that the vessel was used in the preparation of food -may equally have been in a ritual as a domestic context
Parallels for the cinerary urn:Loughbrickland, county DownUrbalreagh, county Antrimunprovenanced example in the Ulster MuseumTop two examples were associated with funerary contextsThe charred residues on the interior and spillage marks on the exteriorsurface of the Gortlaunaght example - indicative of food preparation.While it is possible that this related to a domestic utilisation, it may also beseen in a ritual context, associated with funerary feasting or drinkingWhy was it deposited like this?Neolithic Globular Bowl from sinkhole - interpreted in terms of a naturalredepositionThis vessel (and two chert pieces) may be part of a ritual deposition.Placed into natural sinkhole (eg Mell 2 & Tullyallen I, Co. Louth)Or … it may be a wholly functional and non-ritual disposal of a domesticcooking vessel into a convenient hole in the ground!
Burnt Mound trough I All fills composed of charcoal-rich deposits of fire-cracked and heat affected stones. Lowest fill dated to 2573-2290 cal BC - transitional period between the Late Neolithic and the Early Bronze Age. Date & form suggest this was a burnt mound trough (even though no remains of a mound survived)
A second pit filled with burntBurnt Mound trough II stone (partially destroyed by sinkhole that produced the Globular Bowl), not radiocarbon dated, though it is likely that this too was a burnt mound trough of similar date
Heated stones dropped into water … suggestions include:cooking food [most usually]saunas/sweat houses or for bathingdying textilescuring hidescollection of fats for food preservationbrewing [most recently]
As found: face down in pit Decorated face as excavated
Bronze Age vase urn : 3 rim sherds & 1 body sherdBrindley dates the vase urn tradition to the period from 2000/1980 to 1740 BC(contemporary with ring ditch vessel) … specifically to the Stage 2 development of thevase tradition (c 1900-1800BC)
single, annular wall slotmeasured up to 1m wide, by0.48m deepformed a somewhat trapezoidalor sub-rectangular shape15.90m (north to south) by6.00m at the southern end,narrowing to 3.5menclosed an area of 49.67m2
centre of the eastern wall: large postpit (1.17m deep) & five ancillarypostholesdate from charcoal in slot trench:1889-1684 cal BC (Early to MiddleBronze Age) … but charcoal from asealed corner posthole dated to 109cal BC-129 cal AD (Iron Age)of the two dates, the IA one comesfrom a more secure contextflint finds not diagnostic to any oneperiodmorphology unlike other BAstructures (usually circular) … notthat many IA houses either! flint dual- platformed core of red-brown flint
Morphological problemsstructure is unusual and difficult to visualise1:3 ratio of pit-depth to post height above ground suggests that the large postpit in the eastern wall slot could have held a timber of 4.68m, 3.51m of whichwould have been above ground.As no corresponding post pit was found in the west wall, this would haveproduced a roofed structure with a distinctly lop-sided appearance.
Morphological problemsfills of the wall slot produced no evidence for any form of plank walling, withthe exception of the sw & se corners, which each produced evidence of smallpostholes.must have been an unusual looking structure!
Morphological problemsalternative theory: this area represents an unroofed ritual enclosure delimited bya post fence within the wall slot and focused on a large post in the eastern wall.post may have been brightly coloured or carved (Native American totem poles).
carvings of this date are rare – eg the finelycrafted stag from Fellbach-Schmiden, GermanyAlternatively, it may have been decorated withadditional pieces of organic material, includingwood, bone, antler or fabric ancillary postholes cut into the sides of the main post pit: repeated acts of replacement/timbers were added to give strength and support to the main post? post pit extends to the east (away from the enclosed area): little desire to disturb the internal area?
Site B enclosure measured 65m (north-west tosouth-east), by 50m(c 2683m2), with anentranceway (5.10m wide) to the north- west
defined on n, w & s sides as ashallow ditch (C189) that cut thesubsoil, but left the underlyingbedrock untouched
On e side ditch was largely destroyed by later field ditches - original enclosing bank was preserved beneath the surviving field-bank
24 pieces of red deer antler 50 fragments of animal bone (incl. sheep shoulder blade) – some with butchery marks fragments of a heavily degraded cow tooth metallic slag (possibly including part of a furnace bottom.Two radiocarbon dates were returned from the ditch: 654-772 calAD & 553-658 cal AD (Early Christian period)These suggest that this enclosure, though slightly unusual in thecorpus of excavated raths, was occupied from the sixth to eightcenturies AD.
Linear gully (fenceline) dated to 669-889 cal AD: impliesthat settlementcontinued into thelate ninth century.
Within the Site B enclosure, there were a number of groups of features thatmay be rationalised as the remains of structures. In the absence of closelydated finds or radiocarbon determinations, they are considered to be of EarlyChristian date, chiefly on morphological grounds Fence line Small house/hut gully formed all, or portions of, four sides of a sub-square structure 3.04m (nw-se) x 2.54m (6.89m2)
More houses/huts/workshops? Fence lines/huts? 3.33m (nw-se) x 2.02m (5.65m2)3.33m (nw-se) x 2.02m (5.65m2)
Possible iron working areaPit with iron slag Hearth with iron slag Fence/wattle wall (with iron slag)
Possible iron working areaPit with iron slag Hearth with iron slag Fence/wattle wall (with iron slag) Or is something else happening here? 20 pieces of burnt animal bone & 5 charred seeds Hearth with stakeholes and (possible) cremated human bone
Problems: feature appeared to cut through upstanding bank: implying relatively modern date for construction. But: likely that this was a later recutting of the feature to make it part of the local field-drainage system.Unfortunately, this junction between the inner and outer ditches and the surviving bank was particularly difficult to interpret, due to the amount of later activity, which complicated and distorted the picture.
Usual rath diameter: c30m vs. +60m Usual rath ditch: 3m wide & 2m deep + frequently rock-cut vs. 1m wide & 0.60m deep + left bedrock uncut Usual rath bank: 3m wide & 2m high vs. 1m wide & 0.60m high [surviving bank suggests no truncation of site]
Was it unfinished? Bedrock left for later? Unfinished inner ditch portions Small bank & ditch would have been ineffective defence But … there is plenty of evidence for Early Christian habitationI suggest:While the enclosing bank and ditch were small – they were considered to be sufficiently large to demarcate the area of the site. Although ineffective as a defense against attack, they would have been sufficient to prevent the entry/exit of roaming cattle.
How visible was it during the Early Christian period? If still visible (possibly with cultural relevance) choice of site may have been extremely significant - reaffirming the cultural connection to the landscape and tribal power relationships If not visible – site choice may be fortuitous - influenced by the natural shelving on this slope of Slieve Rushen
Only a suggestion: The fact that the Early Christian activities (although numerous in this portion of the enclosure) do not appear to interfere with the older ring ditch in any way suggests that it was visible and respected enough not to be disturbed
Activity predating rath construction is well attested at many sites, but evidence for the deliberate selection of older monuments is more equivocal.For example, it has been argued that the building of raths at Mooghaun hill fort, in Co. Clare, was intended to strengthen one group’s claims to the earlier monuments and the social power that they represented.Early Christian reuse of burial sites includes Carrowkeel, Co. Mayo, where a ditched enclosure associated with cremation deposits predated rath occupation.At Carrigaline Middle, Co. Cork, a ditched enclosure associated with early burials was succeeded by a rath.
Inside the enclosure alldated/suspected Early Christianactivity is to the south & south-south-west of the lineApproximately half theenclosure was vacant! … why?Division of space: domestic orindustrial activity confined onehalf of the enclosure and theremainder was utilised in adifferent way … possibly as acompound for the corralling ofcattle.
A previously unrecognised, upstanding rath (Site C) was identified in the north-eastern portion of the current development by the R M Chapple and Stephen Gilmore, during preliminary field work
Unfortunately, NAC Ltd. did not get to excavate the Site C rath, but we didput some test trenches through the central area and the banks.Recovered finds included metallic slag & furnace bottoms – more evidencefor metal working!And one sherd of Everted Rim Ware – 13th -14th centuries
Vessel may be paralleled at:Tullymongan Lower, county CavanAbbeylands, near Duleek, county MeathTullykane, county MeathStamullin, county Meath
Gortlaunaght is outstanding for a number of reasons:the rare level of continuity from the Middle Neolithic up to the Medievalperiod.Evidence for almost every aspect of life in ancient Ireland, includingdomestic, funerary, ritual, manufacturing and animal husbandry.While all the individual elements of these sites may be paralleled in oneway or another, few if any excavated sites demonstrate the lengthycontinuum and variety of activity at a single location.Until recent times, there has been a relatively low level of economic andstructural development within rural county Cavan, which has resulted infew large-scale excavation projects; a situation has only recently begun tochange. In this context, the excavations at Gortlaunaght represent asignificant advance in our collective understanding of the prehistory andearly history of this county and western Ulster as a whole.
Thanks to Breifne Historical Society - Cumann Seanchais Bhreifne for inviting me & organising the event To my employers NAC Ltd To the Quinn Group – especiallythe managers of the SwanlinbarQuarry - for financing the excavations