Log boats, wooden vessels, leather shoes and decorated dress pins excite the media. But is it something new?
Log boats, wooden vessels, leather shoes and decorated dress pins: These are just some of the finds, archeologists are right now digging out of the earth at Drumclay Crannog in Northern Ireland. Added to these should be pieces of a medieval board game and 1000-year old combs.
Not so remarkable, might the seasoned medieval archaeologist exclaim. Nevertheless the many pieces show a number of international links. For instance the style and design of the antler and bone combs suggest influences from northern Europe and indicate that the Fermanagh settlement had links to Scandinavia more than a 1,000 years ago. The artefacts uncovered so far date back to 900 AD but there are still a number of layers of settlement yet to be excavated. However, the most interesting part of the excavation has to do with the fact that it is the whole crannog, which is being peeled layer for layer. Thus it enables the archaeologists to find out much more about diet, economy, agriculture and social structures. It shows people lived in houses with walls were with heather and other plants. They would have been the size of a large modern living room with cooking and sleeping being done in the same space.
Archaeologists believe people may have lived there from 600 AD to 1600 AD. It was probably the home of a chieftain, with perhaps four or five houses inhabited at any time. Parents, grandparents, children and servants would all have stayed on the crannog.
A crannog is an artificial island usually built in lakes, rivers and estuarine waters of Scotland and Ireland. Crannogs were widespread in Ireland with an estimated 1200
examples. However, the Drumclay Crannog, which is an artificial island built in a lake, is the first of its type to be excavated in the North of Ireland since 1870.
Archeologists and Entrepreneurs
The road towards a successful conclusion to the excavation in December has however been extraordinarily bumpy.
The dig is a so-called “rescue-dig”, fostered by the plan for a link-road, the Cherrymount, around Enniskillen. The road was planned by the in 2007, although it was known
to pass right through the registered crannog. In connection with the planning project the site was surveyed by archaeologists; they proposed to divert the road in order to protect the crannog. However, the construction went ahead. In 2011 the constructors reached the crannog, which was investigated through a single 3 x 3 trench. At this stage (March) it was proposed to preserve the site in situ underneath the road. Unfortunately this proposal was somehow “edited” with crucial pages related to the proposed engineering solution. Accordingly a series of stakeholders seriously mistook the situation and each other. In April this resulted in a lowering of the water-levels, leaving the site drying out and exposed. At this point an excavation methodology was devised to attempt to mitigate the damage. However, no consultation of wetland archaeologists took place at this point. At this point the excavations were conducted by the archaeologist appointed by the road company and a crew of hired archaeologists. Come July they started working at which point the Northern part of the site had been completely removed.
According to the archaeologist, Robert M. Chapple: “A significant number of experienced members of the crew were concerned at the level of recording on site, the lack of a clear and coherent environmental sampling strategy and the absence of timber recording sheets. According to them there was no suitable storage facility on site for the significant quantity of organic artefacts emerging from the site. In addition construction traffic continued in and around the fragile site.” Robert Chapple went on the air in a number of radio-programs, which was followed up by a reportage done by BBC. Later a facebook site was constructed called “Cherrymount: a crannog in crisis.“
After a series of consultations the minister, Alex Attwood issued a statement end July in which he instructed construction traffic to cease in and around the crannog. Currently there is an after-play concerning whether such excavations should be conducted by archaeologists appointed by the entrepreneurial company or whether it ought to be done by archaeologists paid by the company, but appointed by museums and under their jurisdiction (which is the case elsewhere, e.g. Denmark). Further the question remains who should be allowed to publish the results: the original crew or the new people, who has been digging this autumn?
Finally one might raise the question whether the finds really are that spectacular? Maybe the whole sorry story just needs a happy ending? To decide that, however, we have to wait until the finds are contextualized and published.
Drumclay, Cherrymount, a crannog in crisis
Paper presented to the Institute of Archaeologists of Ireland,
Holiday Inn Express, Belfast 2nd November 2012
Matthew Seaver, Jean O’ Dowd, Robert M Chapple
Drumclay, Cherrymount, a crannog in crisis
Video on the excavation