The excavations starting in 2014 will begin work on the circular structure at the western end of the site. We are confident that as soon as the overlying turf is removed a tremendously impressive building will be revealed and we are very keen to try and determine its exact date and function. However a second aspect of this year’s excavation is just as important, which is to determine if there really is a primary long mound underlying this circular structure or if the apparent mound is simply a creation of the decay and collapse of the adjacent structures that form the more visible elements of the site at present. Once work has been completed on this end of the site, which may well take two full seasons, we intend to examine the structures that lie to the east. In total the site is expected to take between three and four years to fully examine. In addition to working on the main parts of the site we are also intending to excavate a series of smaller trenches over the ‘Danish Ditch’ in order to properly understand its course and scale. We are far from certain what the excavations will reveal the site to be, but getting the chance to work on such an enthralling monument is rare opportunity indeed, and attempting to resolve a mystery that has confounded so many of the great names in Irish Archaeology is a fantastic added bonus. At present we still have a few spaces available during the second half of the summer so it is not yet too late for students to join the 2014 excavations.
About Achill Project and the Achill Archaeological Field School
Achill is the largest of the islands off the Irish coast and marks the most north westerly point of Ireland. TheAchill Archaeological Field School (AAFS) was established in 1991 as a Training School for students of archaeology, anthropology and related disciplines. The field school is located in the village of Dooagh (pronounced Do-ah) towards the western end of Achill Island.
AAFS’ original research design was to develop a detailed understanding of the archaeology and history of Slievemore, the largest mountain on Achill Island which dominates the western half of Achill Island (see below). AAFS archaeologists and students, by combining surveys of standing monuments with selective excavation, have greatly increased the number of known sites on and around Slievemore and the excavations are providing important information about many of the individual sites. However, the survey work has shown that there is far more archaeology than could have ever been imagined at the outset and every year brings new surprises and discoveries. In addition to the work on Slievemore itself, several excavations have now been undertaken at other locations on the island, and quite a number of our students have returned to Achill in order to undertake their own post-graduate studies at sites they have first discovered during their time with the field school.
In May 2014 Achill Archaeological Field School is starting a major new excavation at the site of the ‘Cromlech Tumulus’ in Keel East Townland on the southern side of Slievemore (above). Three definite Megalithic Tombs are located in this part of the mountain, a Portal Dolmen at the foot of the slope (below left) and two Court Cairns a little higher up the mountain (below right). Several other possible Megalithic sites are known from this area but in their current condition it is difficult to assess their nature and to firmly establish if they are Megalithic Tombs or not.
The name ‘Cromlech Tumulus’ is an unusual combination of two separate and rather vague terms, ‘Cromlech’, which is typically used in reference to obviously Megalithic structures, and ‘Tumulus’ that normally refers to a circular burial mound. The identification of this site as a ‘Cromlech Tumulus’ dates back as far as the first edition Ordnance Survey Map, published in 1836, where the term is used and the site is intriguingly marked by a small circle. On the same map Court Tomb to the east is labelled as a ‘Cromlech’ and a drawing seems to indicate the presence of several megalithic stones. A linear feature that connects these two features is also shown, labelled as ‘Danish Ditch’ and this can now be confidently identified as a pre-bog field wall of considerable size. The Court Tomb to the west of the ‘Cromlech Tumulus’ and the Portal Tomb to the south east are both marked as ‘Giants Graves’ another common but indistinct label in use at that time, presumably culled from local folklore. The other Megalithic site shown on the first edition Ordnance Survey map is one of the unclassified sites that lie to the south east of the Portal Tomb. This is labelled as a ‘Pagan Cemetery’ and the accompanying drawing shows a rather enigmatic rectangular shape. The use of such terms as ‘Cromlech Tumulus, Danish Ditch and Pagan Cemetery may not provide a specific indication of the nature of these different sites but crucially they do suggest that the local population at the start of the 19th century identified the sites as being of considerable age and that they were definitely not part of the contemporary agricultural landscape.
The site of the ‘Cromlech Tumulus’ is currently heavily concealed by overlying peat and vegetation and it is difficult to see exactly what type of site it is. It consists of a large east to west orientated mound and several distinct stone built structures can be identified within and adjacent to this mound. At the western end is a large circular stone built structure that still stands to a considerable height. This is perhaps a corbelled stone building of some sort where the roof has been partially removed exposing the upper portions of neat internal wall faces. At the east of the mound is an elongated stone structure that has a small section of intact roofing still in place at the western end close to the entrance to the circular structure. It is not clear if this is the damaged remains of a second building or perhaps some sort of cist or chamber build within the mound itself. Immediately south of the mound there is a small C-shaped stone structure that has the appearance of a small burial cist that has lost its capstone, but which could be a more recent structure of some sort (above). Finally the western end of a pre-bog wall is attached to the eastern end of the mound which is almost certainly the western terminal of the ‘Danish Ditch’. These four structural elements rather obscure the mound itself and at present it is impossible to tell whether this is a genuine mound that has been variously built over or into, or whether it is simply a large pile of collapsed stone that has fallen from these adjacent structures.
Earlier Investigations at Cromlech Tumulus
The ‘Cromlech Tumulus’ site has been much discussed over the last 120 years and many notable names have examined it, each seeming to offer a different interpretation. In the 1880’s the famous Sligo Antiquarian W.G. Woodmartin visited and recorded the site but his account is confused and it is far from clear which of the elements he described relates to the remains that are now visible. Wood Martin refers to the site as a portion of a ‘sepulchral group’ and it seems clear he regarded it as part of the local Megalithic landscape. The site was visited in 1910 by the prolific early archaeologist Thomas J. Westropp, who thought it was best regarded as a multiple clochan (early medieval or later hut site). Michael J. O’Kelly surveyed the site in 1942, two decades before beginning his famous excavations at the Newgrange Passage Tomb. He thought that the western part of the site could be identified as an ancient structure of some sort, but that the eastern part was a recent sheep fold. During the summer of 1946 the site was visited and surveyed by Stuart Piggott and Thomas G.E. Powell (above) who felt that the site was probably a Neolithic chambered Tomb of some sort with a later burial mound built constructed over the western edge. They identify the eastern structure as a Megalithic gallery. The site was examined again in 1949 by Ruaidhrí de Valéra and Seán Ó Nualláin as part of their preparation for the nationwide Survey of the Megalithic Tombs of Ireland. They were highly dismissive of the site and of the work under taken by Wood Martin on Achill in general. However they were particularly critical of Piggott and Powell’s identification of the eastern structure as a Megalithic gallery, pouring scorn on their suggestion that corbelled stone work was present. The site is listed on the current Sites and Monuments Record for County Mayo simply as a ‘Megalithic Structure’.
Previous Research: 1991-2013
AAFS’ Excavations through the Years
1991 to 2006
Between 1991 and 2006 the focus of the research was on the famous Deserted Village at Slievemore, a massive eighteenth and nineteenth century settlement strung out along the lower south-facing slopes of Slievemore Mountain (Fig. 3).
Two of the houses in the centre of the settlement (Figs. 4 and 5) were excavated along with numerous surrounding features such as garden plots, a mysterious passage and underground chamber and a finely laid metaled-roadway.
As one of the very first occasions in Ireland that such relatively recent buildings had been the focus of a dedicated archaeological research project these excavations were of considerable importance during the development of Post Medieval Archaeology as an independent subject in Ireland, where archaeological interest had sorely lagged behind other parts of Western Europe and North America. The tremendous finds assemblage recovered from the excavations is perhaps unique in terms of its size and the level of detail and accuracy of its recording. The finds assemblage is so large that work on the ceramics, glass objects and metal items continues to this day. Through the analysis of material recovered from Slievemore and several other subsequent projects in neighbouring counties the understanding of the lives of the eighteenth and nineteenth century inhabitants of western Ireland has been subtlety but importantly altered.
2006 to 2010
Towards the end of the 2006 three small test pits were excavated in one of the Bronze Age roundhouses that had been identified on the slopes overlooking the Deserted Village. These test pits led to a five year investigation of two of these buildings which turned out to be some of the best preserved Bronze Age buildings in the whole of Ireland. Work on the first of these houses was completed during 2008 and even larger scale investigations of the second example began in 2009 which took three years to complete (Figs. 6-10).
These two massive stone built structures were occupied in the Middle Bronze Age, sometime around 1300 BC. They are genuinely monumentally sized structures, with elaborate entrance passages and stone built walls over 2m thick and still standing today to a height of up to 1.7m. They appear to mark the final two buildings at the western end of a well-spaced east to west row of similar houses which may contain as many as ten additional buildings. The Bronze Age houses are set within a large and complex pre-bog field system and much of the 2010 and 2011 season was spent surveying these field walls and excavating numerous trenches over them to establish their nature. During the final stages of work on the second building it was conclusively demonstrated that three of these field walls were directly attached to the outer wall of the building. Pre-bog field walls have proven remarkably difficult to date directly and this clear association between the field walls and the residence is as important as it is rare.
As work neared completion on the two Bronze Age roundhouses attention was turned to a nearby series of terraces where two small circular foundations could just be seen poking out of the bog. In 2010 the field school investigated the higher of these structures, revealing a circular building with a small internal area but surprisingly large walls. The building was approached via a well-laid flagstone path and a much slighter sub-rectangular building had been tagged onto its downslope side. The circular building overlay a large of field wall and outside the two buildings there were massive ash deposits. Unfortunately no dateable artefacts were recovered during the excavation and function and date of the site remained obscure.
In 2011 the lower of the two circular buildings on the terraces was investigated. The building was very similar in form to the building investigated in 2010 (Fig. 11) but there was no obvious entrance and almost the entire interior was occupied by a stone built fire box filled with intensely burnt soil deposits. A narrow gap through the wall led right into the corner of the firebox. This gap was too narrow to be used as an entrance passage and was almost certainly a flue for controlling airflow into the fire box. Clearly this building represented an early kiln (Fig 12), but what was it for?
Soil samples failed to yield the expected quantities of charred grains that would be expected from a corn drying kiln. However several Early Medieval glass beads were recovered from the building, one of which from a context closely associated with the firebox. This suggests the possibility that it may have been a glass furnace, a type site as yet wholly unknown from such an early date in Ireland although such a function remains speculative at present. That Early Medieval glass beads were recovered from what had assumed to be a Bronze Age building was quite a surprise but this date was subsequently confirmed by a series of radio carbon dates. As with the first building a small sub rectangular building had been tagged onto the downslope side of this building.
During the first part of 2012 excavation work shifted away from Slievemore to Keem Bay (Fig. 13) at the very western end of the island.
Here the ruins of a small stone built manor house sits at the back of the enclosed farmland, high up on the slopes overlooking the achingly pretty bay. The ruins were once the residence of Captain Boycott (Fig. 14), who subsequently moved to southern Mayo where he was subject to an organized process of ostracisation by Irish land reformers, a method of resistance that now bears his name.
The excavation revealed the original foundations for the earliest phase of this building, a galvanized steel shell supported by a timber frame and standing on a stone plinth. This building was probably occupied by Boycott when he arrived on the island in the 1850’s but remained in use even after he had twice extended the building in stone. The buildings ultimate destruction by fire is well attested by the remains of molten and twisted lumps of window glass. The finds from the excavation, consisting of several hundred artefacts, is providing a very interesting comparative assemblage to the material from the Deserted Village on Slievemore, in particular as a reflection of differences in class, status and national identity as expressed through material culture.
One of the ongoing mysteries of Achill archaeology is the location of the various Megalithic sites recorded by W.G. Wood Martin in the late nineteenth century. Wood Martin was a notable antiquarian resident in Sligo. Only around half of the sites on Achill that he described in his book ‘The Rude Stone Monuments of Ireland’ can be confidently identified and the rest have yet to be firmly tied down. During the latter part of the 2012 season excavations took place at one of the possible megalithic tomb sites on Slievemore. Although the most likely conclusion of this excavation was that the site represents an eighteenth or nineteenth century field clearance cairn it was still an interesting excavation and a negative result is valuable in terms of narrowing down the possible location of Wood Martin’s missing megaliths.
The first part of the 2013 season was spent working on House 6 towards the very western end of the Deserted Village at Slievemore. The excavations at House 6 were very successful and revealed a relatively simple structure that was built late in the overall sequence of the village. The house was divided into a living room and an animal byre by a well-built cross drain, indicative of animals still being kept indoors at this late date. Curiously the floors were all of beaten earth except for a rather rough pavement that led from the doorway to the north-west corner of the house where there was a small area of very finely laid flagstones adjacent to the small open fire.
Continuing the architectural theme in 2013 the excavations moved to the other side of the island entirely, where the Field School investigated an area immediately outside the beautiful Tower House at Kildavnet, a small late Medieval Tower House (castle) (Fig. 15).
Here the excavations revealed the lower courses of the Bawn wall that would have enclosed the tower and formed the outer defences (Fig. 16).
Prior to this work the former presence of such a feature had been suspected but not directly observed. Its discovery and investigation adds a considerable new element to the site and the project was regarded as a major success. Interestingly enough this site also had a former resident of some notoriety; Grace O’ Malley, the sixteenth century Pirate Queen of Clew Bay!
Achill Island in Context
The Achill Archaeological Field School 1991–2014
The Civil Parish of Achill (Achill Island, Achillbeg Island and the Corraun Peninsula) is widely known for its beauty, majestic cliffs and mountains and its historic landscape dotted with archaeological monuments. Achill Civil Parish has a rich archaeological heritage that spans the entire spectrum of Irish history from the remote prehistoric Neolithic period to the nineteenth century.
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Achill Civil Parish in County Mayo is a particularly important in Irish Archaeology for a number of reasons. The first antiquarian to visit the historic sites on Achill was William Wood Martin who toured the island recording monuments in the 1880’s. Following Wood Martin, the list of archaeologists that have worked on or written about the island reads like a veritable who’s who of Irish Archaeology, and the list even includes several notable names from Britain. William Borlase reanalysed Wood Martin’s work on the Achill Megaliths at the end of the nineteenth century whilst Thomas Westropp visited the sites in 1910. The archaeologist, Michael J. O’Kelly, worked on Achill in 1942, undertaking a range of projects, and Stuart Piggott and Terrence Powell resurveyed the Achill Megaliths in 1946, and investigated a number of the unusual Post Medieval sites on the island. Ruaidhrí de Valéra and Seán Ó Nualláin prepared detailed surveys of the Achill Megaliths in 1949 as a practice run for methodology to be used during the monumental Megalithic Survey of Ireland project, a project of such magnificent scope work is still ongoing today! In 1991, local resident Dr Theresa McDonald, established the Achill Archaeological Field School in order to continue investigating the archaeology of the island and since then such well known names as Dr Audrey Horning, Nick Brannon, Eoin Halpin, Dr. Richard O’Brien, Dr Rory Sherlock and Dr Chris Caseldine have been involved in recording and excavating various archaeological sites on the island.
So what is so special about Achill that has drawn so much interest over the years? It seems that what is truly special about the archaeology on Achill is not any one particular site, such as the Iron Age fort of Dún Aonghasa on Arran Mor Island off the Galway coast, but the totality of the archaeology in Achill, Achillbeg Island and Corraun and the generally excellent preservation of stone buildings in the area. Whilst all archaeologists appreciate the really spectacular examples of different monument classes, much of the appeal of archaeology lies in studying the everyday lives of our predecessors, and it is here that Achill truly excels. The Neolithic tombs on Achill are fine examples of the type of smaller megalithic structures that would have been by far and away the more common elements of the megalithic landscape in Ireland. From the Bronze Age there are stone-built roundhouses sited in a vast stone walled field system on Slievemore Mountain. Two of these buildings were excavated by Achill Archaeological Field School and were found to be among the best preserved examples of the many hundreds of such domestic structures known from Ireland in this period. Whilst Iron Age sites are curiously rare in Ireland there are numerous Promontory Forts on Achill that are thought to date to this period, and Dun Kilmore on Achillbeg is thought to enclose the largest area of any such site in Ireland. Early Medieval sites are represented by numerous small ecclesiastical sites, but typically these have been obscured by later church buildings and graveyards. However a kiln complex excavated on Slievemore Mountain by Achill Archaeological Field School was found to indicate industrial activity of a totally unexpected size and complexity for rural Western Ireland, and the surviving stone buildings were utterly beguiling. It is suspected that much of the medieval occupation of the island is obscured by later settlement but a fine fifteenth century tower house stands at Kildavnet, close to the southern tip of the island. The tower itself is in excellent condition but its Bawn, the defended enclosure in which the tower would have stood was demolished sometime in the nineteenth century. The site was one of the many residences of Grace O’Malley, the famous and much romanticised Pirate Queen of Clew Bay who sailed to London for a meeting with Elizabeth I, and this certainly provided an interesting back drop to Achill Archaeological Field School’s successful excavations that revealed the surviving foundations of the Bawn wall. The Post Medieval archaeology of Achill is by far the most common feature of the landscape and with its curious blend of archaic features it is endlessly fascinating. Achill Civil Parish is literally covered in ruined vernacular cottages, a legacy of the depopulation through the great Irish famine and emigration that began in the early nineteenth century and continued well into the twentieth century. The largest abandoned settlement is the Deserted Village on Slievemore where 74 buildings out of an original 137 still stand in silent testimony. Three of the buildings within the Deserted Village have been excavated by Achill Archaeological Field School and many more have been recorded in fine detail. Other elements of the village such as the garden plots and the roadway have also been excavated. Finds from the excavations include a remarkable ceramic assemblage of colourful imported pottery, quite at odds with the standard images of nineteenth century rural life in Ireland. Transhumant farming, where people moved to remote pastures during the summer months to tend their cattle, was practiced on Achill until the early years of the twentieth century and the summer settlements on Achill, known as ‘Booley Villages’, are again among the best surviving examples of this type of archaeological site in Ireland. Achill Archaeological Field School has undertaken various projects to investigate this common but seldom discussed farming practice, including extremely detailed surveys and a small scale excavation at one site, and indeed the founder of the Field School, Theresa McDonald, recently completed her Ph.D. at the National University of Ireland, Galway on the subject of transhumance in Achill Civil Parish. Other highlights of the dense post Medieval archaeological landscape include a Napoleonic era signal tower, numerous coast guard stations, the archaic looking ‘curacy pens’ for storing the small traditional boats that are still in regular use around the island, an early 20th century look-out post and numerous shipwreck sites.
Achill Island, Achillbeg Island and the Corraun peninsula may be a small part of County Mayo and may lie in a remote corner of the west of Ireland, but the density of high quality archaeological sites representative of almost every period of Irish history and prehistory means it is a fascinating place to work and to study. Every season of surveying and excavation by the archaeologists employed by Achill Archaeological Field School, assisted by an international group of undergraduate and graduate students, continues to reveal new surprises about the archaeology of the Civil Parish of Achill and the scale and complexity of the sites continue to surpass all of our expectations.
McDonald, T. 1998. The Deserted Village, Slievemore, Achill Island, County Mayo. International Journal of Historical Archaeology, Vol. 2. No. 2. Plenum Press, New York and London.
McDonald, T. 2006. Achill Island. Archaeology – History – Folklore. ISBN 0 9519974 1 6.
Rathbone, S. and McDonald, T. 2009. Achill Island: Irish Archaeology from the Neolithic to the Great Famine. Current Archaeology 235.
Rathbone, S. 2011. The Slievemore roundhouses. Archaeology Ireland. Vol. 25. No. 1.