I am a historian, not an archaeologist, yet here I am at the Irish Archaeological Field School (IAFS), excavating a medieval friary in Trim, County Meath, Ireland. Traditionally historians and archaeologists have tended to remain aloof from one another, but this is a perception that is changing and changing rapidly. So I want to explain why I am here before going on to talk a little about the program and this week’s adventures.
The reason archaeology and history are disciplines that need to work in symbiosis boils down to the simple fact that they both seek to answer the same question: what happened in the past? Obviously there are differences in approach, and the specific questions may change, but ultimately history and archaeology advance our understanding of the worlds our ancestors inhabited. A historian may painstakingly piece together a history theorised from documentary evidence, but if that history defies the material evidence it must be treated with scepticism. Likewise, if an archaeologist uncovers evidence of human activity at an archaeological site, it is the historical record, where it exists, that contextualises that material data. So in an effort to become a better historian, here I am in Trim; learning the basic processes of archaeology; learning how artefacts are found and understood; how samples illuminate the social history of a site; and, ultimately learning to read archaeological reports. My hope is that this will enable me to produce more holistic and rigorous historical analyses that work from a broader set of data and a wider understanding of historical context.
But I am also at a Dominican Friary, the home of scholars and scribes who produced in their scriptorium those manuscripts I love so much. So I also get to feed that specific fascination (they have uncovered some lovely manuscript prickers on site, so MS production was certainly in place, though vellum production was likely undertaken elsewhere).
A protected national monument, the Black Friary looks like a paddock in the middle of a bustling market-town. Founded as Dominican Friary in the thirteenth-century, the institution gradually declined into the early modern era. It remained as a physical relic on the landscape until extensively quarried for its stone in the seventeenth-century – yet the evidence of the past lies beneath the grassy tussocks.
The IAFS offers a range of options for students who wish to gain field experience in archaeology within the context of an operational archaeological site. As I have recently completed my Masters I have no need of accreditation for my time here, so have opted for the two-week program. Those doing the short program are integrated with students doing a longer program for university credit, and it is worth noting that this is facilitated by the IAFS. While this necessitates some differences between programs regarding assessment and project work, the bones of the program remain the same for all students. The schedule for the week first week I have just completed involved:
Day 1 – Site orientation and the context of medieval Trim
Day 2 – A visit to Slane Hill and Newgrange
Day 3 – Excavation
Day 4 – Excavation
Day 5 – Post-excavation
I am going to skip past the first two days – orientation being what it sounds like, and Newgrange being a famous prehistoric site that is well described elsewhere. So straight to the excavation, and the hole that I have become rather attached to in the past three days. Cutting 7, section C, and feature 734 for those playing at home. I have been working in a group of three to examine the extent of the feature. This has meant practice in surveying, planning, trowelling, and a great deal of time swinging a mattock. Understanding the processes of surveying and planning in particular are of great value to a historian as these are the contextual markers of any archaeological report – the things that enable analysis of any sample or artefact uncovered. Trowelling and mattocking not so much, but it is the fun bit.
So did we find anything? We are working through reasonably modern layers, but yes we did. Alongside the now subterranean abbey walls previously uncovered in cutting 7, we discovered three pieces of glazed medieval pottery – part of the rubble in the modern layers. We also found a plethora of butchered animal bones, some modern glass, a nail, some seas shells, a fossil, and so, so many rocks. It is a little bit addictive. You sort of just want to keep trying to find the next thing – provided it is not another rock. Did I stuff up? Yep. Was it a problem? No. The IAFS faculty are very understanding of the ineptitude of the bumbling amateurs who show up at their door-step, and our mistakes are teaching opportunities.
I will end here and report back next week. We are currently working in an area where stained glass has previously been uncovered, so I am looking forward to going deeper in the week ahead.
Irish Archaeological Field School:
Matt’s travel to Ireland was funded by the generosity of the University of New England, through the Mary Dolan Memorial Traveling Scholarship.