The Black Friary, Trim Ireland (2) – The Irish Archaeological Field School

An essential skill within the field of history is critical analysis. Historians apply critical reading skills to primary source texts and to secondary analyses both, but often accept the content of archaeological reports without serious investigation. I believe this is largely as a product of necessity as the archaeological skill-set is not one normally taught within history syllabi. So I was pretty pleased this week that I got involved with the messy technical detail of planning, excavating, and cataloguing that enable archaeologists to build their conclusions. Which said, onto the second week of the IAFS two-week program, the adventures of the week, and what I have learned in my time at Trim (aside from the fact that potatoes go with everything). This week’s IAFS program looked like this:

Day 1 – A visit to the Hill of Tara and Bective Abbey

Day 2 – Excavation & Planning

Day 3 – Excavation & Community Archaeology

Day 4 – Excavation & Post-excavation

Day 5 – Planning & Post-excavation

Tara is, of course, a focal point of Irish identity both within and predating the historical record. Its status as the seat of the High Kingship of Ireland is built into the Irish mythological past of the Tuatha Dé Danann and the Fir Bolg, permeates Irish medieval texts, and is an essential component of modern popular conceptions of Irish culture. Bective Abbey on the other hand is probably known only to the Meath natives, but is an impressively intact Cistercian monastery which helps contextualise what may have once stood in the field at the Black Friary in Trim, and make sense of what remains under the surface. However, before going on to what we found as we dug in that field this week, I will briefly outline the community aspect of the IAFS and the archaeological site in Trim, as it is a key aspect of the program.

Archaeology works best if it has buy-in from local people. It provides a sympathetic working environment that allows communal ownership of regional heritage, facilitates interest in a shared past, and fosters a desire to preserve it. It also enables archaeologists to gain alternative evidence for the history of archaeological sites through access to local stories and oral histories that may otherwise be lost. Thus the IAFS and affiliates have a strong community orientation. This week we assisted at the local primary schools, delivering an experiential lesson in the creation of medieval ink which, in one fun package, engaged students’ interest in the past, reminded them of the archaeological site on their doorstep, and reinforced the importance of literacy. The Black Friary dig runs around thirty such events per year. In addition, the site is an open one. Visitors can come see the progress of the dig at any time, access professional on-site archaeologists if they find any artefacts in their own wanderings, and walk their dogs and play amongst the grassy hillocks. All of which occurred during my time in Trim. It makes the dig a functional part of the community.

So we continued in cutting 7 this week. I gained some more experience in planning – taking levels, taking coordinates, drafting plans, and drawing the cobbled surface of the medieval flooring we uncovered. I also gained additional experience in post-excavation, which largely comprised of weighing and recording animal-bone samples, logging some metal and plaster artefacts, and processing around one-hundred pieces of stained glass. Because yes, we found stained glass. These processes are what really enable archaeological analysis. The meticulous cataloguing of the location, type of feature and nature of the sample or find enable archaeologists to build a holistic picture of a site that increases in clarity as more data is obtained. Of all the archaeological pursuits, this post-ex type activity suits my rather orderly mind best.

However, digging did take place and, as I noted, we did find the elusive stained glass, and lots and lots of it. Animal bones, the occasional nail, and pieces of polychrome plaster still rounded out our finds, but the stained glass was certainly a highlight. It was particularly interesting that, as this occurred late within the program, I was able to see how what I had been taught was coming together in my mind. If it had occurred in week one, I would basically have thought ‘cool – I found some glass.’ But instead I found myself interrogating the patch of soil. Why was the glass only in a thin layer? Was it part of the rubble we were cleaning out, or a separate feature? Was it at the interface between two layers of soil? Was it a one-time event – did someone just smash a single window at a single point in time in order to reclaim the lead frames? Why was there charcoal in the deposit? Were they melting down the lead on site, or were the seventeenth-century demolition workers just cold and making themselves some tea over a fire? I have my thoughts.

So in the end, was it a valuable experience abandoning my family for two weeks digging in the mud and cold of the Irish winter? Absolutely. I enjoyed myself immensely and feel that the IAFS has given me a solid grounding in basic archaeological practices. I certainly feel I now have the wherewithal to critically analyse archaeological reports, or at least understand how they reached their conclusions. That the IAFS faculty have been thorough in ensuring the experience encompassed all aspects of field archaeology, and have been extremely accommodating of our various foibles, has been a big part of ensuring the value of the learning experience. But I am not a convert to archaeology – just happy I know more about it!

-Matt Firth

Further Information:

Irish Archaeological Field School:

http://iafs.ie/

The Hill of Tara:

http://hilloftara.org/

Matt’s travel to Ireland was funded by the generosity of the University of New England, through the Mary Dolan Memorial Traveling Scholarship.

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