Tag Archives: Archaeology

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/

The Black Friary, Trim Ireland (1) – The Irish Archaeological Field School

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.

-Matt Firth

Further Information:

Irish Archaeological Field School:

http://iafs.ie/

Newgrange:

http://www.newgrange.com/