The Cherry(mount) on the (Cheese)cake

I’m sure many people will already be aware of the ongoing exciting excavation of Cherrymount/Drumclay Crannóg, Co. Fermanagh. The site has featured heavily in the media over the last few months, and was the subject of much discussion within the archaeological community. For an in-dept rundown of the context and events surrounding its ‘discovery’, see a recent paper presented to the Institute of Archaeologists of Ireland by Seaver, M, O’Dowd, J & Chapple, R.M.; and  an article in the current issue of Archaeology Ireland, by Robert M. Chapple (he of the same blog page fame).

This coming Saturday (16th Feb) will see the second Open Day at Fermanagh County Museum, Enniskillen Castle Museums; where the public will have an opportunity to learn more about this wonderful site and its excavation.

Whey to go

The opportunity to excavate such a fine wetland site does not occur very often; and Crannógs, by their very nature within boggy wetlands, offer incredible potential for archaeological preservation. Objects and artefacts recovered from such contexts rarely survive elsewhere, and provide unique access into the lives of their medieval inhabitants.

Cherrymount Crannog: sub-floor of circular house © DOE

Cherrymount/Drumclay is going to re-write the textbooks when it comes to crannógs; and is likely to surpass all previous sites in terms of its archaeological importance. The depth of stratigraphy on site is wonderful, as is the range and extent of finds. Structural floors, hearths and walls can easily be seen. (See an amazing gallery of images from UTV here).

Its been quite some time since a similar site has been excavated and modern scientific and  archaeological approaches guarantees that we are going to discover unparalleled levels of information and detail of medieval lives. Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of it all, is its long continuity. Initial scuttlebutt is that occupation may stretch from the seventh/eight centuries to the fifteenth/sixteenth centuries. That’s a lot of archaeological pie slices…

Bowled over

With so much potential, its hard to know what to get excited about first, but when the above gallery was first released online a few months ago, I was particularly taken with a simple wooden ‘bowl’:

Cherrymount Finds: Wooden bowl with cross carved into the base. © DOE

The cross carved at the bottom is a relatively plain little thing; and yet it allows us an extremely rare view of ‘ordinary’ Irish Christianity in the early medieval period. So much of the material and culture of early Irish Christianity is high status. Wonderful as the illuminated manuscripts, inscribed stones and decorated metalwork from the period is; much of it is the product of secular sponsorship and status display; and would have mostly been within the domain and experience of secular and ecclesiastical elites. Being able to view Christian symbolism on more practical, everyday artefacts is a rare opportunity.

Function and use?

As to the function of such an object, I initially got excited over the possibility of it being some kind of bread bowl with the holes at the bottom perhaps being for heat/exchange during raising. Discussions with peers  elsewhere on-line quickly established that it was more likely to be a cheese mould; with the cross shape being imprinted onto any surface of the cheese in contact with the base. This certainly seems to be the most plausible explanation for its shape, thickness and holes.

Crannógs were likely occupied by high status people in Early Medieval Ireland; and they were certainly places with limited public access. But such people had servants and slaves; and such people needed to eat just as much as the next guy. I may be guilty of  romanticism of course, but I’d like to imagine that the hands that may have regularly used such an object were those of a lower status person; someone normally invisible in the archaeological record. A person who, despite living in close proximity to higher status people, would perhaps not even have had regular access to the produce made in the mould.

Blessed are the cheesemakers

Alternatively, the presence of the cross motif may suggest quite the opposite. Having the motif on the mould suggests a desire to exhibit the symbol on repeated batches of cheese. Reasons for this may have been to simply bless the food; but also, there is a possibility that it was intended to advertise the Christianity of the owner. This would have perhaps been an appropriate thing to do if certain amounts of food were occasionally distributed to poorer inhabitants of the region.

There is also the further possibility of it representing more regular Christian activity. This week sees the start of the traditional Lenten fast in Christian ritual; known to have been undertaken and heavily regulated in medieval Ireland. The idea of cheese bearing a cross motif, whether it was being specifically consumed during, or fasted against, is an interesting prospect. Such a motif could have potentially been utilised to emphasize the ritual aspects of fasting, or indeed, a ritual celebration of the end of prescribed periods of abstinence.

Peopling Artefacts

In any case, it’s a fascinating object; and the fact that there are several possible interpretations to be made about its use, design and purpose, testifies to the wonderful preservation of such rare ‘ordinary, everyday’ artefacts from Cherrymount/Drumclay Crannóg. Its artefacts such as this that should remind us all that, while archaeology may be archaeology; if it’s not actually about people at the end of it all, then we’re doing something wrong.

Looking forward to reading (and citing!) the results for many years to come.

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