A Thig Ná Tit Orm: The Last Picture Show

Part three of an archaeo misadventures trilogy. Part one is here. Part two is here.

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A deserted country lane in deepest darkest Roscommon.

The brooding crest of a drumlin ridge overlooking seven early medieval ringfort enclosures.

An ancient cup-marked standing stone, tapering upwards in hushed red hued glory, still fulfilling its original function. A prehistoric boundary marker. Thus far shall thou go and no further.

Me. A few years ago. On the trail of a 7thC Irish Bishop and his textual landscapes. The earliest contemporary historical reference to an early medieval Irish lios or lis – denoting ‘the space about a dwellinghouse or houses enclosed by a bank or rampart; a ringfort, or circular earthwork’. When he had first written it down, 1300 years ago, he had helpfully qualified it as ‘ardd senlis’, i.e. a placename which suggested an early medieval enclosure, probably situated on an ard, or height, and already considered sen, or ‘old’ in his day.

Hence the reason for my being there. On the crest of a drumlin ridge. In a townland littered with seven early medieval enclosures. Looking out towards two of them in a field beyond a field situated on its highest point.

Standing awkwardly on the grassy bank at the side of the country road, I took the picture above – electing to exclude the barbed wire and electrified fence I was carefully leaning over, with its repeated ‘Please Fuck off Keep Out’ Signs strung out along the property line.

Thus far did I go. And no further.

I trudged back along the country road to a more friendly looking gate on the other side of the lane. No barbed wire. Tied only with string. Half sagging from its neglected hinges. A recent ‘Land For Sale’ sign hanging off it.

I had done my homework beforehand. Pouring over desktop maps and aerial photographs, I had come up with alternative targets in the event of the above. This gate overlooked the opposite side of the drumlin, and the almost imperceptible remains of a ‘ghost road’ – a grassed over boreen on one side of the field – leading down towards a sleepy river valley. Hidden somewhere down there in white-thorny overgrowth was a medieval church ruin.

“I’m interested in this land for sale”, I thought to myself. And vaulted the gate.

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Winter Solstice In Ireland, They Said…

 

Be Grand, They Said…

 

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Image: Annie West

 

Made for me this very day, by the wonderful and illuminating Annie West who specializes in Historical Irish Funnies.  I have it on good authority that in a previous life, she was responsible for all those feckin cats in the Book of Kells.

Happy Solstice.

Irish Metal Detectorists Want to ‘Rescue’ Ireland’s Buried Heritage. By Digging It Up Themselves.

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Image: Pindoc / Flickr. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

In recent days several (bemused) archaeologists have received an unsolicited email advertising an event entitled: ‘Rescuing Irelands Buried Heritage before it vanishes forever’ – detailing a ‘Public Debate’ to be held at the Crowne Plaza Blanchardstown* on Tuesday 8th November 2016.

It turns out it is the latest attempt by Irish Metal Detectorists to promote their ‘harmless hobby’ and their long held ambition of overthrowing national legislation that protects Irish archaeological objects from being looted by people engaged in unregulated and inappropriate use of metal detectors.

Far better (and more patient) people than myself have written on this before. For in depth background and details regarding the present ‘campaign’, I recommend Stuart Rathbone‘s excellent ‘Sixty Three Thousand Euros or Twelve and a Half pence in old money’; the ever ready Paul Barford’s ‘Campaign For Metal Detecting Change in Irish Republic’ and The Heritage Journal’s ‘A shambolic, UK archaeologist-backed call for metal detecting to be legalised in Ireland’.

Unlike many other jurisdictions, metal detecting for archaeological objects in Ireland without a ministerial license is illegal. Digging for suspected archaeological objects, even without a metal detector, is illegal. Indeed, under Irish law (the envy of many archaeologists throughout the world) all archaeological finds belong to the nation – with the Irish State automatically being the legal owner of all archaeological objects.

Not the finder. Not the landowner. Certainly not an archaeologist. Nobody in Ireland can own, profit, buy or sell newly discovered archaeological artefacts. Its one of the things we do well as a country.

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A Tomb With A View: Further Archaeo Adventures in Folk Horror 

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Image: Author

Our arms are waving our lips are apart;
And if any gaze on our rushing band,
We come between him and the deed of his hand,
We come between him and the hope of his heart.
W. B. Yeats, The Hosting of the Sidhe

* * *

Following on from last years folk horror flavoured adventure on the Slopes of Rathcroghan, I thought I’d take the opportunity of the weekend that’s in it to present you with another. The time: a few years ago. The place: an apparently nondescript rural graveyard somewhere in Middle Ireland. The unwitting (mis)adventurer: yours truly.

* * *

It was the first day of a week of archaeo-field survey and I was supposed to be in the far west of Ireland following in the footsteps of a seventh century bishop, seeking out some of the earliest historically attested Christian sites associated with the cult of St. Patrick. Yet, here I was, walking down a grass rutted country lane, searching for a gate that led toward a half-forgotten graveyard. The location wasn’t even on my official list of sites to visit, but I had been nearby and decided to stop off for a quick poke around. During a previous desktop survey, I had noted several interesting archaeo aspects about the place:

  • A late medieval church ruin
  • A much earlier medieval looking curvilinear shaped graveyard
  • A couple of suspiciously prehistoric looking standing stones in hinterlands
  • An abandoned holy well – and most of all –
  • A strange looking natural feature on a nearby drumlin that my eyes had been drawn to whilst looking at aerial photography.

Truth be told, it was actually a combination of all the above occurring within a placename containing the Old Irish word túaim; i.e. ‘a mound, bank, knap, tump, or hillock’, but more frequently, in placename terms, ‘a mound, tomb, grave or sepulchre‘ (in the sense of Latin tumulus).

This alone would have made anyone’s archaeological antennae stand up on end. But what really sealed the deal for me was the small matter of there being no record whatsoever of anything resembling a prehistoric mound or tomb in the vicinity.

Coupled with that, somewhere in this particular area, my seventh century bishop had made reference to an early church site. Alas, the full (Hiberno-Latin) placename is now illegible in the only surviving manuscript and as a result has never been identified with any certainty. Later medieval vernacular sources do include an Irish placename for the same area however, also unidentified, yet containing a similar letter or two with that of the first example. More importantly, the Irish placename is qualified by the word Sídh.

(Image: Author)

In onomastic terms this descriptor is generally associated with Sídh Mounds, aka Fairy Mounds. Denuded prehistoric tombs, cairns, mounds or tumuli, often situated on lumps, bumps and hills – many of which were later re-imagined and depicted in Irish myth and folklore as being the underground homes of supernatural beings or fairies known as the Áes Síde.

To have all this whirling around together in one place in an almost perfect archaeological, historical, onomastic storm? To be faced with the prospect of a forgotten prehistoric Tumulus, Síde Mound, or Ferta adjacent an early medieval church site? Perhaps even, the very reason for its initial establishment, reflecting Early Irish Christian agency, engagement and renegotiation with an ancestral past? How could anyone resist?

Long story short, that is how I came to be walking down a lane in the nowhere middle of Middle Ireland. On the off chance of catching a whispered echo of long silenced folk memory. Trespassing across time and space. Waking the dead. Looking for the ghost of a grave in an already ancient graveyard. A ‘túaim’ with a view.

What could possibly go wrong?

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Disney To Enforce Star Wars Copyright of Skellig Michael For Next Ten Years

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Image: TechnoHippyBiker / Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Skellig Michael, the early medieval monastic island and UNESCO World Heritage Site off the Co. Kerry coast has been experiencing a surge in popularity and interest after having been used as a key location for two of the three installments of the new Star Wars Trilogy i.e. Episode VII: The Force Awakens (released December 2015) and the, as yet untitled, Episode VIII (Expected release: 2017).

As expected, this months opening of the regular Skellig Michael tourist season is being highly anticipated by locals and tourism authorities seeking to capitalize on the films association  – although fears that normal access may be curtailed by recent storm damage to some of the visitor paths has certainly dampened some expectations.

In a startling move, however, it now seems that the operators of the Star Wars movie franchise (The Walt Disney Company) have invoked – and are to begin enforcing – digital copyright of ‘Skellig Michael’ itself.

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Star Wars: Archaeology of the Jedi

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Image: Abarta Audioguides / Copyright (Used with permission)

*Warning* Although there is no major plot spoilers included, there is some discussion of the characters and location of a particular scene in Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens. If you have not seen the film and are sensitive towards knowing anything more about it, feel free to take the hint.

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Long term readers will surely be aware of my ongoing interest in the use of Skellig Michael as a location for Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens. Having now watched it twice since it opened (very enjoyable, back to old form, fan pleasing etc) I would like to record some initial thoughts on the cinematic depiction of the island, including to my mind, some echos of early Irish Christian iconography as well as the use of actual medieval archaeology to portray the fictional archaeology of the Jedi. In a small way, it is an attempt to direct attention for anyone interested towards what they were actually seeing on the screen. After all, its not everyday that millions of people around the world are exposed to a little bit of Early Medieval Ireland.

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All We Need Is…Radiocarbon: Geolocated Radiocarbon Dates from Ireland

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(Image: Robert M Chapple)

For those who may not be aware, I wish to draw your attention to a hugely impressive and important new resource from Robert M Chapple. Not content with his wonderful Catalogue of Radiocarbon Determinations & Dendrochronology Dates, Robert has just released Geolocated Radiocarbon Dates from Ireland – a sleek visualization interface which displays Irish radiocarbon dates on an interactive map of Ireland.

With this fantastic tool, it is now possible to search, select, exclude, define, zoom down, separate and review details of 8288 radiocarbon and 313 dendro dates from Ireland within a geographical framework. Yes, you heard correctly. 8288. 313. Such data carries great potential for anyone interested in Irish archaeology – from professionals and researchers to students and interested members of the public – enabling both a macro and micro (radiocarbon) snapshot of the island. And its ongoing.

As a brief example, I was just playing around with it a few minutes ago and I zoomed down to an area for which I would have presumed to be fairly familiar with known archaeological information. There I found a ref to an old burial, something I had certainly read about years ago, but which had only recently come back with a C14 date. The horizon? Right slap bang in the middle of a period I’m most interested in. Score.

You can access the new Geolocated Radiocarbon Dates from Ireland Dataviewer on Roberts blog in embedded form, along with a detailed introduction to the tools and interface (which I highly recommend reading first).

Or you can view it in stand alone form on the tableau public server.

My congratulations and deep deep thanks to Robert and his many helpers and partners in crime who helped produce this fantastic new resource. I have a feeling it will fast become a staple for professionals, post graduates and researchers alike, among many others. Radio, what’s new? Go use it. Rinse. Repeat.

Waking the Dead on the Slopes of Cruachu

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(Image: Author)

For the day that’s in it, here’s a little folk horror flavoured archeo-echtrai which happened to me a few years ago during a visit to Cruachu (aka Cruachán, aka Rathcroghan), a location dripping in early medieval dindsenchas. Its a ritual complex of barrows, mounds, avenues and enclosures –  a prehistoric palimpsest of generations of ‘the dead’ carved into a ‘living’ landscape and overlaid with early medieval meaning. Think late prehistoric burial, assembly, inauguration, oenach festivals, mass meetings, power performances, legitimacy, declarations, legal decisions, disputes, drinking, carousing, games, fighting – all on a regional scale – and anything else that may have caught their fancy at any given time.

Cruachu and its hinterlands loom large in early medieval myth, mayhem and pseudo-folk memory. It occupies a prime position as one of the so called ‘royal’ sites of early medieval Ireland. A western version of Tara, and Emhain Macha. It appears as a key symbolic location in early Irish literature, such as the Táin Bó Cúailnge and Echtra Nerai (The Strange Adventure of Nera) – the latter having samhain and the mounds of the dead as a key backdrop to portrayed events.

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Blogging about Research on Archaeological Blogging via an Archaeological Blog Undergoing Research

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Screengrab: GIS Search Results for Vox Hiberionacum (shamelessly stolen, I mean, inspired by the Robert M Chapple Blog)

Meta, eh?

Fleur Schinning is an MA Student currently writing a thesis in Heritage Management at Leiden University in the Netherlands. Her research will focus on the use of blogs and social media and how they contribute to the accessibility of archaeology in the Netherlands. She is looking at several archaeo-blogs from UK, Ireland and USA in order to explore how blogging in archaeology contributes to public archaeology. Vox Hiberionacum is one of them.

 As part of this, she is very interested in hearing from you, dear blog readers.

She has set up a short online questionnaire (click here) in order to ask visitors of this (and other archaeo-blogs) several questions regarding their motives for visiting, reading etc. She would be very grateful if you could spare a few minutes to contribute to her research findings.

I understand that all participants also have a chance to win a small prize: 6 issues of Archaeology Magazine.

Ah go on, help an archaeo student out.

Cheers.

An Archaeology of Star Wars: A Long Time Ago On An Island Far Far Away

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View from Skellig Michael – Image: regienbb / flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Rumours abound that this Thanksgiving weekend in the States will see the release of the first teaser trailer/preview of the new Star Wars (7) film – scenes for which were shot on the early medieval monastic island of Skellig Michael, Co. Kerry. In anticipation, here’s a little something on the early history and archaeology of Skellig Michael itself – and why its perhaps appropriate that ‘an unearthly corner of planet earth, left behind on an island far, far away’ continues to be (re)used as the setting for a re-booted mythical blockbuster. Or something.

What better place to depict an ancient, mystical, martial asceticism in a galaxy far, far away than an actual ancient, eremitic, settlement dripping with stone-cold monastic austerity, located at what was for centuries the very ends of the earth, seven miles off the very tip of a western Irish peninsula?

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