Saturday, 6 December 2008

Treasures on the roadside

The road-building programme has been accused of destroying archaeological sites, but digs have revealed fascinating material, writes Claire O'Connell

THE ECONOMIC BOOM may be over, but its flurry of road building has uncovered a wealth of archaeological finds with lasting value.

In particular, digs along proposed routes have shed light on "unknown" archaeology that may not have otherwise been examined, according to Rónán Swan, acting head of archaeology at the National Roads Authority.

The scale of road-related archaeological digs has increased massively in recent years - in 1993 there was one road excavation, in 2007 there were 579 - and they usually turn up something of interest, says Swan.

"Most places that we start doing investigations around the country we will find archaeology there," he says. "It's a testament to the wealth of archaeology that we have in this country, and that we have incredible levels of preservation. It's not just the actual site that's important. There can be a tremendous amount of results from post-excavation work, looking at the samples and reports and records."

Some of the sites - most obviously the M3's route at Tara - have courted controversy, but ultimately Swan believes this road-building period will have a profound impact on our understanding of how our ancestors lived day-to-day. "It's telling us about the mundane, about how people lived their lives, it's not just the extremes of the biggest, best, oldest and earliest."

The NRA is keen to share the results with the public through talks, exhibitions and publications, says Swan. "It gives people an easy way of accessing the past, and there's a tremendous thirst on the parts of local communities to find out what's taking place in their area and what's involved." For more information see


In 2006 a seemingly routine dig suddenly yielded treasure when it turned up a cache of cash near Cashel. That July, archaeologists led by husband-and-wife team Joanne Hughes and Richard O'Brien were excavating the site of an old pond on the planned N8 Cashel bypass route.

"It was full of burned roots and trees, it wasn't very spectacular," says O'Brien. "But then the trowel dug back through the soil and a couple of coins popped up to the surface." Over the following days, the team found a total of 18 silver coins clustered near one spot. The pennies date from the reign of king Edward II in the 14th century and most were minted in London, but one was made in Dublin.

"We can't prove it, but [the stashing of the coins] could be associated with the invasion of the Scots into Cashel in 1317," says O'Brien, who describes the period as an "unfortunate" time for his native town. "We think somebody hid them under a stone or beside a tree near the pond, which was a good marker, and never made it back to get them."

What would the loot have bought you in the period they were buried? "It appears that one sheep was valued at one shilling, which varied between four to six pennies in value at that time," says O'Brien.


You would hardly guess it, but the image above is a close-up of rust. It comes from the work of PhD student Brian Dolan from UCD's school of archaeology, who looks at iron slags around Ireland from the AD first millennium.

Road building has turned up a large number of new archaeologically interesting sites that are providing meat for scientific research. Dolan is looking at what these and other sites can tell us about the little-known iron-using habits of the early medieval period in Ireland. "It's to figure out what people were doing with the iron and where, whether it was specialist activity or general repairs," he says.

In the field, the leftover iron might look like big lumps of clay, but the optical microscope tells a different story. "Under the microscope you can tell whether the blacksmith was smelting iron from ore, or making or repairing something like a sword," explains Dolan.

Monasteries, which needed iron for bells, seem to have been particularly busy in the iron-smithing department, and were often on trade routes around the country. The pictured sample, from a ring fort in Galway, shows the "onion bands" that form as the iron rusts.

Dolan, who is funded by the Irish Research Council for the Humanities and Social Sciences, plans to further map the use of iron at Irish sites and then carry out detailed analyses at selected locations.


When test-trenching along the proposed N15 bypass route in Co Donegal turned up bones in 2003, the coroner was called. But it soon became apparent that these bones had been there a while. Eventually, skeletal remains from around 1,300 individuals were unearthed from the site, an ancient church and graveyard at Ballyhanna that was used in medieval times and again in the 17th century.

The bones yielded their secrets under scientific scrutiny, and told of tough times for the people who lived back then. "There were numerous cases of tuberculosis among the adults, and at least one child displayed lesions characteristic of the disease," says Dr Eileen Murphy, who along with Catriona McKenzie, Roisín McCarthy and Claire McGranaghan examined the bones at Queen's University Belfast.

The skeletal remains also bore the scars of traumas (such as chop marks and even cranial surgery), signs of gross infection that could have been lethal without the luxury of antibiotics, a hereditary condition known as bumpy bone disease, and many of the children showed signs of scurvy, says Murphy.

Chemical analysis of the bones suggests that the Ballyhanna population consumed a marine-based diet and were exposed to lower levels of lead than a modern population, according to research carried out by Tasneem Bashir at IT Sligo, which runs the only BSc Honours in Archaeological Science in the country. DNA analysis of the bones has proven tricky so far, but will look in more detail at the nature of the tuberculosis infection next year.


Edercloon in Co Longford has long been a popular site for roads, as development work on the N4 showed. Excavations there revealed a network of wooden trackways and platforms in the raised bog, dating from around 3,600 BC right up to AD 800, explains archaeologist Caitríona Moore.

The acid conditions of the bog preserved the wood extraordinarily well, right down to the nick marks made by tools through the Stone, Bronze and Iron ages.

The trackways, which frequently criss-crossed and merged, provided access from dry land across and into the bog. They could have been used for rituals, hunting game and gathering plant material for bedding and roofing, and the extent of the tracks indicates community activity, says Moore.

The dig also turned up several large collections of artefacts, including wooden bowls, wheels and spears.

"We found 51 artefacts buried in trackways. There was something around every three to five metres," says Moore. "There are two schools of thought on this - they may have been left there as refuse, or they could have been part of rituals."

Wood and pollen samples from the site are now being examined to find out more about how the ancient trackways were sourced and built.

Irish Times

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