Archaeology Research: Monuments and Society

There are a number of archaeological research projects currently underway within the Monuments and Society umbrella.  They can be divided into two broad themes:

Cave Archaeology

  • Journeys into darkness: Glencurran Cave Project.
  • Going Underground: Knocknarea Mountain.
  • Going deeper underground: the application of GIS, predictive modelling and comparative morphological analysis to better understand cave use in Neolithic Ireland.
  • Caves and the Irish revolution

Prehistoric and Historic Societies

  • Deer, cattle and timber: Anglo-Norman parks in medieval Ireland: 1169-c.1350.
  • Staad Abbey Coastal Erosion Survey.
  • Landscape Histories: Perceptions of the Past in North Connacht 8000BC to AD 2010.
  • Moygara Castle Archaeological Project.
  • Fenagh Archaeological Project.
  • Kilteasheen Archaeological Project.
  • Place, time and meaning: the Carrowkeel/Keshcorran passage tomb complex, Co. Sligo, Ireland.
  • Bewitched by an elf dart: the reinvention of archaeological artefacts in modern Ireland.
  • Fighting the tide: a saltwater fulacht fiadh on Coney Island
  • Earth Built and Earth Mortared Masonry Construction in Later Medieval Ireland 1100-1650AD

The study of the significance of caves through time is an important focus of research, which, by its very nature is interdisciplinary and multi-period.  Caves have been significant for both ritual and practical functions and have been a focus for activity through all archaeological periods.

The archaeology of monuments from the past and the landscape setting in which they sit is an area of research that is of interest to a number of staff members.  Projects range from the Neolithic through to the post-Medieval periods, and many have a multi-period focus.

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Cave Archaeology

Journeys into darkness: Glencurran Cave Project. 

  • Staff member: Dr. Marion Dowd (PI).  Funding: National Monuments Service and Royal Irish Academy.
  • Excavations between 2004 and 2009 in Glencurran Cave in the Burren revealed evidence of complex and repeated use of the cave in the Middle and Late Bronze Age for votive deposition of material including disarticulated human bones, joints of meat, newborn domesticates, amber beads, pottery vessels and lithics. This project seeks to understand how and why prehistoric people chose to make journeys deep underground in the Bronze Age as part of religious rituals, and how being underground shaped perceptions and experiences. This cave, along with a growing number of caves in Ireland and Britain, reveal the private and possibly secret nature of certain aspects of Bronze Age religion and point towards the possibility of ritual retreat.
Glencurran project
Going Underground: Knocknarea Mountain. 

  • Staff member: Dr. Marion Dowd (PI).  Postgraduate researcher: Thorsten Kahlert Funded by: National Monuments Service. 
  • This project aims to gain a better understanding of the relationship between caves and monuments in early prehistory. In the course of field survey of caves on Knocknarea, T.K. discovered human remains on the floor of one cave which resulted in a small rescue excavation in 2013. These are currently being analysed and radiocarbon dates will follow. This present a unique opportunity to explore the ritual role of caves in what is perhaps one of Sligo’s richest Neolithic funerary landscapes: Knocknarea Mountain. It is significant that human remains from another cave on Knocknarea returned Neolithic dates, which poses interesting questions about the relationship between these natural subterranean passages and the artificial passages of the megalithic monuments on the summit.
Knocknarea Cave project
Going deeper underground: the application of GIS, predictive modelling and comparative morphological analysis to better understand cave use in Neolithic Ireland. 

    • Staff member: Dr Marion Dowd (PI). Postgraduate researcher: Thorsten Kahlert. Funded by IRC and IT Sligo President’s Bursary Award for post-graduate study.  
    • Over 850 caves are located on the island of Ireland, with concentrations in counties Clare, Cork, Galway, Leitrim, Sligo and Fermanagh. Of these, in the region of 150 caves have some form of evidence to indicate that they are of archaeological or historical significance. Caves have been used from the Mesolithic through to modern times for a variety of purposes ranging from veneration and burial to occupation and hideaway. Caves were of particular significance in the Neolithic and Bronze Age where they formed important foci for ritual and funerary activities, and also in the Early Medieval period when caves were adapted for habitation and storage.The purpose of this PhD project is to analyse available archaeological data to discern patterns in the types of caves that were favoured for use at particular times and for particular periods. This would include an analysis of cave morphology, entrance orientation, the nature of the cave (dry/active) and the archaeological and topographical location of the site on the landscape. Employing fieldwork and GIS, this data would then be used to locate additional caves that may potentially be of archaeological significance.
Caves and the Irish revolution

  • Staff member: Dr Marion Dowd (PI). 
  • A hitherto neglected aspect of guerrilla tactics during the Irish Revolution was the use of caves as hideouts or as places to stash arms. The caves that were used during the War of Independence and Civil War are located in remote parts of the landscape such as along the coast, or in uplands, boggy areas and marginal scrubland. This project seeks to map the caves as well as collect oral accounts and documentary references as to how these caves were utilised..
 Caves and irish revolution thumb



Prehistoric and Historic Societies

Deer, cattle and timber: Anglo-Norman parks in medieval Ireland: 1169-c.1350.

  • Staff member: Dr Fiona Beglane (PI).
  • The aim of this project is to examine the evidence for high medieval parks in Anglo-Norman Ireland.  It has culminated in the publication of a recent book: Anglo-Norman Parks in Medieval Ireland.  This is the first study on the subject of medieval parks in Ireland.  It concentrates on parks documented in the period 1169 to c.1350, but also discusses what happened to these in later times.  It adopts an interdisciplinary approach drawing upon archaeological fieldwork, historical and place name evidence in order to generate a broad understanding of the role of parks in medieval landscapes and society.  The research is underpinned by extensive fieldwork which has identified surviving park features in the landscape.  Fallow deer were introduced to Ireland by the Anglo-Normans, specifically to be stocked in parks, so that they are intrinsically linked to the role of parks.  Notably, the evidence suggests that both parks and fallow deer appear to be relatively uncommon in Ireland compared to England.  This raises the questions that if a park was an essential manorial feature in England, and if the English manorial system was transposed to Ireland, then why are there so few records of high medieval parks in Ireland?  Furthermore, why are there so few fallow deer remains in Ireland and why did fallow deer ownership not filter down the social ladder?  The answers to this question lie in chronology, landscape and politics and form a major theme within this research.  
Staad Abbey Coastal Erosion Survey. 

  • Staff member: Dr Fiona Beglane (co-PI).  Collaborator: Jerry O’Sullivan (co-PI).
  • Staad Abbey, Co. Sligo is a medieval church site with associated middens and archaeological features situated on a low cliff face adjacent to the sea.   The eroding middens were originally surveyed and sampled by Dr Finbar McCormick in 1993 (93E0110).  Subsequently he and Jerry O’Sullivan excavated and re-recorded on the site in 2000-2001 (00E0235 and 00E0235 ext).  The aim of this current project is to assess the effects of coastal erosion on the cliff-face middens at this vulnerable site in the intervening time and so gain a multi-decadal insight into the ongoing destruction of the archaeological features.   In June 2012 a group of student volunteers undertook the re-recording of the cliff face and the church building and analysis of the results is ongoing.  
Landscape Histories: Perceptions of the Past in North Connacht 8000BC to AD 2010.

  • Staff Member: Chris Read (PI). Funded by IT Sligo. Collaborators: UCD School of Archaeology.
  • This interdisciplinary, multi-period study of a substantial area in Connacht, including North County Roscommon and South County Leitrim is being undertake as a PhD study. This GIS based study will analyse the placement of over 2500 monuments and other significant sites within the study area. Interpretively, this study will focus on social memory and how people in the past, perceived the traces left behind by earlier generations. This research will combine archaeology, history, folklore and cultural anthropology and incorporate the findings from a number of sites from all periods excavated by the author.
Sheemore Passage tomb phd research
Moygara Castle Archaeological Project.

  • Staff members: Chris Read (PI) and Shirley Markley. Funded by IT Sligo. Collaborators: NUIG Archaeology, O’Gara family, P.J. O’Neil.
  • The site of the new IT Sligo archaeological field school, this 14th-17th century castle will be the subject of a 5 year excavation to explore the dating and use of this beautifully preserved castle overlooking Lough Gara. This castle has already been subjected to extensive architectural and historical research by Jason Bolton, Rory Sherlock, Ann Connan and Kieran O’Conor. Test excavation in 2013 involved the opening of 4 small trenches. They revealed medieval deposits, wall foundations and evidence of iron working. Larger scale excavation took place in 2014 and 2015.  This site is the student training excavation for all first year students and is also run as a Field School.  This is open to students and non-students from both Ireland and overseas. 
Fenagh Archaeological Project.

  • Staff Member: Chris Read (PI). Funded by Heritage Council.
  • Focusing on the multi-period archaeological landscape surrounding this monastic site in Co. Leitrim, this project has focused on the survey of the Monastic site and a study of the wider surrounding landscape. This project has so far included historical research, topographical survey, geophysical survey and low level aerial photography. This landscape will be further explored and analysed in the ‘Landscape Histories’ project.
Fenaghtopographical survey
Kilteasheen Archaeological Project.

  • Staff members: Chris Read (co-PI), Shirley Markley and Dr Fiona Beglane. Collaborator: Dr Thomas Finan (co-PI), Saint Louis University. Funded by Royal Irish Academy, Heritage Council and IT Sligo Capacity Building Fund.
  • This multi period site at Kilteasheen was the subject of a 5 year research/training excavation.  This site has prehistoric (principally Later Bronze Age), Early Medieval and Later Medieval components. The excavation portion of the project focused on a 13th century hall house, believed to be the Bishop’s palace mentioned in the annals and the partial excavation of a substantial medieval cemetery. This cemetery revealed burials dating from the 7th to 14th centuries AD and include a number of deviant burials that were the focus of a National Geographic television documentary. Research and analysis on these burials in ongoing.  A final round of C14 dating will be undertaken shortly. Most recently, a number of the Kilteasheen burials will be subject to innovative DNA analysis in an attempt to identify a range of diseases suffered by this medieval population. This research is being carried out in conjunction with Professor Johannes Krause at Tubingen University.
Kilteasheen Deviant Burial
Place, time and meaning: the Carrowkeel/Keshcorran passage tomb complex, Co. Sligo, Ireland. 

  • Staff member: Sam Moore.  Funded by IT Sligo. Collaborator: NUI Galway. 
  • This is a prehistoric archaeological landscape PhD thesis employing  a methodological focus on the spatial patterning, morphology and landscape siting of the passage tomb complex along with its spatial and temporal relationship with the surrounding landscapes. Concepts of networks, nodes and place are utilised in conjunction with natural and built features with the principle aim being to examine potential changes in ritual practise and the meaning of monuments throughout the Neolithic specifically and prehistory in general, therefore aiding an understanding of prehistoric people’s relationship to their physical and symbolic landscape.
Bewitched by an elf dart: the reinvention of archaeological artefacts in modern Ireland.

  • Staff member: Dr. Marion Dowd (PI). Funded by IT Sligo.
  • In recent centuries archaeological artefacts were frequently interpreted by rural communities in Ireland as the material culture of the sídh, physical evidence of the existence of a non-Christian supernatural world. These artefacts – typically Bronze Age metalwork, prehistoric lithics and polished stone axes – were attributed both malevolent and benevolent properties and assumed an important role in popular religious practices, most frequently to invoke cures for farm animals, though also to protect the house. Numerous examples are recorded and while the tradition has been documented in folklore scholarship, it is not widely known or recognised in archaeological discourse. This project seeks to examine the phenomenon from an archaeological perspective by examining a series of multi-period artefacts that were discovered in the ruins of vernacular houses and farm outhouses which appear to support the documented folk traditions.
Bewitched project
Fighting the tide: a saltwater fulacht fiadh on Coney Island

  • Staff members: Dr. James Bonsall and Dr. Marion Dowd.
  • In conjunction with Ned Kelly of the National Museum, we excavated the trough of a fulacht fiadh located on the beach at Coney Island in Sligo Bay in 2014. Radiocarbon dating places the construction of the monument in the Late Bronze Age, a typical date for stone-lined troughs like this example. More intriguing, however, is the evidence that the site was used for heating salt water. Whether this was used for washing, bathing, cooking or otherwise is not known
Coney Island thumb
Earth Built and Earth Mortared Masonry Construction in Later Medieval Ireland 1100-1650AD

  • Staff members: Shirley Markley. Funded by IT Sligo. Collaborators: School of Histories and Humanities, Trinity College Dublin
  • The veritable absence of domestic settlement from the late medieval archaeological landscape in Ireland has posed an enigma to medieval archaeologists and historians to date. This doctoral research examines and documents the evidence of earth built and earth mortared masonry construction in later medieval Ireland, a subject which has previously gone unexplored in Ireland. Previously thought to be used in the construction of primarily post medieval dwellings and agricultural buildings as well as utilised by the poorest classes in society, this study points to significant new interpretations on the subject of late medieval settlement. Substantial regional field survey of over 300 late medieval high status structures in Counties Sligo, Leitrim and Roscommon combined with field survey in ancillary counties provides considerable evidence for the use of earth in construction both on its own and as an earth mortar in masonry construction. This construction technique is evidenced across a range of building types including ecclesiastical, defensive, industrial, infrastructural and importantly domestic settlement in the later medieval settlement record. Extensive regional field survey combined with comprehensive documentary evidence, from both historical sources and archaeological excavation reports, illuminates a method of traditional building construction in later medieval Ireland that has previously gone largely unrecognised and greatly underappreciated within Ireland
PhD Image-Shirleysmall

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