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Time and tide: five thousand years of human settlement and environmental change on the banks of the river Suir.

Time and tide: five thousand years of human settlement and environmental change on the banks of the river Suir.

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Published by Brendon Wilkins
This article is a non-specialist introduction to a site at Newrath, Co. Kilkenny - a multiperiod alluvial and estuarine wetland excavated on the banks of the river Suir in advance of the N25 Waterford outer ring road. The site was located on the eastern edge of an area of deep Holocene sediments that accumulated in response to a progressive rise in relative sea level. The archaeological deposits were located in an area where these sediments are no more than 2-3m deep, on a probable shelving terrace now covered by estuarine deposits. 21 individual structures were identified in 5 separate areas of excavation dating from the early Bronze Age to the medieval period, and at the base of the peat cuttings Mesolithic activity were encountered on a dry land surface predating the accumulation of reed peat.

This article describes an extensive, 6-month excavation, which was followed by an intensive post-excavation programme featuring a multidisciplinary paleoenvironmental study using pollen, plant macrofossils, wood and charcoal, diatoms and foraminifera to reconstruct the landscape changes over time.
This article is a non-specialist introduction to a site at Newrath, Co. Kilkenny - a multiperiod alluvial and estuarine wetland excavated on the banks of the river Suir in advance of the N25 Waterford outer ring road. The site was located on the eastern edge of an area of deep Holocene sediments that accumulated in response to a progressive rise in relative sea level. The archaeological deposits were located in an area where these sediments are no more than 2-3m deep, on a probable shelving terrace now covered by estuarine deposits. 21 individual structures were identified in 5 separate areas of excavation dating from the early Bronze Age to the medieval period, and at the base of the peat cuttings Mesolithic activity were encountered on a dry land surface predating the accumulation of reed peat.

This article describes an extensive, 6-month excavation, which was followed by an intensive post-excavation programme featuring a multidisciplinary paleoenvironmental study using pollen, plant macrofossils, wood and charcoal, diatoms and foraminifera to reconstruct the landscape changes over time.

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Published by: Brendon Wilkins on Mar 16, 2009
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01/30/2013

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6.Time and tide:five millennia of environmentalchange and human activity on the banks of theSuir
Brendon Wilkins
‘It was the best of times,it was the worst of times ...it was the spring of hope,itwas the winter of despair’—Charles Dickens,
 A Tale of Two Cities
.Talking about his dark 1970 Korean War comedy
M*A*S*H 
,the late Hollywoodfilmmaker Robert Altman said that he did not direct the film—it just escaped.Lookingback on the six months my crew and I spent excavating Site 34,Newrath,Co.Kilkenny,Iknow exactly what he meant.Affectionately known by our team as ‘THE BOG’,thiswetland archaeology site was excavated by Headland Archaeology Ltd on behalf of Waterford City Council,Waterford County Council,Kilkenny County Council and theNational Roads Authority prior to the construction of the N25 Waterford City Bypass(NGR 259040,114340;height 8 m OD;excavation licence no.03E0319).As summer turned into winter it descended into a quagmire.One morning we arrived on site to findthe whole area submerged beneath water over 1 m deep.Freak storms had combined withspring tides and you could canoe from one side of the valley to the other.But,miraculously,the waters receded and we lived to tell the tale.63
Illus.1—Location of Site 34 at Newrath townland,Co.Kilkenny
(based on the Ordnance SurveyIreland map)
 
‘The bog’
These may well have been the harshest conditions I have ever worked in,but I also have toadmit that it was the best archaeology I have ever excavated.Site 34 was an exceptionallywell-preserved multiperiod site comprising 21 individual structures and five areas of activity,with almost every chapter of human history represented in the same excavation.There were Mesolithic flint scatters on what would have been a dryland surface at thewater’s edge;Early Bronze Age trackways intended to cross boggy ground to reach the openwater;a Bronze Age burnt mound on the edge of the wetland area;Iron Age hurdles tocross tidal creeks for saltmarsh grazing;medieval platforms for the same purpose;and a19th-century brick kiln,making use of the abundant alluvial clay.As well as posing a technical challenge,multiperiod sites like Newrath present us withan excellent opportunity to understand how cultural and social practices change andcontinue over time.But what was quite surprising about Site 34 was that we were notexpecting to find any significant archaeological remains in this landscape.Although similar landscapes have yielded a wealth of archaeological information in Britain and mainlandEurope,this was one of the first times such a site had been excavated on a road scheme inIreland.And as a consequence of no major work having been undertaken previously insimilar conditions,our starting assumption was that this type of landscape wasarchaeologically marginal and would not reward extensive investigation.Nonetheless,the wetland area was subject to the same levels of scrutiny and rigour asany of the land within the proposed road scheme,and an extensive array of test trencheswas excavated.This identified a potential brushwood structure in what would later bedesignated Area 1,and a possible trackway in what would become Area 4.Initially we onlyopened Area 1 for excavation,which allowed us to assess the character and preservation of the brushwood structure.Once we were certain of what we had found and had takenfurther expert advice,a programme of additional testing was conducted across the rest of the wetland area.This meant that we could target our resources on the most promising andinformative features,leading to the excavation of three additional areas (Illus.2).The quantity and scale of the archaeological remains suggested that Site 34 had beenpart of a very active landscape,but it is not just the events that take place on a site thatdetermine how much we find.What survives is also a product of what archaeologists callthe ‘burial environment’.Occasionally this will be exceptionally favourable toarchaeological remains,either because it is waterlogged,frozen or so dry that the naturalprocesses of microbacterial decay are slowed to a halt.Situated in an alluvial and estuarinelandscape,the wet conditions of Site 34 meant that,as well as quantity,Newrath hadexceptionally well-preserved archaeological deposits.Archaeologists would describe this asspatial and temporal patterning from the Mesolithic period to the present day.This meansthat in different parts of the wetland area,and at different depths below the present groundsurface,we encountered archaeological material and environmental evidence relating not just to different periods but also to different types of landscape.We habitually think of landscapes as ‘natural’and ‘unchanging’,so in looking out over Site 34 today it takes a leap of faith to imagine that what we would now class as marginalpasture was formerly an important resource over many periods.Located on a shelvingterrace on the edge of the River Suir,we were excavating through deposits over 3 m deepthat had accumulated since the end of the last ice age.As the landscape was gradually
New Routes to the Past 
64
 
Time and tide:five millennia of environmental change and human activity on the banks of the Suir 
65
m050
Figure 8 - N25, Waterford Bypass, Contract 3: Site 34, archaeological zones, structures and section locations
Dry zoneIntermediate zoneDeep channel, wet zone
CPO Area
Excavation TrenchesTesting TrenchesStructuresProjected continuation of structures
N  9   
N
 Area 1 Area 2 Area 3 Area 4 Area 4b
 d e e p  m o d e r n  d r a i n
 d e e p  m o d e r n  d r a i n
 d e e p  m o d e r n  d r a i n
 
Illus.2—General site plan of Site 34 at Newrath townland,showing the location of all four excavation areasand hypothesised zones of archaeological potential 
(Headland Archaeology Ltd)

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