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Saints and Sinners: religion and conflict in Medieval Ireland

Saints and Sinners: religion and conflict in Medieval Ireland

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Published by Brendon Wilkins
Religion, and religious strife, have defined modern Ireland. New archaeological evidence is showing that this cultural clash began long ago, with the very arrival of Christianity. In our final article on the top ten sites of Celtic Tiger archaeology, Brendon Wilkins looks at the physical evidence of this spiritual struggle.
Religion, and religious strife, have defined modern Ireland. New archaeological evidence is showing that this cultural clash began long ago, with the very arrival of Christianity. In our final article on the top ten sites of Celtic Tiger archaeology, Brendon Wilkins looks at the physical evidence of this spiritual struggle.

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Categories:Types, Research, History
Published by: Brendon Wilkins on Dec 08, 2010
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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ireland Medieval

Saints and Sinners
Credit: Archaeological Consultancy Services Ltd

religion and conflict in Medieval Ireland
Religion, and religious strife, have defined modern Ireland. New archaeological evidence is showing that this cultural clash began long ago, with the very arrival of Christianity. In our final article on Celtic Tiger archaeology, Brendon Wilkins looks at the physical evidence of this spiritual struggle.
current archaeology | www.archaeology.co.uk
January 2011 |



istory,’ said Stephen Dedalus in James Joyce’s masterpiece Ulysses, ‘is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.’ Joyce was commenting on the violence of Irish history, particularly that done in the name of Christian faith. That history began at the dawn of the Christian era in Ireland, as a new ecclesiastical class committed names, stories, and events to paper for the first time. But, as the new archaeological evidence emerging from development-led excavations has shown, they may have been the first to write history - but they weren’t always the winners. Interchangeably known as the early Christian period, Early Medieval Ireland was a highly segmented society divided between approximately 150 kings, who exercised power through a tribal structure. Tradition holds that Saint Patrick arrived in Ireland as a missionary in AD 432, although contemporary chronicles suggest that there were already Christians in Ireland at this time, with Palladius ordained as their first bishop in AD 431 by Pope Celestine I. The advance of Christianity was accomplished in two phases: an expansion period when the faith was still a minority practice, and a consolidation period when Christianity bedded down as the dominant belief system. Missionaries had two basic strategies to convert the Irish pagans. Their first option was to befriend wealthy families in the hope that they would grant land for a church, perhaps with one of their own kin appointed as abbot. A more effective strategy would be to convert a king, leading to the nominal conversion of his entire territory. Through this gradual process, the church expanded its reach throughout Irish society, and by AD 700 Ireland was, at least nominally, a Christian country. Monks, ecclesiastical tenants, and sections of the wider community were encouraged to recognise their affiliation in death through burial at ecclesiastical sites, though a large cemetery site excavated on the N2 FinglasAshbourne road scheme indicates the supremacy of the Christian authorities was not yet above challenge.

in the small townland of Raystown, Co. Meath. The site, which endured for at least 600 years as a large farming settlement, was excavated by CRDS Ltd between 2004-2005. ExcaRaystown vations, led by Matthew Seaver, Dublin uncovered a burial ground and Carrickmines two areas of domestic activity; outside this core area were a Woodstown large number of boundary and drainage ditches, cerealdrying kilns and the remains of at least eight water-mills and water-houses. The burial ground was centred on the top of a ridge, with half of it falling within the planned road corridor. Excavations recovered 93 burials, left Decorated lead pan with evidence, primarily disarticulated bone weight or gaming counter, scattered through the soil, for a further 40 burials found at Woodstown, Co. Waterford. that had been disturbed by grave-digging and agriculture. The mostly shallow, unlined graves were generally aligned with the skeleton’s head to the west; some burials with a tightly-bound posture indicated that the people had been buried in shrouds, while others contained objects such 

BeloW Unusual burial in the remains of a kiln on the edge of the Raystown enclosure.

Secrets from the grave
In the early 5th century, at approximately the same time that the first Irish Christians were seeking their first Bishop from Rome, people began burying their dead in an enclosed cemetery
| Issue 250 www.archaeology.co.uk | current archaeology
photo: CRDS Ltd


ireland Medieval

as an iron knife, iron pin, copper-alloy ring, and a blue-glass bead found near a child’s neck. The graves were radiocarbon dated to between the early 5th to the late 10th centuries. The burials comprised 68 adults, three adolescents, 20 juveniles and two older infants. During this period, children frequently died before four years of age; at Raystown, the percentage of juveniles and infants was very low, and there are no neonatal (birth to four weeks) burials, suggesting that they must have been buried elsewhere – perhaps in a cillin (a separate, designated area of non-consecrated ground for unbaptised, premature, and illegitimate offspring). Disease was a factor of everyday life, and many of the adult burials showed evidence of infections, such as tuberculosis. A number of the burials also demonstrate the violent nature of Early Medieval Irish life, with two males in particular showing cuts to the bone from a blade. Additional,

aBove Excavation of two souterrains (subterranean structures) in the northern area of the Raystown site.

unusual burial practice was also apparent, with one male inserted in a former drying kiln, some distance from the other burials. Unlike the other burials, he was covered with stones, in a northsouth position, with legs flexed.

Land of the living
On either side of the cemetery were densely settled areas. To the north, an area paved with small stones was discovered to be littered with animal bone, and artefacts such as bone and iron pins, needles, iron tools, and a horse bit. Post-holes suggest a house, and two souterrains were discovered in this area. The first had a narrow passageway leading to a rounded chamber; initially timberbuilt, the entrance was later replaced with stone. The second was stone-built with a corbelled roof and rectangular chamber. This northern area and the cemetery were later enclosed by a large, rectangular enclosure, indicating that the people felt the need to distinguish this area of the site from the farming activity outside. To the south of the cemetery was a dense pattern of gullies, hearths and a probable house site. The land outside the settlement and cemetery enclosures was dominated by features relating to work and production, such as field and livestock enclosures, kilns, and mills. Ditches, running down-slope, radiated outward from the core enclosures, subdividing this area and forming drains and boundaries. Five figure-of-eight
aBove left Aerial photograph of Raystown, with topographical contours at 1m intervals (white lines) and geophysical survey data (blue lines). left Plan of Raystown, showing geophysical survey data and excavated remains.
current archaeology | www.archaeology.co.uk
January 2011 |

images: CRDS Ltd and GSB Prospection Ltd


photo: Hawkeye

shaped cereal drying kilns were found, which would have been a necessity in the damp, cold Irish climate for staving off decay, and allowing grain to be milled more efficiently. Animal husbandry was also a large part of life at Raystown, with more than 700kg of animal bone recovered during excavations, representing the remains of cattle, pig, sheep, goats, horses, deer, and birds. The most impressive, and community-defining remains, however, were the spectacular physical remains of up to eight watermills along with the substantial watercourses that fed them. The mills were concentrated in clusters across the site, and located some distance from the water source, which was a channel connecting to the Broad Meadow River. The majority of the mills used horizontal wheels, which were fed water by a wooden chute, known as a flume; this directed the water, with force, at the wheel, which in turn drove a haft that turned the millstones in the upper building. Wooden and stone foundations from five of these buildings survived at Raystown. Horizontal mills of these types were in common use in Ireland until the 20th century, and can still be seen in operation in Bosnia, Spain, and Portugal. The mills were radiocarbon dated between the 7th and 10th centuries, and Raystown was abandoned by the 12th century. Choosing this place to bury their dead, rather than the official church burial yard, was a deliberate strategy to articulate a long history with the area, re-establish their relationship with their ancestors, and guarantee connection with the land. As Christianity established its monopoly on salvation of the soul in Ireland, ancestral burial grounds fell out of favour, to be replaced by churchyard burial. Across Europe, the arrival of Christianity further strengthened and consolidated royal power, laying the foundations for Medieval feudalism, and a re-patterning settlement with an ecclesiastical or monastic focus. Into this heady, newfound affluence, technological developments in ship-building saw new types of craft set sail on the western seas, emanating from the North Sea shores of Scandinavia. The Vikings were coming.

aBove Aerial photograph of mills under excavation. inset A reconstruction of one of the mills at Raystown.

longships, powered by large crews of 20 or more under oar and sail. The sight of such ships, perhaps headed by warrior chieftains, sent chills through the monastic communities that had grown rich through Ireland’s ‘Golden Age of Christianity.’ At one such ecclesiastical site near Waterford, it seems that rather than striking and leaving, the raiding parties settled in for the long haul. Ireland’s oldest city, Waterford, was founded in AD 914 as a Viking longphort, or shore fortress. The city is located at the head of Waterford harbour, and though rich archaeological evidence for the later Hiberno-Norse period has been excavated below the modern streets, the early origins of the first Viking settlers were mysteriously absent. This was to change, however, with remarkable discoveries between 2002 and 2006 at Woodstown. The entirely unexpected discovery suggested that archaeologists had been looking in the wrong place, and the first Viking encampment was upriver of the present city. In March 2002, Archaeological Consultancy Services Ltd began archaeological testing 

Oath-bound thugs
The period is named after the Norse warriors who went i viking or ‘raiding’, attacking coastal or estuarine settlements in pursuit of money, slaves, treasure, and honour. They traveled in slender
| Issue 250

At one ecclesiastical site near Waterford, rather than striking and leaving, the raiding parties settled in for the long haul.
www.archaeology.co.uk | current archaeology


images: Hawkeye, Simon Dick for CRDS Ltd

ireland Medieval

and geophysics in advance of the proposed N25 Waterford City Bypass, in the township of Woodstown, 6km south of Waterford City on the southern bank of the River Suir. The work was directed by Ian Roberts, and coordinated for the NRA by Richard O’Brien. Test-trenching revealed approximately 600 buried features and

aBove Reconstruction of Raystown c.AD 900.

deposits, with geophysics showing the presence of additional features between the test-trenches. Portions of 12 of the original 29 test trenches were fully excavated, providing evidence for both domestic and industrial activity, including an enclosure ditch, pits, linear features, ditches, hearths and other areas of burning, and structural evidence such as post- and stake-holes. Once the significance of the site had been appreciated, it was declared a National Monument; and, for the first and only time in Irish archaeology, the road was redesigned to avoid and safeguard the archaeology. Some evidence for Middle- to Late Bronze Age (approximately 1500 BC) activity was discovered, and the deep enclosure ditch was revealed to have been dug in the early 5th century AD. Further excavation of the ditch would prove to be extremely fruitful, as significant evidence was found for extensive metalworking, including a silver ingot, large quantities of slag, iron blades and knives, an iron knife blade and tang, iron nails and rivets, crucibles, burnt bones, an ivory bead, honestones, and rotary burnishing stones. The majority of the site was radiocarbon dated between the late 7th and early 11th centuries, the early Medieval or Hiberno-Norse period. Initially interpreted as a defended settlement, there is a possibility that such a large and wealthy site could have been ecclesiastical in nature; a number of stratified copper caskets and studmounts, dated between the late 6th and early 7th centuries, were also found in the enclosure ditch, and these would be more typical of objects owned

images: Simon Dick for CRDS Ltd

right Interpretive drawing of the archaeological features detected by geophysical survey of Woodstown.


current archaeology | www.archaeology.co.uk

January 2011 |

image: Earthsound Archaeological Geophysics

left An aerial view of Woodstown, taken in 2001.

photo: Waterford City Council

in future Viking discoveries, particularly rural sites. The discoveries at Woodstown show that similar settlements must have existed on other waterways, as the River Suir is only one of three rivers feeding Waterford Harbour. Similarly, the lack of known early Viking settlement along the Co. Waterford coast is probably down to a lack of research, rather than a lack of sites. Radiocarbon dating suggests the Woodstown settlement was abandoned by the middle of the 11th century, and it remained forgotten until its rediscovery in 2003. Did events following the Battle of Clontarf in AD 1014, in which 

a warrior’s grave
by the Church rather than the mundane objects found on secular settlement sites. Though Woodstown was, in fact, a substantial, multi-period site, it is the Viking Age evidence – and the manner in which it was discovered – which has proved most interesting. During the middle to late 9th century, Viking ships sailing on the River Suir landed at Woodstown, which was then a native Irish settlement. How these Vikings interacted with the natives may never be fully understood, but they certainly settled on the site and made significant changes to the existing structures there. In addition to the grave of a single Viking warrior, over 5,000 Viking Age artefacts were recovered from the topsoil at Woodstown. Analysis of the finds shows quite clearly that trading was an important aspect of Viking life at Woodstown. In total, 36 pieces of silver – mostly hacked ingots – and 208 pan lead weights, used to weigh precious metals, were found in the topsoil. This assemblage is the largest such collection from rural Ireland; the high rate of recovery highlights the importance of systematic scanning of the site using metal detectors. Other objects found included iron clench nails, roves (used to join ship timbers), and a fragment of an Arabic silver Kufik coin, which reflects the Vikings’ wider trading contacts. Over 5,000 artefacts (89% from topsoil) found at Woodstown were recovered after six months’ continuous investigation by a team of five archaeologists using metal detectors. This raises methodological questions about how such sites should be investigated in future, and surely indicates that such intensive work needs to be replicated
| Issue 250

A Viking grave was discovered about 22m outside the enclosure ditch at Woodstown 6. Buried beneath just 0.25m of topsoil, it is likely that the grave had been disturbed by ploughing, and several large boulders found within the grave suggest that it may once have been covered by a low stone cairn. Due to the high acidity of the soils, no skeleton was found; however the finds, including a broken sword, sword fragments, shield boss, spearhead, battleaxe, copper-alloy cloak pin, and a perforated honestone, indicate a burial of relatively high status. The soils from within the grave were hand-sieved, and thus all the iron shield rivets were found. The burial was dated by stylistic comparison to other securely dated sites, with the sword hilt placing it between the mid-9th to mid-11th centuries. The Woodstown warrior grave is the first scientific excavation of a rural Viking burial in Ireland since the 1940’s. right and BeloW Picture and plan of the Viking Grave at Woodstown.

www.archaeology.co.uk | current archaeology

imnage: ACS Ltd


ireland Medieval

Brian Boru was defeated by the King of Leinster and his Viking mercenaries, play a part in its demise? Did these Vikings move upstream and settle in the present Waterford City? The political landscape was certainly changing in Ireland, becoming concentrated in the hands of a few regional dynasties. But by 1168, an invasion force of Norman knights, themselves descended from Vikings, were about to land on Ireland’s shores, heralding a bloody age of conquest and rebellion that would continue into living memory.

Beyond the pale
Carrickmines Castle was an Anglo-Norman fortress dating to the 12th century. It was located in the former marshes of south Co. Dublin, near the foothills of the Dublin and Wicklow mountains, on the line of the Pale Ditch. The Norman invasion of 1168 brought much of Ireland under the control of the kings of England, but their influence waned in the 13th century as Norman knights became increasingly assimilated into Irish culture. The Pale was the part of Ireland that was directly under the control of the English government in the late Middle Ages, and by the 15th century it had been reduced to a small area along the east coast encircling Dublin. The site was subject to a major excavation between 2000 and 2002 in advance of the M50 Dublin Ring Road, directed by Dr Mark Clinton on behalf of Valerie J Keely Ltd. Carrickmines became a flashpoint for controversy surrounding the road construction, as protesters calling themselves the ‘Carrickminders’ sought to have the road re-routed. Allegations of bribery were also investigated as council officials, at greatly inflated prices, had suspiciously rezoned large areas of farmland. While the forensic accountants sorted the finances, the discovery of a mass war graves from the 17th century kept the forensic archaeologists equally busy.
current archaeology | www.archaeology.co.uk

aBove A selection of stone, glass, bone, metal, and glass artefacts recovered at Woodstown.

BeloW Viking-type fivelobed sword pommel.

The 17th century was perhaps the bloodiest in Ireland’s history, with the Irish Rebellion of 1641 descending into an ethnic conflict between native Irish Catholics and English and Scottish Protestant settlers. Carrickmines was laid siege on 26 and 27 March 1642, when English troops under Sir Simon Harcourt successfully stormed the castle – being held at the time by rebel forces. Neither man, woman or child was spared the ensuing slaughter, and the discovery of a mass grave containing the remains of 15 butchered skeletons brought this grisly past dramatically to life. Analysed by conflict archaeologist Damian Shiels and osteoarchaeologist Linda Fibiger, the team identified two multiple burials containing the remains of men, women, and children, aged between 3 and 45 years old. A young male was also excavated some 7.5m from the mass grave, buried face down with no indication of care or ceremony. Clear evidence for blade trauma was found on seven individuals and a number of other disarticulated remains. None of the injuries showed signs of healing, indicating that they were sustained at the time of death, likely to be the result of sword cuts. A musket ball was found in close association with one skeleton, suggesting at least one individual was shot; other artefacts found in the grave provided clues as to the date of the victims’ death. Thirteen coins were recovered, with nine coming from a single find spot, and the others from close proximity. The coins were of English mint, consisting of ten sixpences and three shillings. A key was also discovered beneath the right elbow of one of the victims. Was this the key to an important room or chest in the castle? We may never be able to recover the precise details of their gruesome end, but the Carrickmines assemblage has presented archaeologists with an insight into the physical reality of sieges in the 17th century,
January 2011 |

photos: Richard O’Brian, Archaeological Consultancy Services Ltd

Many than mentione Michael St National R and suppo


and the brutal warfare that engulfed the country during Irish Rebellion.

The End of the Road
In his recent book, Europe Between The Oceans (profiled in CA 229, 230, 231), Barry Cunliffe assessed how the relatively minor peninsula of Europe came to dominate world affairs. By the 15th century, Europe was a driving world force, and the prehistoric origins for this success lay in the dynamic mix of natural resources, strong sea-faring traditions and continual interaction between different cultures. The movements and migrations of people throughout Irish prehistory are complex and every bit as convoluted as the political history of our modern age. As the western-most outpost of the European peninsula, Ireland was a rich, fertile ground for travellers and traders from afar. When the Celtic Tiger reached the end of the road, it became clear that the enduring gift of this never-before-seen scale of work has allowed us to a grasp Ireland’s historical complexity through C

further reading

Matthew Seaver, 2006. ‘Through the mill: excavation of an Early Medieval settlement at Raystown, County Meath’, Settlement, Industry and Ritual, National Roads Authority Monograph No. 3, ISBN 978-0954595524

aBove The only surviving upstanding wall with window of Carrickmines Castle, Co. Dublin, which was incorporated into a later post-medieval structure. This section of the castle wall has been preserved in situ. BeloW A section of the revetted fosse at the site of Carrickmines Castle, Co. Dublin, preserved in situ under the roundabout of the current motorway interchange.

nks to all the site directors and companies ed throughout these articles. Special thanks to Stanley, Frank Zac, Ronan Swan and all at the Roads who have given so generously of their time orted the project from start to finish.

| Issue 250

www.archaeology.co.uk | current archaeology


photos: Róisín Barton-Murray

Richard O’Brien and Ian Russell, 2004. ‘The Hiberno-Scandinavian site of Woodstown 6, County Waterford’. Recent Archaeological Discoveries on Road Schemes 2004, the National Roads Authority Monograph No. 2, ISBN: 978-0954595517.

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