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Dr Nora Bermingham | Lecture to the UAS
December 9 2013 | Review
Originally posted online on 27 December 2013 at rmchapple.blogspot.com
Drumclay crannog under excavation. Source.
Regular readers of this blog may be aware that – to put it mildly – I’ve something of an interest
in the Drumclay crannog in Enniskillen [here | here | here | here | here | here]. So, when
the Ulster Archaeology Society announced that they had booked Dr. Nora Bermingham to
deliver their December lecture on that very site, I was immediately intrigued ... to say the least!
By tradition, all UAS lectures are held in the downstairs lecture hall of the Elmwood Building,
at QUB. The last time I was in this hall was in December 2012, when I was speaking to the
Society on the Middle Bronze Age ritual complex at Gransha, Co. Derry~Londonderry. On that
night we were in the grip of flag-related rioting and you could occasionally hear the distant
sound of police helicopters in the skies and the intermittent scream of a police or ambulance
siren. I had all of 30 people in the audience that night – and was happy to get them!
… this was somewhat different! The lecture theatre has recently received a complete
refurbishment and looks superb with new seating and state-of-the-art display systems.
However, the main difference was that the space was packed – there was hardly a spare seat
to be found. This site has generated huge interest and media coverage and expectations were
Excavation director, Dr. Nora Bermingham (centre), with archaeologist Andrew
Cunningham (left), and (then) Minister for the Environment, Alex Attwood, MLA. Source.
After an introduction by the great and wonderful Barrie Hartwell, President of the Society,
Bermingham began by acknowledging the hard work of the site crew and noting that the site
had been funded through the Department of the Environment and the Department for
Regional Development. Turning to the site itself, she first provided something of the context
of crannogs in Ireland generally. These are artificial (or semi artificial) islands, generally built
close to the lake shore. There is thought to be approximately 2000 crannogs known on the
island of Ireland. Some 141 known or suspected sites lie within the modern county of
Fermanagh. As their distribution is, of necessity, related to lakes, they are found in the ‘lakiest’
(my term!) parts of the island, i.e. mostly in the midlands and western Ulster. Given their
complexity, and the attendant expense of investigation, not to mention the logistical
difficulties involved in their investigation, very few have been excavated in recent times.
Although not exclusively so, the majority have been found to be of Early Christian origin. The
Drumclay site lies approximately 2km to the north-east of Enniskillen town in an inter-
drumlin lake. It lay close to the shore, no more than 30m from the nearest land. It has been
known about since the 1835 when it appeared on the Ordnance Survey 6” maps (it also appears
on the 1860 revision) and it was visited by Wakeman in the 1870s (1873, 322). At that time the
lake had been partially drained and he described it as ‘rather a dangerous swamp’. He also
records that he had been informed that a dugout canoe (‘of the ordinary kind’) had been found
in the vicinity and had been reburied. The process of draining the lake appears to have
continued throughout the late 19th century, eventually leaving the area as a ‘blind’ or seasonal
lake. Certainly, by the 20th century, the area was a difficult-to-access expanse of swampy
ground. Diplomatically skipping ahead to August 2012, Bermingham noted that the site had
been surrounded by ‘rock armour’ as part of the road stabilisation process. At that time the
site measured something in the order of 30m in diameter, though it eventually proved to be
approximately 80-100m in diameter.
Bermingham proposed that she would present a chronological account of the crannog,
essentially giving the discoveries of the excavation in reverse. Before there was ever a crannog,
there was a shallow lake underlain with deep silts and muds. It was into this material that
numerous poles were driven vertically. This process helped to partially drain the area and also
created a stable working surface. Directly on top of these poles a series of platforms were
created, each made of several overlapping layers of wood. The chosen wood was chiefly alder
(Alnus) and Bermingham noted that this was a wise choice, demonstrating considerable
woodland knowledge, as alder lasts particularly well in watery environments. Bermingham
drew the audience’s attention to the fact that this material would, most likely, have been
sourced locally in the landscape immediately surrounding the site. She also noted that the
quality of the woodworking displayed on these timbers was extremely basic and devoid of all
niceties – just enough rough working to make the logs fit. This is a recurring theme among the
structural timbers recoded on the site, each receiving only the bare minimum of working to
make any individual piece fit for purpose. When completed, there were at least eight platforms.
There was one, large, central platform, surrounded by several smaller examples. The smaller
examples were each 10-12m in diameter and all were bounded by low wattle walls. This
appears to have – literally – laid down the foundation for the development of the site, as each
platform appears to only have been used for one building at any given period and houses were
repeatedly built and rebuilt in the same locations over much of the history of the site. Thus,
the format of the site was that of a large, central house with a number of satellite buildings
and/or open areas. The stratigraphy has yet to be wholly untangled, and it is currently unclear
as to which platforms were built in which order, but the central example was by far the largest
and deepest. Between the platforms and the buildings evidence was recovered for several
pathways that appeared to have been maintained over a considerable period of time. The
evidence indicates that these platforms were consolidated and reconsolidated time and again
throughout the history of the site, and that the whole was subject to running repairs from the
time of its construction. Throughout, the stratigraphy is extremely complex and difficult to
untangle. There is a partial parallel to this at Cloneygonnell, Co. Cavan, where Wood-Martin
(1886, 197-8, fig. 205) investigated a similarly constructed platform. However, this earlier
example was a single large platform, approximately 90ft (27.5m) in diameter as opposed to
the several smaller tessellated examples at Drumclay. Bermingham noted that there was a
further possible parallel known from Scotland, but that it lacked the depth of stratigraphy and
the length of occupation. At Drumclay what is not currently known – though this may become
clearer as the post-excavation dating strategy progresses – is how many of these platforms
were occupied at any one time. The central house may have been a permanent fixture, but how
many of the satellite platforms either housed structures or were left as open areas at any one
time is, to say the least, unclear. In all likelihood there were multiple houses and ancillary
structures in operation simultaneously. The challenge for Bermingham and her post-ex team
is differentiating which ones were contemporary!
Cloneygonnell, Co. Cavan (Wood-Martin 1886, fig. 205)
Bermingham can ascertain that there were something in the vicinity of thirty houses built at
Drumclay. As previously noted, these were repeatedly built and rebuilt on the same footprints,
though it is currently difficult to ascertain how many were occupied during any given phase.
The house types recorded include rectangular, round, and figure-of-eight examples. Up until
the excavation at Drumclay the prevailing consensus was that round houses predated
rectangular houses in Early Christian Ireland and that the change between the two occurred
during the 9th to 10th centuries. The possible reasons for this change are varied and still
actively debated, but the chronology appears sound. However, at Drumclay rectangular houses
predate round houses, in some cases by quite significant periods of time. Bermingham
noted Pat Wallace’s theory, based on his excavations in Viking Dublin, that rectangular houses
could be an indigenous development, as opposed to one imposed or adopted from outside.
Bermingham is hopeful that the unparalleled opportunity for dating and investigating the
genesis of this building tradition can now be investigated in a depth not previously possible.
All of the houses investigated were of post-and-wattle construction, with double-skinned
walls. Entrances were preserved as were thresholds and door jambs. There was frequent
evidence for internal divisions, but very few of the houses showed evidence for internal roof
Example of rectangular house. Source.
Section of post-and-wattle walling during excavation. Source.
As an example of the rectangular houses, Bermingham showed images of one that measured
up to 8m long and up to 4m wide. She noted that some houses possessed a central aisle similar
to the ‘triple aisled’ Dublin Type I houses. In a number of instances, large logs were recovered
from the immediate vicinity of the hearths and may have been utilised as benches. Also near a
number of hearths were slotted beams packed with the remains of smaller posts, similar to
ones recovered at Deer Park Farms. Bermingham speculated that these may have been used
as heat reflectors to direct heat from the fire to other areas of the house.
Roundhouse with log underfloor. Source.
One example of a roundhouse was c. 6m in diameter and was significantly stratigraphically
above (and later than) the previous rectangular house –by 1-1.5m! The roundhouses appear to
have been built to a similar process, starting with the construction of the walls and the laying
out of the hearth. Roughly hewn timbers were then used to create a log under-floor around the
central hearth. This floor space was subsequently built up. In some cases this included rough
cobbling, though there appears to be evidence that sod floors were deliberately laid down.
Bermingham also noted that the arrangement of the log under floor and hearth was such that
no room was left for a central post or other internal roof supports. There was also evidence for
one figure-of-eight house, and possibly some traces of a second example. It was hoped that
careful excavation and recording of these structures would indicate whether these structures
were of a single phase of construction or if there was one initial house with a later addition.
Unfortunately, the expansive roots of a later alder tree obscured and destroyed the vital
‘junction zone’, so that issue is unlikely to be resolved here. This particular figure-of-eight
house was stratigraphically later than the previously discussed roundhouse, lying over 1m
directly above it. Above this particular collection of houses there was a layer of made ground,
1m to 2m thick, intended to consolidate the site, which appeared to be suffering from
subsidence at this time. Beyond this time all habitation appears to have been concentrated on
the northern side of the crannog. With regard to the excavated hearths, Bermingham noted
that they could be divided into two broad categories: either slab-lined or clay-lined. Both were
rich in finds, including bone combs etc. Again, many bore strong resemblances to those
excavated in Viking Dublin.
Stone-lined, rectangular hearth inside house. Source.
Bermingham stressed that the evidence at Drumclay was very different to that from other sites
– including antiquarian accounts and even more recent excavations, including John Bradley’s
investigation of Moynagh Lough crannog – where at any one phase there was one central
house and a small number of out buildings. At Drumclay there appear to have been several
substantial buildings in operation at any one time.
The excavation also uncovered a number of workshops. The best one was a rectangular area
on one of the satellite platforms. It was quite different in construction to other buildings as it
had no evidence for wattle walls, being merely defined by a kerb of logs. This would suggest
that these were open areas, as opposed to enclosed buildings. The most artefact-rich of these
areas included three consecutive smithing hearths, indicating that a coppersmith had been
active here at one point. Lower levels of the workshop indicated that it had previously been
dedicated to carpentry as all the recovered waste related to woodworking. A second workshop
was discovered on the south-east side of the site, but was not so rich in hearths and associated
waste. Bermingham emphasised that one of the aims of the post-excavation phase would be to
examine just how people organised living in such a wet, cramped space.
Archaeologist Cathy Moore displaying one of the quern (grinding) stones. Source.
Turning to the finds, Bermingham noted that many were recovered from the south side of the
crannog, indicating that material was being thrown out and away from the site, out into the
lake. Many artefacts were discovered within the houses. In particular, the association between
hearths and recovered items is such that the traditional explanation of them being casual
losses appears unlikely. Instead, they may be evidence of deliberate foundation deposits,
placed at the time of construction. In all, some 5497 artefacts were recovered from the site.
The range of finds is impressive and includes: amber, antler, animal bones, copper alloy, glass,
gold, iron, leather, pottery, shale/lignite, stone, textile, and wood. Of these, approximately
3000 were of pottery, making this the finest collection of crannog ware/Ulster Coarse Ware
Sole of leather shoe. Source.
Nineteen examples of shale/lignite bangles were recovered, along with one bead of the same
material; Three amber beads were recovered and are thought – on stratigraphic and stylistic
grounds – to be pre-Viking. The rarity of amber at this early date is such that it must underline
the high status of the occupants. Only six glass beads were recovered, along with a small
number of bangle fragments. Bermingham noted that in the case of the glass, it is still
unknown whether these were imported as finished objects, or were created on the site begin –
another puzzle that post-excavation research may be able to resolve.
Excavation director, Dr. Nora Bermingham, showing off an elaborate glass bead and a
copper alloy dress pin. Source.
Upper layers of the crannog under excavation. Source.
Some 34 combs, of different types, were recovered during the excavation. These include a 7th
century high backed comb with possible bird-head decoration. Ian Riddler, the well-known
small-finds specialist, identified the combs and has suggested that this example may be
paralleled with finds from Clonmacnoise, Co. Offaly, and Carraig Aille, Co. Limerick.
Bermingham stressed that even with a secure date for the artefact, there are a number of
possibilities in its relationship to the structure within which it was found. These include the
two being contemporary and the artefact dates the house or it could have been an heirloom,
significantly older than the house within which it was found. Among the high-status single
sided combs is one ‘Auspicious Comb’, dated by Riddler to the period from 1050 to 1125. This
example is 22cm long, and while not the longest on record is certainly among the higher end
of the known range. Bermingham also noted that this example appeared to have been
deliberately placed in a compartment within the house. The corpus of Drumclay combs also
included a number of double-sided single-piece combs, similar in appearance to the ‘nit-
combs’ still sold today. The majority of these appear to be of Late Medieval date (post 16th
Very large single-sided comb. Source.
Single-sided comb. Source.
Portion of single-sided comb. Source.
Double-sided bone comb. Source.
The gold finger ring was described by Bermingham as being very plain and that, if you didn’t
know its age and origin, you’d consider handing it back to whoever gave it to you! Four or five
pieces of copper alloy wire were recovered from the site and are less than 1mm in thickness.
One of the wooden dishes from the site was found to have been repaired using just this form
of wire. Some 127 copper alloy dress pins were recovered during the excavation and no two are
the same. Most date to the period from the 7th to 9th centuries, and a number may be
paralleled to finds from Knowth, Co. Meath. Bermingham also showed an image of a Type 1
pin, dating from the 8th to 9th centuries that may be paralleled with one from Chris Lynn’s
excavations at Deer Park Farms. One stone mould was recovered during the excavations. It
appears to have been for casting silver ingots, and may be paralleled with finds from significant
sites, including Lagore, Ballinderry, and Knowth. A number of iron objects were also recovered
from the site. These included an iron axe head with a portion of its wooden handle still
surviving. This woodworker’s tool has been dated to the 9th century. A selection of general
purpose iron blades were recovered, some of which appear to have been deliberately
deposited. Two iron spear heads (and the remains of a possible third) were recovered during
the excavation. Bermingham emphasised that these could as easily have been used for hunting
or as weapons of war. The same can be said of the carpenter’s axe and the general purpose
blades – all could have been used for the most mundane and prosaic of activities, and still
served as weapons in times of trouble.
Extremely simple gold finger ring. Source.
Copper alloy dress pin. Source.
Iron shears. Source.
Iron spearhead. Source.
One of the fantastic things about wetland sites is the potential for preservation of wooden
objects that simply do not survive elsewhere. In this, Drumclay is no exception as it produced
approximately 1000 wooden finds. Bermingham noted that this can be put in context by
considering that Pat Wallace at Wood Quay in Dublin, recovered c.600 wooden items, and the
extensive excavations at Coppergate in York produced c.1500. That both of these were large-
scale, urban, excavations as opposed to a single, rural site merely highlights the importance of
Drumclay. To illustrate the diversity of the recovered artefacts, Bermingham used a slide that
simply listed the categories of the objects:
Barrels, beater, board, bowls, boxes, buckets, combs, cups, dishes, distaffs, dowels, gaming
board, gaming pieces, handle, hoops, ladle, lids, log boat ... tuning key ...
Cross-inscribed cheese-press. Source.
… well, that’s as far as I got before my hand cramped! Bermingham noted that the gaming
board and pieces were recovered from the south-western portion of the site, in the same
general location as the unusual amber beads. She wondered if the discovery of these two forms
of prestige items in the same area had any particular significance. Bermingham displayed an
image of one of the carved vessels from Drumclay, decorated with carved interlace and
pokerwork, and noting that it is an almost exact parallel to one illustrated by Wood-Martin
(1873, 101, fig. 102). Another of the major finds from the site was a cheese press inscribed with
a Greek cross. Bermingham noted that crosses were occasionally found on leather objects
(including one from the Fishamble Street excavations in Dublin), but this is the first time that
one has been found on a wooden object. She noted that the presence of the cheese press itself
indicated the importance of dairying. There appear to be no Irish parallels, but there is
possibly one known from Oakbank crannog in Scotland. Another potential avenue for research
that Bermingham noted was the Irish tradition of using the Christian cross as a charm to ward
off bad luck in butter and cheese making. With regard to the wooden spoons, Bermingham
mentioned how a number were recovered from Drumclay, but that they appear to be the only
known examples from Ireland. Bermingham noted that the volume of finds recovered at
Drumclay from secure, well dated, contexts is such that there is now a significant hope that
chronologies for various artefact types will be significantly refined.
Decorated wooden vessel (Wood-Martin (1873, fig. 102)
Example of gaming piece. Source.
In terms of dating the site, it appears from the artefacts that the site was in some form of use
from the 7th to the 17th centuries. So far, there are five radiocarbon dates available from low
levels within the site, but not the lowest levels. These are: 830-1036 cal AD; 773-944 cal AD;
709-937 cal AD; 694-888 cal AD; 677-864 cal AD. The stratigraphy shows that the site was
probably intensively inhabited from the 7th to the 10th centuries, but more sporadically
inhabited after this point.
Archaeologist Cathy Moore, shows off a remarkable well preserved portion of a wooden
Turning to the historical context in which the Drumclay crannog was built and used,
Bermingham suggested that it may have been the property of a local vassal king, though it may
have become associated with the church at some stage. Tantalisingly, she pointed out that in
the Irish Life of St Molaise (associated with nearby Devinish Island) there is a reference to a
place called ‘Drumclay’. It is not yet known if there’s sufficient evidence to link that Drumclay
to this Drumclay … but the possibility is distinctly intriguing! In the Irish Life Molaise visits
the local king and subsequently receives the residence as a gift, having miraculously saved the
place from being consumed in a fire. I hesitate to suggest it, but perhaps the post excavation
research should examine the archive for evidence of a partial (but not all-devouring)
conflagration on the site … though considering that the saint is believed to have died in 564
AD and the occupation here didn’t begin until the 7th century, it may be a red herring!
At this point, the lecture proper concluded and the discussion was thrown open to the floor. I
have recorded a number of the most pertinent answers (you can work out the questions!) to
give a flavour:
A: All wooden poles and logs were cut and trimmed with axes – there was no evidence for the
use of saws.
A: In the later levels there is evidence for the use of reeds, straw, bracken and even sod flooring,
but there appear to have been no ‘finished’ floors in the earlier phases.
A: No evidence for a causeway from the shore to the crannog survived as the site had suffered
truncation along the perimeter.
A: We’re not sure what types of games were played on the recovered gaming board, but it may
have been related to the Scandinavian game of Hnefatafl.
A: There was a small amount of evidence for post-16th century occupation, but the site had
been pretty much abandoned by then.
So, there we have it - A fascinating glimpse into the amazing discoveries at this remarkable
site! In what seemed like a very brief hour and a half, Bermingham managed to convey some
of the wonder of discovery, the complexity of the remains, and the difficulties of excavating
such a well-preserved, multi-period site. She also drew attention to the potentially vast new
insights that may be gained as a result of this project, not the least of which are refinements to
artefact and architecture chronologies. I should point out that I had no expectation that
Bermingham would (or should) deal with what may be euphemistically described as the
‘difficulties’ encountered prior to her appointment as Site Director. Nonetheless, the fact
remains that we are still waiting for the publication of Prof. Gabriel Cooney’s review, ordered
by the (then) Minister for the Environment, Alex Attwood. I am given to understand that the
report has been completed, but has yet to be made public. Until such time as the report enters
the public realm, we are left with no official account of the planning process behind the
selection of the route, the archaeological advice given, the oversight provided by the NIEA, the
actions of the original site director (and his employers), along with those of the consultancy
who supplied the archaeological labour. From the currently-available information, it appears
that a number of these people have serious questions to answer about their professional
behaviour. I truly look forward to the eventual monograph that will be the outcome of the
Drumclay excavation. From Dr. Bermingham’s lecture, it is clear that it will be a landmark
publication, with significance for Early Christian/Medieval studies not just on this island, but
across Europe. However, the publication of Cooney’s report is, arguably, of greater significance
as it will potentially speak to systemic issues within the entire process of archaeological
legislation, oversight, resourcing, and excavation. I look forward to reading both!
Wakeman, W. F. 1873 'Observations on the principal crannogs of Fermanagh' Journal of the
Royal Historical and Archaeological Association of Ireland (4th Ser.) 2 (2), 305-324.
Wood-Martin, W. G. 1886 The lake dwellings of Ireland:or, Ancient lacustrine habitations of
Erin, commonly called crannogs. Dublin.
 That’s my excuse, and I’m sticking to it!
[general] There was an awful lot to take in during this lecture and I’ve done my best to record
the material as delivered. However, if I have deviated in any significant way from the topic, or
misheard any point, the error is mine alone.
Update April 2014: An edited version of this post can be found on pages 8-10 of the Ulster
Archaeology Society's [Website | Facebook] Newsletter [here]
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