ARCHAEOLOGY (Medieval Ireland)

Archaeology is the study of the past through the medium of the physical remains of human activity, using three categories of evidence: sites, artifacts, and human effects on the natural environment. Often associated largely with the study of prehistoric societies, it has made a real contribution to the study of medieval Ireland. The strengths of archaeology lie in its independence from written documents, which emanate from particular groups in past society and reflect their interests, and on its study of long-term processes rather than events. In contrast to prehistoric archaeology, medieval archaeology is underpinned by working within a documented period, notably with fewer chronological problems and greater identification of past individuals and groups. The main handicap suffered is the destruction of evidence, both in the past and through modern development of land.

The study of medieval archaeology in Ireland has not been a story of even progress. In the years around 1900, and before, Irish scholars took their place with those of Britain and western Europe. Their study was based on above-ground sites and buildings; much of the work was aimed at establishing dates of such monuments as round towers, relating them to the Church of the 10th century and later, rather than exaggerated claims of antiquity. A major figure was Goddard Orpen, who showed that mottes were indeed early earthwork castles and not prehistoric sites. In the new Republic, archaeology was strongly supported but the nationalistic climate encouraged archaeologists to concentrate on the early-medieval (or "Early Christian" period; the name is in itself significant) sites but neglect the later part. The emphasis was on art historical analysis of artifacts rather than on excavation or sites in general; excavation techniques of the period were unable to examine timber structures, and the resources to undertake or analyze widespread field survey were lacking. In Northern Ireland, real achievements in research, excavation, and control came after 1950, with the establishment of the Archaeological Survey and the intensive study of County Down. Since the 1960s, there have been advances in the study on a number of fronts. Laboratory techniques have been systematically deployed, relating to chronology (radiocarbon or, most dramatically, tree-ring dating); the environment (pollen or animal and human bone studies); statistical tests for the analysis of site distributions; and analytic techniques of materials used in artifacts. Research now combines evidence from sites and artifacts, or field survey and excavation, while the involvement of the state in the salvaging of sites threatened by destruction through development has had a major impact on the volume of evidence recovered and potentially available for study.

The contribution, actual and potential, of archaeology to the study of medieval Ireland shows successes and weaknesses. The earliest medieval period, between the fifth and eighth centuries, is marked by an explosion in the volume of evidence, compared with the time before or, indeed, elsewhere in western Europe. Sites of the period survive in the thousands: secular ringforts and crannogs; Christian monasteries and lesser churches. The artifacts from the time include some of the most famous craft objects from Ireland: the Tara brooch, the Book of Kells, High Crosses, and the Ardagh chalice. They are clearly the product of wealth (a manuscript will need many calves to die for its parchment) and indicate that Ireland, especially through the Church, was closely in touch with Britain and Europe. The wealth aligns with the evidence of a rural environment with few trees and heavily managed by man for a farming economy based on agriculture and dairying. The archaeology focuses attention on the revolution which occurred to start the period’s expansion and also the detailed management of land. All the sites relate to a hierarchy, such as is described in the documentary sources, but we do not know their exact relationship, nor do we understand the reasons behind the variations in the geographical distributions: why Leinster has few sites of any sort, why crannogs should be found mainly in the Midlands, or why ringfort densities can very widely across small distances.

To the political historian, the Vikings were military attackers in Ireland of the ninth and tenth centuries. In archaeology, however, they are much more associated with the foundation of major market towns, notably Dublin. Here was an organized urban site from the tenth century, very similar to York in its streets and economy based on crafts and trade; the major difference lies only in the material for the houses. The archaeologist can point to the survival of church sites near areas of Viking dominance to stress the possibility of coexistence between Scandinavians and Irish; no ringforts or cran-nogs show convincing signs of destruction. This peaceful emphasis may be as illusory as the picture of continual violence. The influx of silver from England and Europe through the towns in Ireland had to be paid for, probably by the export of slaves; it may be no coincidence that the tenth century appears to have seen an increase in the building of underground structures, souterrains, probably as refuges against raiders. At the same time, there also appears to have been a hiatus in church crafts, such as stone carving and the production of manuscripts, while metal artifacts reflected new styles brought in with the Vikings. Aggression and trade may not have been mutually exclusive.

After 1167, the seizure of large areas of land in Ireland by English lords was followed an explosion in the volume of archaeological evidence similar to that of the sixth through eighth centuries, with many new sites and artifacts, against a documentary background stressing political or military events. Archaeology stresses the English lords’ agenda of spreading a market economy, with agriculture providing produce (especially grain) through centralized estates, to be sold through lesser towns and the great ports for lords’ profit, to build new castles and church buildings. The new buildings reveal much of the lords’ motivation: their commitment to stay in Ireland, their desire to reflect European contemporaries, and their stress on display rather than military conquest. The profits also involved merchants and farmers, stimulating the rise and importation of new crafts, such as pottery, often located in the towns founded as the engine of the economy. In the countryside, the lack of many truly nucleated settlements, unlike the villages found in many parts of England, question the assumption that the English lordships were based on wholesale immigration of peasant communities: Rather, it was through the organization of estates and the piecemeal arrival of individuals that the changes were effected. Modern archaeology has concentrated on those areas of high visibility, principally through excavation in advance of major development schemes in the large towns (Dublin, Waterford, Cork). These are well-studied sites; deploying resources on them has resulted in the relative neglect of other, less well-known areas. Principal among these is the world of the Gaelic Irish, but also the small towns and rural sites; no manor site has been excavated recently.

Two periods have been overlooked by archaeologists. The 150 years before 1200 have been lost, between the assumptions that life was a continuation of the fifth-through eighth-century world and that the incursion of English lords marked a fundamental change throughout Ireland. The potential indications that changes had occurred before 1150 have been neglected, other than those in the Church, where there is a combination of new sites (houses of the Continental Orders) and documentary accounts of reform. New forms of lordship may have caused new sites to manage the landscape, but these have not been sought. The period after the mid-fourteenth-century population collapse associated with the Black Death has been dominated by the documentary historians’ picture of decline. The archaeological evidence of modest but real prosperity, implied by the widespread building of friaries or parish churches and tower houses, has not been fully deployed, while the difficulties of identifying pottery of the period has led to a serious underestimation of the vitality of towns in the period. Archaeology would stress the period as one in which the process of cultural fusion, started in the thirteenth century, between English and Irish and most obviously represented in the development of a distinctive Irish Late Gothic style of building, has been overshadowed by the documentary evidence for conflict. In both these cases the archaeology has suffered from the same problems. The context is dominated by political history, which stresses short-term and military events over the long-term processes that are the strength of archaeology. A second problem is the tyranny of the geographical fact that Ireland is an island, which leads to the assumption that it is a unity. Regional differences are downplayed in the face of the uniform literate culture of the upper classes. This is best seen in the assumption that the arrival of the English force in Wexford in 1169 would have changed the life of a Connacht peasant.

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