Digging where few have: Excavating Glendalough, Ireland


Concave flint blade found excavating

So as part of college, I had the option to take arch 20100; “archaeological fieldwork”— 2 weeks out in the fresh air excavating in beautiful Glendalough, a place so few have ever had the opportunity to excavate in. I was really looking forward to getting back into the trenches and thankfully this didn’t disappoint. Since the course primarily takes place over the summer, it will also free up a little time for me this semester (When juggling college work and having a job in the evenings/weekends, anything you can do to free up a little time for yourself is vital for one’s sanity).


Not a bad place to spend 2 weeks

So the focus of the excavation was on the caher (a stone ring-fort http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ringfort), located by the upper lake of Glendalough. Throughout history Glendalough has served as a site of both pilgrimage and tourism — with much changes being made to the surrounding archaeological sites —the goal of the excavation was therefore to find out more about the caher and to ascertain how much of it was “authentic” (I hate using that word) and how much had been changed over time.


GPS base station in the foreground; the stone Caher and our 2 excavation trenches visible in the background

Day 1 eased us into things with a series of introductory talks by the College staff on Glendalough and the sites; the ever looming threat of having to guide tourists through of Glendalough and the sites keeping us alert and on our toes should ever we be asked questions by a tourist and not know how to answer them. It was interesting and I learnt a lot, especially as someone who knew very little about Glendalough beforehand. (Check out http://www.wicklowmountainsnationalpark.ie/VisitingGlendalough.html for more info)



Near St Kevin’s bed – A cave believed by some to be a bronze age mine – off access to those who can’t safely climb it and apparently full of ancient graffiti, I would love to research more about it and uncover it’s secrets.

Day 2 had me trying out something new and interesting, with our group learning about electronic surveying techniques with Dr Rob Sands— our main focus being how to use GPS, in order to get positioning and how to use a total station, a combination of both a theodolite and an electronic distance measurer (EDM) that was used in surveying. These tools are incredibly useful but a bit unreliable; deep in the valley of Glendalough, we just couldn’t get a decent satellite signal for the gps and we kept having technical problems hinder us.


I should have done technical drawing in school

Day 3 had us learning physical surveying techniques with Dr Graeme Warren. At first, a lot of these skills seem to have been replaced by the GPS and total station but as Day 2 had shown me, you can’t always rely on technology. Today was all about creating grids, using tape measures and learning technical drawing skills to record archaeological sections and create plans. You really need a good eye for detail and a lot of patience for this; I don’t think our first efforts turned out so good but nobody starts out as a master and I’m a big believer in hard work and focused practice.


Measuring the plan and recording a section of the wall

On Days 4-6 I was back doing what I do best— working away with trowel, bucket and my trusty mattock. We had 2 trenches (known as trench 7 and 8). In trench 7 I found a lot of charcoal and animal bone as well as the group finding iron slag and a nail that are possibly evidence of medieval iron-working there. I found a lovely coin sieving —based on the fact that early coinage in Ireland was silver I would guess it’s not very old but it’s a nice find. I also had a laugh excavating the remnants of some of the parties held up there, lots of remnants of beer cans, glass and even a champagne bottle left by some of the classier people who had been up there — It’s nice to see that drinking in a field is one of the few activities to transcend class boundaries and unite them.  In Trench 8, one of the groups found a lovely concave flint blade while sieving the deeper part of the trench. Excavation wise, trench 8 was very quiet for me — I wasn’t fortunate enough to come across much myself when working there.


Coin I found, a keen eye while sieving can pay off


 Day 7 had us put our newly acquired physical survey skills to good use, and do out a plan of the nearby reefert church. A quick debate from the group as to how best to do it and we were on our way. Was good craic and we had some great banter while working up there.

I was surprised how much I loved day 8; we got to do paleo-environmental work with Dr Stephen Davis — wasn’t sure what exactly this was going to entail but it was fantastic . This involved taking core samples of the earth; it was tough, back-breaking work but I loved every minute of it. Over the 2 weeks I started to really develop a love of geology; I Kind of wish I had studied Archaeology and Geology instead of arch and economics — I might take some classes in geology to learn more about it.



Reefert church

Day 9 was back in the trenches and Day 10 (the last day) was spent frantically back-filling; luckily we were able to fill everything up in time.

Overall I find it very hard to judge the work we did excavating the caher; my own curiosity focusing on the pits that seem to undercut the caher and the evidence for iron-working that we found— there’s a lot of work still to be done to piece together what exactly happened there and it will take a long time before this happens. In my mind archaeology is becoming less about eureka moments and more about the slow methodical piecing together of puzzles — puzzles that usually result in more questions than answers.


Excavating away

Thanks to the UCD school of archaeology, Dr Graeme Warren for running the module, Conor McDermott and everyone else for giving me and everyone else the opportunity to take part in this course.

PS. One of the reasons I started this blog was to learn how to be a better writer; on that note, this article is brought to you by the new writers tool I picked up — the “em dash” :p

Until next time, peace out guys

“If a man does not know to what port he is sailing, no wind is favourable.”

– Seneca



10 Things I learnt from my first Archaeology dig


So 2 weeks later, I have finished my first Archaeological excavation as part of the Rathnadrinna research project in Cashel, County Tipperary, directed by Richard O’Brien. It was a truly unforgettable experience and one I will fondly remember for years to come.

As part of it I have wrote down the 10 things I learnt from my first dig

1. Shoveling/Mattocking is addictive

My new drug

Forget the Trowel, nothing beats the feeling of working using a shovel or a Mattock. It’s hard work, but you feel manly as hell doing it and you sleep like a baby afterwards. One of Natures legal highs.

2. Archaeologists love their jobs

All the Archaeologists on the site really, truly loved what they did; many of them loving it so much that they were volunteering to do something they would normally be paid for. Working with people who love what they do makes for a brilliant atmosphere.

Worked flint with an unusual curve to it, not allowed to go into too much detail on the finds just yet (saving that for another blog post later), but here’s a little taster. It was very successful though

3. Archaeologists hate their jobs

It’s sad to see the hardships most who pursue Archaeology as a career go through, work is hard to find and many were retraining to find other work. The work is mentally and Physically tough, you work in all sorts of conditions, often being required to travel at a moments notice, the work is contract based so you have little job security and the pay’s not great.

4. Accidents can happen
First day of work, one of the girls sprained her ankle, another hurt her back next week and me and another person got to experience what it’s like to take a Mattock to the knee. It can be tough work at times.

5. The work suits me

I don’t think I could ever return to office work, I love working outside (even in the rain) and I sleep so well after a days work that I needed 2 hours less sleep than usual. I would happily do this as a job if I could make it work. I am dreading returning to my Market research job 😦


Me and Tom, hard at work troweling

6. You can’t escape the dirt

Hostel goers are generally pretty messy people, but Archaeology hostel goers are dirty on a whole new level. No matter how hard you try, you can’t help but get dirt everywhere. Eventually you get used to walking home covered head to toe in dirt and start to wonder why people stare as you walk through the hostel in your muddy boots. It got so bad that they started to open up the side passage to let us into the hostel while minimising the amount of dirt we spread.

7. I have so much still to learn
Although proud that I now know how to handle a archaeological context sheet, there’s still so much I don’t know. Mick (the site supervisor) has an almost supernatural ability to read the soil and spot stakeholes (the remains where wooden stakes of buildings punctured the ground)  where all I could see was dirt.

Also until you have ever tried to clean dirt (yes, clean dirt) , you will never appreciate just how difficult a task it is to do.


I need to get better at cleaning the dirt before we take photos

8. My trowel sucks

Kinda glad I lost it, it was awful and everyone else thought so too, it was too big and not sharp. I need to go get a new one. Some of the people on the site were still using their first trowel even after several years of excavation work; some of them had been used so much that they were worn down. Oh well RIP  my first trowel.

9. All work places need a dog

Flaherty, the site dog

The site had the coolest dog, “Flaherty”, who would go from person to person at lunchtime, trying to get food from us.

10. Leaving is hard

I met so many amazing new friends at both the excavation and the Hostel who I will really miss. The great thing about Hostel life is that you meet so many wonderful people, but unfortunately such moments are fleeting and sooner or later we must all go our separate ways. This blog post goes out to Damien, Rene, Mickaela, Kevin, Micheal, William, Femke, Liudas, Richard, Robert, Murt, Liam, Mick, Zoe, Grace, Heather, Tom,, Sarah, Ashleen, Rachel and all the other fantastic people I got to meet.

Best of luck with the rest of the dig, wish I could have stayed for it all.


The gang at the end of week 2

*All photos taken by and used with with permission from Richard O’Brien

Cannonball found


A friend of mine has  very kindly lent my what appears to be a cannonball that his family found while doing work in their back-garden. Boy is this thing heavy, you never appreciate the weight of a cannonball until you have carried one; I definitely wouldn’t want to be on the receiving end of one of these bad boys. Unfortunately they did spray the bottom of it with paint but I think it could probably be easily removed by someone with experience in artifact recovery.

A quick check of the historic ordinance survey maps for 1837 shows that there used to be a castle (Ballyfermot castle near where it was found). I’m wondering if they could be related.

Anyhow, got to arrange a meeting with the National museum of Ireland antiquities division to get this thing checked out. Can’t wait to find out more about this. Actually getting to hold something like this in your hands, and feel the weight of it; it really makes the past come alive.

Casting my first bronze axe: A tribute to the many uses of Horse manure


As a more hands on person who tends to learn best by doing, rather than through books or other media, I often feel there is far too much emphasis on the theoretical in what I am learning in college and not enough on the practical (don’t even get me started on the Economics side of my course ), so when I heard the University was running a 3 day experimental workshop in Bronze/Iron age casting techniques, I jumped at the chance to get out and get my hands (and arms as well as the rest of me) dirty in the name of archaeology. And dirty it was; by the end of the 3 days I would truly appreciate the never ending uses of horse manure which was used in almost every stage of production.


Some brooches and a pin created in wax

The first day started off with us assembling to learn the “lost wax” method, where the item you wish to make is first sculpted using wax, then covered in various clay mixtures which are hardened by heating. When this mixture is heated, the wax melts leaving you with a hollow in the mold shaped like the wax item for you to pour your molten metal into (this is a one time process as the mold is broken to get the metal object out). After spending most of the first day sculpting the wax, our creations were then covered in a clay slip (clay and water mix) which is fine enough to catch the details on the wax. This was left to dry overnight.


The wax after covering with slip

After spending the first day indulging my artistic side by creating  a few wax items (which is a lot harder than it looks), we then got down to the nitty gritty part. The wax had to then be covered in what as far as I know has no technical name, but was affectionately referred to by the team as the “shitmix”. This was a mixture of sand, clay and horse manure that was given a good mix and smoothly applied to the outside of the wax items.


The wax molds after covering with the sand,clay and horse manure mixture.

While we waited for this to dry, we got to start work on another method of casting, using stone molds that the molten liquid could be poured into. There were a mix of stones to use, with soapstone looking like the easiest to work with; it was so fine you could carve something using only your fingernail. Sadly the stone I ended up working on was a little bit harder and after several hours and many blunted chisels,  little progress had been made.


Drying the molds on the fire

We then cleared an area  in the newly formed University College Dublin experimental archaeology centre  to work in and dug three holes, 2 for the fire pits which were created with generous helpings of our old friend the horse manure mixture, with either a ceramic disc or pottery shards at the bottom to prevent anything blocking the bellows. The third hole was filled with sand to hold the molds in during pouring. A separate fire was also created to heat the wax molds in order to dry the clay and melt the wax.


Two fire pits in action with one of the pairs of bellows visible

We wrapped up the second day by testing out the stone molds, casting various metals including the main one which was bronze. I was able to discover my love of using the bellows, (which are a lot trickier to use than you would think) plus it kept me low to the ground so the smoke wouldn’t get in my eyes ..


Billy prying out freshly cast axes from the stone molds


Not bad for first attempts

Day 3 was dedicated to casting the molds created with the lost wax method. We were running a bit short on time and metals so unfortunately we didn’t get to cast everything we wanted to. That said, I’m really happy with how my stuff came out and spent most of the day  polishing my axe from the previous day.


I’m sure there’s a euphemism in there somewhere

Overall I thought the workshop was a great success and showed the potential of the new experimental archaeology center in the college. I’m looking forward to seeing what they manage to do with it over the coming years and hope to come along to the pottery workshop they will be running there over the summer aswell as take part in the experimental archaeology course UCD offers next term. Special thanks goes to Billy (for teaching us everything), Aidan O’Sullivan and Conor McDermott for organisng this. All images courtesy of University College Dublin Centre for Experimental Archaeology and Ancient Technologies


Conor measuring and recording the days work 

For more information on Bronze age casting and anything Bronze age in Ireland, check out Umha Aois (bronze age), the group Billy is involved with