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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