Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 25 October 2014

Archaeologists bowled over by Fermanagh bog finds

Archaeologists at work on the site
The sub-floor of a circular house uncovered during an archaeological dig just outside Enniskillen, Co Fermanagh (Department of the Envionment Northern Ireland)
A bone comb uncovered during an archaeological dig just outside Enniskillen, Co Fermanagh (Department of the Envionment Northern Ireland)

A Fermanagh bog is revealing how our ancient farming ancestors were far more sophisticated than we could ever have imagined.

Archaeologists have hit the jackpot with the first crannog to have been dug up in Northern Ireland in 50 years — saying the internationally important find is rewriting our understanding of Ulster’s history.

Normally the approach taken is to avoid disturbing crannogs, but this one at Drumclay on the outskirts of Enniskillen lay in the path of the Cherrymount Link bypass and will eventually vanish beneath the Tarmac.

But since the summer a small army of archaeologists has been busy trying to extract as much information as possible from what is proving to be one of the most significant crannogs ever uncovered in Ireland.

To date the 27 archaeologists on site have uncovered remains of 30 houses while digging down three metres of layers.

The lake settlement in Fermanagh appears to have been continuously occupied for more than 1,000 years, from the sixth century to the 17th century, and may have been settled earlier.

The dig has revealed a treasure trove of almost 4,000 artefacts, revealing a snapshot of life over 1,000 years. So much has been found that archaeologists have likened it to an urban site transported to the Fermanagh lakeland.

Among the most striking finds are a unique wooden bowl carved with a Latin cross, the largest pottery collection ever found in a crannog in Northern Ireland, some exquisite combs made from antler and bone, gaming pieces, leather shoes, bone-handled knives and dress pins.

Archaeologists believe people may have lived there from 600 AD to 1600 AD, and it was probably the home of a noble family, with perhaps four or five houses inhabited at any time. Parents, grandparents, children and servants would all have stayed on the crannog.

It is thought that the same wealthy native Irish farming families probably lived here for many generations in roundhouses and large rectangular houses, often dismantling their homes after only five to 10 years to build new homes on the same spot.

The artefacts uncovered so far date back to 900 AD but there are still a number of layers of settlement yet to be excavated.

Stormont Environment Minister Alex Attwood visited the site on Thursday and announced plans for an open day this Saturday to allow the public to tour the crannog and talk to the archaeologists.

"On my two visits to date, I have found the site, the dig, and the archaeology beyond my imagination, enormously exciting and changing my view of our history and Irish life," he said.

"This is the first substantial scientific excavation of a crannog in Northern Ireland. What has been found has the potential not only to be internationally important but ultimately to lead to a reassessment of life in Ulster in early Christian and medieval times."

The Drumclay Crannog open day this weekend will comprise a series of talks that will take place at the Fermanagh County Museum, followed by a guided tour of the archaeological site. Access to the site for this tour can only be obtained via an official coach. For booking call 028 6632 5000.

Four fascinating discoveries

1. A wooden bowl (top) incised with a Latin cross and with symmetrical perforations on the base. Unique in Ireland, at least 1,000 years old and may have been a wine strainer or implement for communion or baptism. Raises interesting questions about clergy’s control of the crannog.

2. Eighteen combs have been found, including some beautiful examples made of antler with bone rivets including three components. One dates back to 1050 to 1185AD. It was a fashion among the ‘glitterati’ of the day to wear these on thongs round their necks.

3. Numerous stick pins have been found in the hearths of the houses. These would have been used to pin cloaks in place. It’s suggested that one particularly long and ornate pin could have doubled as a stiletto-like weapon. Lords were expected to leave their weapons at the door, but could keep dress pins.

4. A pawn-like gaming piece, suggesting that the families played board games by the fire.

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