Northern Ireland's own 'little Pompeii'... the buried town that could become a huge tourist draw
Initial funding has been secured for an ambitious archaeological project to uncover a lost 17th century town in Northern Ireland.
The site beside Dunluce Castle on the scenic Causeway Coast has been hailed as potentially the region's own "little Pompeii".
The Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) has now provided more than £300,000 for an excavation project and signalled the potential for a total package of £4 million.
The ruins of the castle have stood on the rocky coastal outcrop near Bushmills in north Antrim for centuries but it was only four years ago that archaeologists re-discovered a lost settlement beside the landmark.
Established in 1608 by the first Earl of Antrim, Randal MacDonnell, the town was destroyed in the uprising of 1641 and was eventually abandoned in 1680.
Over the next two hundred years its buildings and streets were slowly consumed by the earth, with all visible traces disappearing by 1860.
In 2009 the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA), in conjunction with experts from both the University of Ulster and Queen's University Belfast, carried out initial excavations on the land believed to hold the remains of the lost town.
They found a well-developed settlement incorporating a cobbled meeting place and market, houses, industrial buildings and administrative offices as well as artefacts such as blacksmith tools and horseshoes.
The NIEA now plans to completely uncover the site and open it to the public as a visitor attraction.
The HLF has agreed to provide funding of £302,000, which will enable the NIEA to draw up a more detailed application for the other £3.7m needed for the five-year project.
Stormont's Environment Minister Alex Attwood (below) welcomed the funding boost.
"I very much welcome that the HLF has chosen to support this opportunity to explore the hidden heritage at Dunluce and to develop new visitor facilities here which will do justice to this incredible site," he said.
"I visited the site in the summer of 2011 and have worked with HLF to get to this point."
Plans for the excavation have developed as archaeologists continue to make significant discoveries at the site of an ancient island crannog settlement in Co Fermanagh.
"I see much potential unearthing our historic past to boost tourism today," said Mr Attwood.
"Dunluce has very exciting archaeology and the potential of uncovering our own 'little Pompeii' is huge.
"I and NIEA are looking forward to working with the HLF and other key partners such as the local councils, local landowners, businesses and the University of Ulster to deliver this project.
"This is an exciting opportunity. Protecting and enhancing our heritage and building infrastructure is key going forward. Dunluce creates another big, exciting, unprecedented opportunity."
Paul Mullan, head of HLF Northern Ireland, said: "One of the most exciting aspects of this project is the opportunity to step back in time and reveal this superbly preserved 17th century town, which has lain undisturbed for centuries.
"It will also provide opportunities for people to get actively involved in helping to reveal and secure the future of this hugely significant heritage asset for current and future generations to experience, learn from and enjoy.
"We are delighted to support these outline proposals. There is much work to be done, however, and we look forward to receiving the fully developed plans in due course."
Factfile: the lost town
The lost 17th century town discovered close to the ruins of Dunluce Castle has the potential to become Northern Ireland's own "little Pompeii". It was first established in 1608 and was a thriving settlement until it was destroyed during the uprising of 1641 and eventually abandoned four decades later.
All visible traces of its buildings and streets were gone completely by 1860. Archaeological excavations carried out in 2009 found a well-developed settlement incorporating a cobbled meeting place and market, houses, industrial buildings and administrative offices.