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12 archaeological finds across Northern Ireland which give a fascinating insight into the people who were here before us

Archaeologists have made hundreds of astonishing discoveries here in the last four years, often as a result of planning conditions developers have had to meet. Linda Stewart finds out what these glimpses into our past revealed

Unearthed finds include a large enclosure at Ballynagalliagh with 90 post-holes
Unearthed finds include a large enclosure at Ballynagalliagh with 90 post-holes
Laurel Hill solar farm
Glenshane Quarry reconstructed timber circle
Artefact from Artresnahan
Turmeel excavation and pottery

Revellers in Belfast's Cathedral Quarter probably don't realise that the area was once home to extensive tanneries - or that the remains of those industries still lie inches beneath their feet. A series of tanning pits has been found buried beneath Belfast city centre by an archaeology team commissioned by developers embarking on the Royal Exchange development around North Street and Donegall Street.

This was just one of the stunning discoveries detailed in the new Unearthed publication by the Department for Communities' Historic Environment Division (HED), which charts the most significant archaeological discoveries made in Northern Ireland over a four-year period.

The finds range from a circular Neolithic ritual site featuring timber posts to a Bronze Age roundhouse and an 18th century tanning pit in the heart of Belfast city centre.

Between 2015 and 2018 almost 800 licensed archaeological excavations were carried out across Northern Ireland, most of them as a requirement by planners.

HED senior archaeologist Andrew Gault says: "These excavations have resulted in exciting and important new information about our past, from evidence of the homesteads of some of the first pre-historic farming communities to more recent urban archaeological remains and industrial heritage.

"Anybody who has moved into a new house or driven over a new road, there's a good chance that archaeologists were working there before it was developed and new sites have been discovered on some of these.

"There is an overall sense that archaeology is a very rich resource in Northern Ireland and if you go out and investigate any large field you're likely to find archaeological remains."

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The A6 road upgrade has highlighted several treasure troves from the past, for example the rectangular Neolithic house at Turmeel townland dating back to a time almost 6,000 years ago when farming was being introduced to Ireland.

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Laurel Hill solar farm

"The house would have been built by a family moving into the area about 6,000 years ago and they built a substantial rectangular house which would have been the first example of this type of structure in the area. They would have been bringing in new ideas about growing crops and animal husbandry that wouldn't have been seen here before," Mr Gault says.

Other key sites are the ritual timber circles found at Donnydeade during excavations for the Gas to the West scheme, and also at a quarry extension in Claudy.

"There is evidence of these being important places in the local landscape where people were bringing their dead," Mr Gault explains.

At the other end of the scale are the 18th century tanning pits found in Belfast, where animal hides would have been turned into leather.

"Even in the centre of Belfast there are very well preserved archaeological remains only inches below people's feet and that is going back to the origins of Belfast as a settlement," Mr Gault adds.

"These new discoveries highlight the importance of archaeological mitigation in advance of development, as well as the significant contributions made by developers and archaeologists in unearthing these new archaeological sites for the benefit of all in society."

The dozen most important sites uncovered during digs between 2015 and 2018

1 During the investigation of the A6 road near Dungiven, archaeologists uncovered a rectangular Neolithic house at Turmeel townland measuring about 14m long and 7m wide and containing almost 1,400 Neolithic potsherds (pottery pieces). It was built at a time when farming and agriculture were introduced almost 6,000 years ago.

2 An 18th/19th century tannery was discovered within the centre of the site at Royal Exchange in Belfast, with 15 tanning pits, most of which were built of wooden planks joined by wooden dowels. The method of construction is similar to the 18th century tanning pits excavated at Stone Row in Coleraine, and 703 horn cores, waste products of the tanning process, were identified, suggesting there are more pits to be found.

3 Archaeologists uncovered a large enclosure on a steep south-facing slope in a housing development at Ballynagalliagh in Co Londonderry, with 90 post-holes, including 12 posts forming a separate arc in the north west corner. Most of the post-holes were large, measuring 350mm in diameter, and half of them contained potsherds. Some dated back to the Vase tradition of Bronze Age pottery, while others are from the Cordoned Urn traditions, giving a general date of 2000-1500BC.

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Glenshane Quarry reconstructed timber circle

4 A Late Neolithic ritual site was uncovered at a quarry at Glenshane Road in Claudy, with a timber circle dating to around 2500BC. Timber circles were probably the focus of elaborate ritualised activities attended by large numbers of people. To the north east was a later late Neolithic/early Bronze Age roundhouse with a smaller four-post structure to the north west, as well as at least two industrial working areas with hearths, pits, gullies and stakeholders. An isolated cremation burial dating to the middle Neolithic period was found to the far side of the working area away from all the structures, along with a small number of undated token cremation deposits.

5 The Millvale complex at Bessbrook was established in 1792 and was one of the largest rural mills in Ireland. A flax scutching mill appears on the map of 1859, and in 1883 a powerhouse was constructed for the three-mile long Bessbrook to Newry electric tramway. An excavation has uncovered remains associated with the flour mill, as well as below-ground remains of the scutching mill. The remains of the steel rails connected to the tramway bridge were also uncovered.

6 A possible Neolithic and Bronze Age ritual site was discovered during the Gas to the West scheme excavation at Donnydeade, Co Tyrone, with early Neolithic carinated potsherds found in a pit along with one of late Neolithic grooved ware. A circle of 18 post-holes is thought to be a timber circle dating to the late Neolithic period, with a south-facing entrance facing a ringbarrow. Small quantities of cremated bone were found along with prehistoric pottery and flint, including a hollow scraper. An undated hut nearby may have been made of bent hazel or willow rods pushed into the ground, tied together and covered with skins.

7 One of the first early medieval enclosure complexes to have been discovered in the region has been found at a solar farm at Mullans townland at Tullaghans Road in Finvoy after a geophysical survey was carried out. Finds from the excavation included large amounts of cremated bone and souterrain ware. There was also evidence of industrial activity - quantities of slag, a whet stone and a mould - and an early medieval ringed pin was also discovered.

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Artefact from Artresnahan

8 Excavations ahead of development at Ballyhenry Manor in Comber revealed the prehistoric site had been occupied for more than 2,000 years, with remains including a Bronze Age curving ditch (1643-1504BC) and a later enclosure ditch (1301-1118BC). Early medieval activity was indicated by a large rath enclosure (AD 645-765) and an associated field enclosure. The interior of the rath had a metalled surface and a possible post-built structure around a hearth. The rath, whose roof appears to have been supported by oak posts, was linked to an earth-cut souterrain which exited into the ditch.

9 A Bronze Age roundhouse was unearthed at Rasharkin solar farm, with a post-ring, an internal hearth, areas of stakeholders and a segmented enclosure. Enclosed houses usually date to the Middle Bronze Age, around 1500BC. Finds at the site included a possible rubbing stone and several potsherds of late Bronze Age coarseware pottery.

10 A large early medieval plectrum-shaped enclosure at least 40m in diameter was found on the A6 route at Artresnahan, Co Antrim. At least four possible structures were located within the enclosure, with three formed using gullies as foundation slots for the buildings. A fourth structure was thought to have been a store, workshop or barn. Artefacts included 157 potsherds of early medieval souterrain ware pottery as well as 129 worked wooden items from the ditch, including posts, stakes, wedges, pegs and staves. The lid of a barrel, a possible basin and the head of a spade were also found.

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Turmeel excavation and pottery

11 Excavations at Killuney, Co Armagh, revealed a large curvilinear enclosure ditch surrounded by a double outer boundary. A cluster of post-holes and stake-holes were uncovered as well as three large pits. An ancillary ditch formed an annex to the main ditch and a small lignite ring was found in a pit cut into the side of this annex. Just outside the annex ditch lay a small circular feature containing burnt bone. The surface appeared to be baked and may have been the remains of a small circular oven. A small piece of highly decorated prehistoric pottery was discovered between the two ditches in the southeast corner.

12 Another industrial heritage find was made while extending a waste water treatment plant at Milltown, Co Armagh, built on the site of a corn and flax mill recorded on the first edition OS map. The mill was later converted to a saw mill. The excavation revealed that the entire lower floor of the mill, including drive shafts and gearing, had been buried to a depth of 2.5m.

Unearthed is available to download at https://www.communities-ni.gov.uk/sites/default/files/publications/communities/dfc-unearthed-new-discoveries-20

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